Our first blog post of the new year is all about silver - that rare, soft, and shiny element that has been prized for so many millennia. Already in this first week of 2021, it's clear that silver has lost none of its perpetual desirability, as it's looking like the next big opportunity for investment with global supply on the rise and new demand from clean energy sectors. This seems like the perfect excuse to delve back in time and look at its historical popularity, especially in Europe during the Georgian and Victorian eras.
Floral brooch, crystals set in silver, west Europe, late 18th century © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver's importance as a material throughout history is unparalleled: it has swayed wars, birthed economies and empires, and triggered many advances in technology, mining, and metallurgy. From as long ago as 3000 B.C, ancient civilizations have been enamored with the material, heating silver ore and blowing air over it to refine it - a process that separated the silver from any lead or copper. An element formed in the explosion of a small star, or supernova, before falling to earth to shine on in the form of silver - it's no wonder this rare material has thrilled so many for so long.
During the Georgian era, when new sources of silver were found in silver-rich South America, the production of silver jewelry flourished. Silver was the most popular type of metal for making jewelry in Europe at the time and has remained one of our most prized jewelry making materials to this day. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, while silver mining was in full force and stores were still relatively plentiful, some people chose to store their wealth in the form of silverware. If needed, silver items could be melted down and reworked, or even made into coins.
That said, silver is far too soft to use in jewelry in its purest form and doesn't keep its shape well. As we still do today, the Georgians and Victorians used 'sterling' silver, which is 92.5% silver - the other 7.5% being made up of other materials that helped to strengthen it and slow tarnishing, like copper. Nowadays we use numbers like '800' (meaning 800/1000 or 80%) or '925' (sterling silver) to talk about the purity, or standard, of silver.
Sterling silver in the 18th and 19th centuries was certified in London and other British Assay Offices by stamping it with a 'Lion Passant' mark, a walking lion with the right forepaw raised. For a brief time, between 1696 and 1720, the purity of the silver used was elevated to 95.84% and pieces of this standard were marked with the "Britannia" mark instead of the 'Lion Passant', a female figure with a 'lion's head erased'. Different marks were used in different parts of Britain, such as the 'thistle' in Edinburgh and 'Lion Rampant' in Glasgow, or the 'Crowned Harp' in Dublin. Marks also differed throughout Europe.
Photos of standard marks via government Hallmarking Guidance Notes
In the Georgian era and well into the Victorian era, silver was commonly used in jewelry to set diamonds, as well as other pale gems and pastes. As a backing, silver - which is the most reflective existing element (reflecting more than 95% of visible light) - lent a white-tinted brilliance to such clear gems, helping them shine even brighter.
Diamonds and other gems were often set in silver collets, while pastes were sometimes also lined with foils to add an extra or colored shine to them. Many earlier examples of silver-set Georgian jewelry hold pastes and opal imitations, while later pieces are mostly set with diamonds. Silver was also often backed with gold - so as not to tarnish onto the skin.
White gold had yet to be invented and platinum was not yet used for jewelry-making, so silver was the only available white metal at the time, and was therefore used widely. From brooches and rings to the crown jewels; diamonds and silver were a pairing in high demand amongst the fashionable and wealthy.
Pair of earrings, silver and gold, set with rose-cut diamonds, made in northeast Spain, about 1740.
Pair of earrings, pastes (glass) set in gilded silver, made in Western Europe, about 1760-70.
Brooch, silver set with paline and white pastes. Made in Western Europe, about 1760.
A Georgian necklace with a cross pendant, silver set with pastes. Antique Animal Jewelry
A French late 18th-century provincial silver heart-shaped pendant. The top is a trophy consisting of a quiver with two arrows and a hymeneal torch (named after the Greek goddess of marriage, Hymen). It is set with a central large flat cut foiled rose diamond with smaller rough-cut diamonds interspersed throughout the piece. Via The Antique Jewelry Company.
It is worth noting also that naturalism in jewelry became very fashionable in the 1800s. Flowers became very symbolically meaningful in jewelry towards the middle of the 19th century, and with empirical expansion and colonization taking place across Europe, a keen interest in botany and a love of nature became one of the most universal and respected sentiments amongst society.
Earlier pieces of naturalistic jewelry were likely influenced by the Romantic movement and the revived Rococo style, while later pieces became ever-more precise and elaborate. Common motifs included roses, lilies, chrysanthemums and fuchsias, the most fashionable flowers at the time. Larger floral pieces and tiaras worn for grand occasions were often made to be dismantled into smaller elements, such as brooches, for other occasions.
Floral brooch of rose- and brilliant-cut diamonds set in silver, made in Northern Europe, about 1780-1800.
Aigrette in the form of a ribbon-tied sheaf of wheat-ears. Silver and gold. Mixed closed and open-back, set with diamonds, made in England in the early 1800s. On close inspection, it appears each wheat-ear could be pulled out and individually slotted into a tiara. At Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838, her attendants wore wreaths of silver corn-ears. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Part of a hair ornament, brilliant-cut diamonds open-set in silver, made in Western Europe, about 1820.
You may recognize this - The Diamond Diadem - as Her Majesty The Queen's from postage stamps and coins. However, this feminine association conceals its true origin. It was originally made for George IV's extravagant coronation in 1821. On that occasion, he wore it over a large velvet 'Spanish' hat. Openwork silver frame lined with gold and set transparent with diamonds and pearls. The front cross is set with a pale yellow brilliant, and four sprays representing the national emblems of the United Kingdom.
Floral tiaras are very rare as they are usually broken down into separate sprays and sold as brooches. This tiara is formed of seven floral sprays and has been worn as a necklace at some time in the past. Wreath of brilliant-cut diamond flowers and foliage set in silver, with ruby stamens set in gold, in a gold frame. Made in Western Europe, about 1830-40.
Tiara in the form of a wreath, brilliant and rose-cut diamonds with pearls set in silver, backed in gold. The basic structure is a wreath of Neoclassical design. Made in England, about 1850.
Filigree was a popular decorative technique throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in Germany, the Nordic countries, and Switzerland. The fashion also became popular in Venice and countries neighboring Italy. Characterized by swirling or curling patterns and natural, floral elements, filigree is a simple technique that takes advantage of the softness and malleability of silver, twisting it into delicate, and often elaborate, designs.
Stylized silver filigree cross (Ulrichskreuz) with the letters SV on each side, South Germany, 18th century.
This silver filigree cross, with its flamboyant twisting leaves, is typical of the kind made in Venice. The raised compartment in the center opens with a hinge and would originally have contained a relic or something else of religious value. Probably made in Venice (Italy), about 1750-1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A two-tier necklace consisting of nine red pastes alternating with six silver filigree plaques. This delicate necklace is typical of those worn in Bavaria in southern Germany and is particularly associated with the city of Nuremberg. Made about 1780-1840. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Choker necklace, consisting of five graduated chains of flat oval filigree links joined by plain loops. Choker necklaces were originally worn, in both Austria and Switzerland, to hide the signs of goitre, a disfiguring disease caused by lack of iodine, which was endemic in the high Alps. Made in St Gall and Thurgau (Switzerland), about 1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Horizontal oval silver filigree brooch in a stylized floral pattern. Made in Germany, 1750-1850.
Part of a set of silver filigree traditional jewelry from Föhr (North Germany), made about 1850.
Silver openwork, Links & Elements
Because of its malleability, silver was often favored as a material for making elaborate frameworks to show off other gems or as a linking metal or fine detail material in jewelry. Though there are plenty of Georgian and Victorian pieces that were purely made of silver, it was more common to use silver as one of several materials in one of these mentioned ways. Quite a few pieces of silver jewelry bear frames made using a technique called 'openwork'. This is a kind of jewelry with holes or gaps in it to let light through the object. Techniques for making these holes or gaps included piercing, saw cutting, or intricate wirework.
Necklace, gilded openwork designs under glass, with borders of marcasites (faceted crystals of iron pyrites) set in silver, probably made in France, about 1780-1800 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Pendant, hardstone cameo of a classical male head surrounded by marcasites set in silver openwork and hung with pearls. With a locket fitting at the back, possibly made in Switzerland, about 1810-20.
Pendant cross of silver tracery (Croix de Saint-Lô) set with rock crystals, made in Normandy (France), about 1809-1819. Crosses are the most distinctive element in French traditional jewelry. Every French woman had one. They usually wore them as a choker around the neck on a black velvet ribbon.
Three-part openwork silver pendant set with rose-cut diamonds in cut-down settings. The lower part is heart-shaped, with a honey-colored diamond in a raised conical setting on a gilt base. This Belgian piece is similar to traditional openwork jewelry from Normandy and the Catholic parts of the southern Netherlands from this time. Made about 1814-1832. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cast and chased oxidized silver brooch of octagonal form, the openwork border set with eight square-cut garnets, with a grotesque mask surrounded by foliage in the center. Made in Vienna, about 1870.
Bracelet of five rectangular panels in gold and silver, openwork and pierced, decorated with black enamel threads and set with old-cut diamonds and fine pearls, made in France, about 1870. Via the Museum of Fine Arts of the City of Paris
Openwork oxidized silver bracelet with 18 applied gold lions' masks and borders of gilded beads on both edges. Made in Vienna, about 1875-1890. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Austro Hungarian silver and enamel bracelet
Antique Animal Jewelry
Sheets of Silver
Before 1750 and the invention of the rolling mill, sheets of silver would have been made by apprentices, who were tasked with the arduous job of hand-hammering silver down into sheets of the desired thickness for jewelry-making. The invention of the rolling mill, however, cut-out the need for this labor-intensive process. This paved the way for mass-production in jewelry lines, meaning that silver jewelry produced this way could be sold for lower prices and pieces could be produced much more quickly.
Die striking was a technique in silverwork that began to be used for jewelry-making in 1777, involving stamping and cutting sheets of the precious metal using dies, presses, or drop hammers. Other pieces of jewelry made from sheet silver were engraved. Many rings and cuffs, bangles, or bracelets were made this way in the 19th century.
Stamped sheet silver ring set with a faceted red paste, made in Skåne (Sweden), 1800-1840. These rings were generally given at marriage but were part of the dowry wealth, not true wedding rings.
Ring made from thin sheet silver with a stamped pattern. Made in Skåne (Sweden), about 1818-1854. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver German fox bracelet from Antique Animal Jewelry
Silver ring of sheet silver. There is a shield engraved on the bezel with a scroll decoration on either side. Made in Württemberg (Germany), 1850-1870. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sterling silver Victorian ornate scrollwork cuff bangle/bracelet, made by H. Bros and assayed at Birmingham in 1885. Via Antiques Atlas
A Silver Victorian Bangle Bracelet – Engraved and Granulated
Silver Victorian Bangle Bracelet – Engraved and Granulated
Antique Animal Jewelry
Victorian silver bracelet with lock and key. Handcuff bracelets like this one were not uncommon, though they were more often made from gold. They were frequently presented by a gentleman and locked on the wrist of the recipient as a symbol of matrimonial bondage, in place of an engagement ring. They were not only worn by engaged women though, and were favored by many ladies of fashion in the Victorian era.
Antique Animal Jewelry
Albert Chains, Fobs & Other Tools
Albert chains were watch-chains usually made of silver or gold, worn by men in the 19th century and named after Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. The Albert chain had a T-bar on one end that could be fitted into the buttonhole of a waistcoat. The other end of the chain had a clasp that could be used to attach a pocket watch. Some Albert chains had a second chain of equal length attached to the T-bar, which would hold the watch key, while others would have a second smaller chain attached to the T-bar that could be used to hang a fob, fraternity, lodge symbol, dog whistle, charm, or locket from.
Victorian silver single Albert chains holding decorative pieces on the shorter chain Antique Animal Jewelry
Silver and gold watch key which might have hung from a double Albert chain Antique Animal Jewelry
Two silver fobs which might have been hung from an Albert chain: Anti-Vivisection Society fob, and a fob inscribed 'Save Me: I Would Save You' depicting a dog in peril, so loyal that it would save you without question, but would you save the dog and its kind from torture?
Antique Animal Jewelry
Victorian silver items that may have hung from an Albert chain: two decorative anchors, a perpetual calendar fob, and a silver charm in the shape of a dog's head. Antique Animal Jewelry
A set of silver dog whistles that may have been hung from an Albert chain Antique Animal Jewelry
Silver propelling pencils in various animal and other shapes. It has been suggested that young women may have worn these in some fashion to balls and dances in order to mark down their partners for each dance. Such propelling pencils might have been worn on a necklace or bracelet, or on other occasions might have hung from a housekeeper's chatelaine (a decorative belt hook or clasp). Antique Animal Jewelry
There are many, many pieces of beautiful Georgian and Victorian silver jewelry featuring animals - particularly as the symbology of animals became hugely popular during this time - but animals were not only featured in silver jewelry, they were also made silver jewelry to wear themselves!
Antique Animal Jewelry: A silver cat collar with engravings, some of Antique Animal Jewelry's antique dog collars, and a modern silver Hermes cuff modeled on antique dog collars.
To wrap up, here are some more of Antique Animal Jewelry's silver pieces: