This week's blog looks at the advent of cut steel in jewelry, a type of metalwork that became very fashionable between the late-18th and mid-19th centuries.

Made to shine and reflect light beautifully like diamonds - and used on anything from earrings, necklaces, and brooches, to buttons, shoe buckles, and sword hilts - cut steel was a huge trend in the Georgian and Victorian-eras. Spreading quickly from its origins in Woodstock, near Oxford, it soon took hold in other English cities, and then France, Spain, and beyond.

Cut steel framed button set with a jasper plaque showing the signs of the Zodiac. Made in the Josiah Wedgwood factory and possibly set by Matthew Boulton. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut Steel Jewelry

So, what actually is 'cut steel' jewelry?

In short, cut steel jewelry is jewelry set with small steel studs or beads. Each stud was faceted, polished, and often carefully riveted in place through tiny holes in a base plate. They were faceted and mounted to catch as much light as possible, providing a brilliance to rival that of diamonds. Early examples of these steel studs could have up to fifteen facets, making them shine and sparkle beautifully. In fact, as a general rule, the finer and older the piece the more facets the studs are likely to have.

The facets on the steel studs were produced using a method called 'chip carving', which was an ancient technique traditionally used on bone and wood. Initially, cut steel was seen as a more affordable alternative to diamonds - an imitative product that emulated the same kind of sparkle very effectively. But, as the popularity of cut steel grew, it became a desirable and fashionable material in its own right, sometimes even almost outpricing its gemstone inspiration. The workmanship of steel at the time was also time-consuming and highly specialized, meaning that there were only a few particular places you could get cut steel wares from.

It is believed that the production of cut-steel ornaments started as early as the 1600s, in Woodstock, near Oxford. But, it wasn't until the mid-1700s that demand started to grow exponentially and cut steel jewelry really started to take-off. The steel for these beautiful diamond imitations was often sourced, quite unbelievably, from horseshoe nails - which could be found strewn about the muddy lanes of English villages in the eighteenth century.

In the 1750s, in France, King Louis XV publicly requested that France's wealthier members of society donate their precious gems and jewelry to help fund his military campaigns during the Seven Years War. In need of substitute jewelry for what they donated (or hid), cut-steel jewelry began being exported in a big way from England to France. The production of cut steel jewelry in England boomed. By 1760, London, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton had all joined Woodstock in becoming important centers of the trade.

(One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between early Woodstock-produced cut steel and cut steel produced elsewhere in England is in the switch from screwed studs to riveted studs. Woodstock screwed studs could be removed, polished, and screwed back in, while riveted studs could not.)

Cut steel parure of early work c.1785, possibly made in Tula, Russia. From Georgian Jewellery: 1714-1830 by Redington Dawes and Collings.

From left to right: cut steel and green foiled glass cabochon drop earrings, cut steel drop earrings with foil backed red-tinted glass cabochon centers, earrings with cut steel tops and molded bottoms. All Victorian or earlier. Via Morning Glory Jewelry.

Pair of Bracelets, steel sequins with cut steel clasps. Three openwork links of flat polished units joined by lateral strips, terminating at each end with oval clasps embellished with steel bosses. These bracelets were once mounted on silk ribbon to prevent the wrists being scratched by the sharp links. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of bracelets, bands of cut steel sequins; oval clasps decorated with circular and shuttle-shaped faceted steel studs. The two can be joined together to make a necklace, c. 1780-1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Georgian/Early Victorian cut steel daisy flowers motif necklace. Faceted polished steel studs riveted to a steel backing. Each tiny stud has 12 facets. Via Morning Glory Jewelry.

Important cut steel necklace, early 1800s, from Georgian Jewellery: 1714-1830 by Redington Dawes and Collings.

Fine cut steel necklace c.1800, from Georgian Jewellery: 1714-1830 by Redington Dawes and Collings.

Fifteen-piece cut steel parure in leather case, c.1810. This parure, includes a necklace, a tiara, earrings, a bodice ornament, a lorgnette, cuffs, and a pair of bracelets. Napoleon presented a cut-steel parure to his second wife, Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, and King Louis XVIII acquired a similar set at the Paris Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie of 1823. Via MetMuseum.

Cut-steel tiara from Spare Room Antiques. Photo via The Jewellery Editor

Brooch of cut steel in the form of a scallop shell, c.1840.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Famous Makers

The most famous maker of cut-steel jewelry in England at the end of the 18th century was the manufacturer and entrepreneur, Matthew Boulton, who was based in Birmingham. By using both cutting-edge technology and women as cheap labor, Birmingham (under Boulton's supervision) eventually overshadowed Woodstock, becoming the primary source for cut steel in England. Among Boulton's most successful wares were the mounts he made for English potter and 'jasperware' producer, Josiah Wedgwood.

Boulton and Wedgwood were good friends, alternately cooperating and competing, and in the combination of their crafts, they brought a unique use of color to cut steel designs: an attractive combination of blue and white jasperware cameos or plaques with cut steel mounts, borders, or other elements. Cameos were a prevalent part of fashionable neoclassical jewelry, as we have discussed in some of our previous blogs, and this bringing together of two prominent trends proved very popular.

The three items are probably a clasp for a bag, a cut steel buckle with a blue jasper medallion depicting Leopold 11 - the Austrian Emperor - and a necklace made from cut steel beads mounted with a blue jasper medallion, all by Wedgwood. Wedgwood had an agent in Russia, and his ceramics were very popular with Russian nobility. c. 1790-1800. Via National Museums Liverpool.

A tiara made from cut steel beads mounted with blue jasper medallions and pearls, by Wedgwood. It is very likely that this tiara was made at Boulton's Soho manufactory, c.1790. Via National Museums Liverpool.

Fob by Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton. Cut steel (Boulton) with blue jasperware (Wedgwood) depicting Apollo, c. 1785-1790. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Left: cut steel mounted with a jasper plaque showing Libra, a sign of the Zodiac (c. 1775). Right: Brooch with a cut steel frame, set with a blue jasper plaque showing Hercules and the Arcadian stag (c. 1780-90). Both by Josiah Wedgwood and very likely Matthew Boulton.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Left: A circular blue dip jasperware frame showing the signs of the zodiac, mounted in a cut steel beaded frame with suspension ring and backed in orange silk (c.1770-1800). Right: An oval jasperware plaque depicting the Greek figures of Hygeia and her father Aesculapius, set in cut steel bezel with suspension loop and fitted with a bombé glass cover. Josiah Wedgwood (& Sons). © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

One of Matthew Boulton's other very notable partners was James Watt, known for his 'rotative steam engine', which was installed in Boulton's Soho Manufactory in Birmingham in 1788. Also known as the 'Lap Engine', it was one of the most modern production techniques available at the time for grinding and polishing steel wares, and allowed Boulton to mass-produce his cut steel ornaments - making them cheaper than those of his competitors in Woodstock and London.

Buttons and Buckles

Buttons were thought to be the most popular items of cut steel being manufactured at the time (being the only ornament many people could afford), followed closely by shoe buckles and belt buckles. Cut steel buttons and buckles were both functional and fashionable, as well as being worn by both men and women, increasing their popularity enormously.

By the late 18th century, however, cut steel was so sought-after and the designs so intricate that even buttons became very expensive. The business was big enough and demand so high that it was often considered to be more valuable than gold. In 1777, the 'Earl of W' was charged 28 guineas (almost £30!) for a set of buttons, and it is known that customers were supplied with cards of designs to choose from by reputable cut steel jewelry makers for similar prices.

'Steel Buttons/ Coup de Bouton' - a cartoon advertising the 'dazzling' quality of fashionable cut steel buttons (1777). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Cut steel button, the outer circle of beads individually riveted in place on a cast plate c.1795. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut steel button, the outer circle of beads individually riveted in place on a cast plate c.1795. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A pair of buttons made from cut steel, perhaps later adapted for use as cuff-links. Individual faceted steel studs are attached to a backplate through a series of carefully spaced holes, c. 1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These buttons are from a set for a man's waistcoat and would have been worn under a matching formal coat with larger buttons of the same design. Buttons of blue jasperware with white relief, mounted in cut steel, c.1785-1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A cut steel Victorian buckle. Via Verify Vintage Jewelry.

A rectangular jasperware plaque with rounded edge, showing a putti seated on a scrolling motif with a trumpet to his lips, set into a pierced and faceted cut steel setting. Wedgwood, c. 1770-1800. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

The demand for shoe buckles in the 18th century was enormous, with dandies openly boasting of owning fifty or more different types of buckles. Fashionable fops of the 1770s were known for wearing large buckles made of gold, silver, and other faux gemstones like cut steel. Gentlemen often wore matching shoe and knee buckles. Amazingly, shoe buckles became such a fashionable trend that at one point they were considered by some to be even more important than the shoe itself!

Shoe buckle, cut steel mounted with jasperware plaques probably by Josiah Wedgwood. The buckles with rounded corners, decorated with rows of facetted bosses, c.1776-1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of shoe buckles, cut steel, leather, decorated with a faceted steel beaded rim and leather-covered center. Leather inserts for buckles were used from the mid-1780s onwards on men's buckles. As fastenings became more complicated black leather became a convenient covering for new mechanisms. By the 1790s black patent leather was also very fashionable for buckles, c.1792-1806. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of regency antique shoe buckles made from cut steel c.1820. Via Ruby Lane.

A pair of Victorian cut steel shoe buckles circa 1870.

Via Morning Glory Jewelry

Chatelaines and Sword Hilts

The likes of cut steel chatelaines and sword hilts probably offers up some of the best examples of how cut steel infiltrated both male and female fashions with equal intensity.

As well as being used in unisex ornaments like belt buckles and buttons, cut steel was used in women's jewelry - from earrings and bracelets to necklaces and tiaras - as well as in such wonders as the housekeeper or housewife's 'Chatelaine'. A practical and decorative accessory, the chatelaine hung from the waist, and via a system of clips and chains held small tools such as watches, keys, scissors, tweezers, magnifying glasses, scent flasks and miniature notebooks or ivory writing tablets.

Cut steel chatelaine made by Joseph Banks Durham. The hook-plate inscribed on the reverse, 'Durham/ Cutler to H.R.H. Prince Albert/456 Oxford Street', c. 1850. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut-steel chatelaine with attachments, the hook-plate formed as a crowned monogram, c. 1885.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Far from being a fashion exclusive to women, cut steel was very popular amongst men in the form of buttons and buckles, as well as sword hilts. From around the mid-17th century, 'small swords' - light swords with short, flexible, pointed blades - were worn regularly by men. Such swords were worn less as a means of self-defence than as a show of status for the well-dressed gentleman, and were also often worn by boys on formal occasions.

The small sword was very popular even into late 18th century, by which time they had become the work of jewellers and goldsmiths rather than swordsmiths. With blades tucked away in scabbards, it was the expensive and often elaborately designed hilts that bore social significance. With this in mind, cut steel sword hilts became very popular, with Matthew Boulton's pattern books containing many such designs.

A small sword with a case and scabbard, cut steel hilt and sheath mounts, c. 1775. Due to the superior polish and the screw cut steel studs, this is believed to have been made in Woodstock, near Oxford. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A boy's sword, manufactured by Matthew Boulton at the Soho Factory, c.1775. The facets were cut into the surface of the steel to improve the reflecting qualities of the highly polished surface. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A steel dress sword with a leather scabbard. Hilt decorated with cut steel beads (Boulton) and blue jasper medallions (Wedgwood). It is very likely that this sword was made at Boulton's Soho manufactory. Via National Museums Liverpool and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut Steel Production in France

Eventually, the French demand for cut steel and the apparent profitability of the trade pushed the French into starting-up their own cut steel workshops. During the French Revolution, trade with England was brought to an end for a while, which also meant that an end was put to cut steel trade between England and France.

By the time the revolution was over, French workshops were able to handle their own domestic cut steel demand without needing English imports.

These butterfly earrings are typical of the cut steel goods exported from France to much of Europe and America in the second half of the nineteenth century. The cut steel earrings are in the form of butterflies with double wings and antennae. The faceted steel studs cover the entire surface of the back plate, c.1875. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Also typical of the cut steel goods exported from France. A brooch in the form of a butterfly. The wings, with curved tips, are encrusted with small faceted steel studs with three larger flat-topped studs on the upper sections and two on the lower sections. The body is made of a long tapering stud with diagonal facets at the bottom and oval and circular flat-topped studs, c.1875. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The End of the Cut Steel Craze

The cut steel craze started to come to an end in the late nineteenth century. By this time, Matthew Boulton and Watt's 'rotative steam engine' was no longer on the cutting-edge of new technology, and cut steel was being mass-manufactured everywhere. The intricacy of the original fifteen-faceted screw studs that took many hours of specialist craftsmanship to make had been reduced to five-faceted riveted studs that could be produced anywhere and were of such low quality that not many examples have lasted, as they were liable to corrosion. Demand began to fall, and cut steel went firmly out of fashion.

That said, the surviving works from earlier in the cut steel craze remain beautiful works of loving labor, polished steel, and ingenuity. They each shine with a dazzling grey-ish brightness all their own, and it is easy to see why they were once so loved.

To wrap up, here are a few of Antique Animal Jewelry's very own beautiful cut steel pieces:

For more rare Georgian and Victorian jewelry, follow Antique Animal Jewelry on Instagram.


In last week's blog, we looked at the significance of doves in Georgian and Victorian era jewelry. This week, we are looking at the symbolism of other birds...

Peacock brooch by Gustave Baugrand (French, c.1865). The body is pavé-set with sapphires and diamonds, extending articulated cushion and rose-cut diamond plumes, enhanced by vari-cut emeralds and rubies, perched on a cultured pearl. Via Bonhams.

Throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras, and across Europe, the symbols used in jewelry carried particular importance to people. In an age of heightened sentiment, sensibility, and sentimentality - where jewelry was frequently given and worn as a token of friendship, love, or mourning - each piece was often encoded with its own personal meanings and messages, through the symbols and materials chosen in its making.

Birds were particularly popular motifs; from swallows and eagles to peacocks and owls, each bird held its own particular meaning.


Swallows are birds known to mate for life, and they always return to their nests after time away. They were therefore used in many cases to signify love and constancy across both distance and time. Jewelry featuring swallows was often given to young couples or exchanged between them on their wedding day, and was worn by both men and women.

Swallows also held a special significance for fishermen and sailors. In seafaring, seeing swallows was thought to be a clear signal that land was nearby, with legends claiming that swallows could lead ships safely home and prevent them from getting lost at sea.

Swallow brooches, as well as other jewelry bearing the image of a swallow, were therefore also often given to loved ones when the giver set out on a long journey, as a charm to keep them safe until their return, and to guide the giver home. In essence, the symbol of the swallow often meant, 'to safely return home'.

Swallow brooches set with rubies (passion) and rose-cut diamonds (eternity).

Photos via Elmwoods Auctioneers

Victorian era swallow brooch, Antique Animal Jewelry

An 18-carat gold Art Nouveau love charm with two swallows on a branch of wild roses and the text: 'Le plus doux des bonheurs être aimé quand on aime', which translates as 'the sweetest of happiness is being loved by the one you love'. Set in a gold diamond with blue plique-a-jour enamel windows, and a small natural pearl at the heart of each flower, France, circa 1900. From @inezstodel_jewelry

Victorian brooch featuring three swallows in flight, decorated with seed pearls, 15ct yellow gold. Photo via Selling Antiques

Victorian brooch featuring three swallows in flight, set with diamonds Via Bejeweled Magazine

Victorian 14-carat yellow gold witch's heart pin circa 1880 -1890, featuring a swallow set with seed pearls.

The witch's heart, also known as a 'Luckenbooth', was thought to ward off evil spirits and offer protection. Via Ruby Lane


Historically, eagles have been used to symbolize nobility, strength, courage, and power. Considered in many cultures as the 'King of Birds', it is perhaps unsurprising that it has been used throughout the world to represent empire and ruling authority; from the Roman and Carolingian Empires to the Holy Roman Empire and Napoleon's reign. As the patron animal of the ancient Greek god Zeus, the eagle also has strong and lasting associations with royalty and divinity.

Left: brooch with fighting eagle and snake, gold with pave-set turquoises (c.1850). © The Trustees of the British Museum. Similar to the design on the right: from the Official Illustrated Catalogue of Backes & Co. of Hanau.

Early 19th-century Masonic pendant, 18k yellow gold, hand-engraved. One side shows two fighting eagles with the Latin motto, 'SUBLIMI FERIAM SIDERA VERTICE'; 'With head lifted, I shall strike the stars'. The other side shows, 'TRIA JUNCTA IN UNO' over clasped hands and a glove, meaning 'Three joined into one'. Both sides are decorated with green enamel bows at the top. Via LAELIUS Antiques

In 1840, at the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, twelve bridesmaids - all unmarried daughters of the nobility - carried Queen Victoria's train. Each of these bridesmaids was gifted an eagle brooch of turquoise, designed by Albert himself, who chose the eagle both for its existing symbolism and to represent the House of Coburg.

The stones used in these eagle brooches were all highly symbolic: turquoise represents a pledge of love as well as bringing good luck, pearls are for true love, rubies are for passion, and diamonds are for eternity.

Eagle brooch with pave-set turquoises in silver with ruby eyes, diamond beak, and a pearl in each claw; backed in gold © The Trustees of the British Museum

Eagle brooch of turquoise; ruby eye and diamond beak, the whole set in silver with gold claws holding pearls. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020


Peacocks are, and always have been, symbols of many different things - with their symbolism reaching far back into history. In Western folklore, they were sometimes associated with pride and vanity, while in China they personified beauty and nobility. In Greek and Roman mythology, and in the many centuries since, they have also come to be known as symbols of immortality, protection, and guidance.

The Ancient Greeks actually believed that the flesh of a peacock did not decay after death, so they believed the peacock to be a sign of immortality. In sentimental jewelry, they may have therefore been used to represent eternal or undying love that never lessened over time.

In Greco-Roman mythology, the Peacock's tail was said to hold the "eyes" of all the stars, and those who looked upon it would receive kindness and good fortune. In Christianity, the 'eyes' were thought to represent the all-seeing eyes of the Christian God, and – in some interpretations – the Church. Because of this, the peacock and peacock tail feather has also been used to symbolize protection and guidance.

9-carat gold Peacock pendant circa 1900, the peacock is made from real feathers. Antique Animal Jewelry

Rene Lalique Peacock brooch (Paris, 1899). Tooled and engraved gold, enamel over gold, cabochon moonstones. From Fauna - The Art of Jewelry by Patrick Mauries and Evelyne Posseme.

Gold pendant in the form of a male peacock displaying, decorated with plique-à-jour enamel and set with rose- and brilliant-cut diamonds (eternity), opals (protection, loyalty, faithfulness), and emeralds (hope, prosperity), with an opal drop (c. 1900). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Pair of earrings, in the form of a twisted peacock feather, gold, pavé-set with turquoises (good luck), rubies (passion), and pearls (true love), circa 1835-1840. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Peacock brooch, set with sapphires, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and a pearl by Gustave Baugrand (French, c.1867). Antwerp, Diamantmuseum. Via Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World by Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe

Brooch in the form of a peacock, its blister pearl and diamond-set tail rising in a 'V' behind its body which is also set with a blister pearl. It has a garnet eye and the crest on its head is of diamonds. The bird stands on a spherical pearl, above a brilliant-cut diamond and blister pearl drop - designed by C.R. Ashbee. Family tradition stated that this brooch was designed for his wife, Janet, (c. 1900).

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Silver and gold peacock necklace, set with pearls and diamond sparks. Designed by C. R. Ashbee, London, 1901. In the early 1900s, C.R. Ashbee designed about 12 peacock brooches and pendants. The choice of the peacock seems to have been primarily because it was a bold, proud, bird which stood out against a drab and hostile world. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


For many centuries, owls have been used in sculptures, models, jewelry, and even memorial stones. While some cultures believe owls to be paranormal creatures and heralds of death, many others have - for centuries - used the owl as a symbol of wisdom. As nocturnal and strategic hunters, they are also often associated with a fierce kind of battle intelligence.

In Ancient Greece, the owl was the sacred animal of Athena, goddess of war, handicraft, and practical reason. In battle, soldiers who spotted an owl on, or flying over, the battlefield believed it was a sign that Athena was smiling upon them.

The Egyptian mythology, owls were frequently depicted as guardians of the souls of the dead as they passed on to the next plane of existence, and were also seen as fierce guardians of scared occult knowledge.

Victorian silver owl. Propelling pencil pendant with glass eyes, Measures 30mm closed and 60mm open. Antique Animal Jewelry

Rare Victorian bog oak locket, carved as the head of an owl peeping through a wreath of ivy, with a gold beak, glass eyes. Inside are two lockets, one with a photograph and the other with hair. Antique Animal Jewelry

Rare bog oak Victorian owl head earrings, set in 15-carat gold (Ireland or England, c.1870-80). Antique Animal Jewelry

Rare Victorian Irish bog oak carvel owl. Layered brooch with yellow glass eyes. Via Pinterest

Rare Victorian Essex crystal owl pendant in 18K gold. Essex crystal jewelry was often made using a piece of cabochon rock crystal, flat on one side and domed on the other. The flat side was carved with an intaglio design, painted in amazing detail, and backed with mother-of-pearl. The domed crystal gives the painting a magnified, three-dimensional effect. Via trocadero.

Antique Victorian Etruscan Revival 15K Diamond Owl Brooch. Via Ruby Lane.

Antique Owl Brooch, 18ct gold owl with eyes made of cat's eye and diamond surrounds. Via DBGems

Hummingbirds and HoneyCreepers

In South American symbolism, specifically that of native tribes, the hummingbird is often depicted as a spirit sent to help people and is also associated with endurance and wisdom. In the Victorian era, however, they held a different kind of significance; they were stunningly-colored, and completely new to Europe.

Wearing jewelry and ornaments made from actual animals or animal parts became quite popular in the age of Victoria. It was not a new practice in the 19th century - animal materials such as coral, teeth, claws, and shells all have a long history of use as amulets and talismans - however it is believed that it became particularly popular at this time due to the increasing interest in, and knowledge of, the natural world.

Among the discoveries being made at that time was the revelation of the exotic birds of South America. Wearing such specimens in Victorian times was a symbol of the progress being made in new knowledge of the natural world, and the mounting of small birds or their heads in jewelry became particularly fashionable. Complete hummingbird heads, breasts, and bodies, found in South America and perhaps prepared in the United States were used, and the international fashion endured until the 1870s.

Necklace, gold, with seven pendants in the form of emerald green and scarlet humming-birds heads; feathers attached to a gold backing; pendants strung on foxtail chains (Harry Emanuel, London, 1865). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Earrings made of a feathered bird-head mounted with a gold bill, red paste eyes, and on a gold back (Harry Emanuel, London, c. 1865) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hummingbird aigrette-brooch. Gold, silver, diamonds, rubies. Joseph Chaumet, c. 1880. This three-dimensional hummingbird has a plumage pavé-set with rubies and diamonds, echoing the poem Le Colibri by Charles-Marie Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894). Via Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World by Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe

Hummingbird feathers, Bronze, circa 1875. Museum of Childhood. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of earrings made from the heads of red-legged honeycreepers, prized for their violet-blue bodies, black wings, and turquoise feathers. Stuffed and finished with yellow glass eyes, each is represented as catching a gilt fly, and to the head of each is fastened the pin. From the neck of each bird hangs a pampille-style gilt copper alloy fringe. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

nesting birds

In sentimental jewelry, it was not just the choice of bird that held importance, but also the other symbols used alongside a bird. The bird's nest is a symbol heavy with meaning, deeply encoded with implications of family, unity, love, commitment, protection of the young, strength, and nurturing.

Nests were often used in jewelry given as lovers' tokens, speaking of an envisioned future together or a commitment to family and home. The motif of a pair of birds on a branch or in a nest was very popular in French jewelry from 1830-50, especially when interpreted by jeweler Simon Petiteau.

Brooch, gold plaques decorated with a composition of a bird, a nest with eggs ( pearls), and forget-me-nots ( enameled in blue). Love could be expressed through many symbols: the bird is one expression of love, pearls symbolize true love, and forget-me-nots are for true love, remembrance, and the sentiment, 'think of me'. Fitted with a locket back which contains a lock of hair. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Romantic locket by Harry Emanuel, the renowned 19th century London jeweler. Gold, decorated with a composition of a bird, a nest with eggs ( pearls), and forget-me-nots ( enameled in blue). From @karendeakin.antiques

Pair of earrings, gold plaques decorated with compositions of a bird, a nest with eggs (pearls), and blue enamel forget-me-nots. As above, pearls and forget-me-nots have specific symbolic importance.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Novelty earrings in colored gold with nesting birds (French, c. 1860-70). Silver birds set with turquoises (good luck and love) and pearls (true love); the eggs are made of pearlized glass. British Museum. Via The Power of Love by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Novelty earrings in colored gold with nesting birds (French, c. 1860-70). Enameled silver waterbirds in gold wire nests amongst bulrushes; Paris assay mark and maker's mark CT. British Museum - via The Power of Love by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

These are a few of the many different kinds of birds featured in sentimental jewelry. With all of this in mind, when you next spot a piece of Georgian or Victorian era jewelry depicting a bird, look for the deeper meanings and codes carried within the bird's type, the materials it's been made from, and its accompanying symbolism. You'll soon find that every piece of jewelry has something wonderfully unique to tell you. For more rare Georgian and Victorian jewelry, follow Antique Animal Jewelry on Instagram.


In this week's blog, we're looking at the significance of the symbol of the dove in antique jewelry...

A navette shaped bezel set with a panel of plaited hair, on which a dove perches on a branch with an olive twig in its beak. The image is made out of tiny seed pearls, symbolizing purity and love. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Symbolism has always played an important part in jewelry, expressing meaning through shapes and images far beyond just aesthetic appeal. Whether worn as an open display or as a private one, symbols in jewelry speak a language of significance and sentiment, encoding each piece with meaning. The Victorians, in particular, became obsessed with the secret language of jewelry - given and kept as gifts, love tokens, and mementos - expressing elaborate personal messages through the use of symbols and specific gems and stones.

Birds have been popular as symbols in jewelry for a long time. Birds were traditionally seen as messengers between humanity and the gods, and their home in the sky - being so close to the heavens - was thought to bring them closer to the realms of the spirit.

Doves, in particular, have been significant symbols since ancient times, depicted on tombs and burial monuments as representations of the soul ascending to paradise. In ancient Greece, doves were associated with the goddess of love, Aphrodite. In Rome, they were associated with her Roman equivalent, Venus. In Celtic and Slavic folklore, they represented the peaceful passing of the dead. It should come as no surprise then that throughout history and the world, doves have come to represent: peace, love, hope, faith, and devotion.

The Doves of Pliny

In the Georgian era, a particularly popular image of doves used in jewelry was the 'Doves of Pliny', otherwise known as the 'Capitoline Doves'. The image comes from a Roman floor mosaic discovered in 1737 at Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, which in turn is believed to be a copy of a lost ancient Greek mosaic at Pergamon. In an age where antiquity and classical imagery was extremely popular, it is no wonder that a discovery with such a rich history captured the imaginations of many.

A miniature mosaic by Giacomo Raffaelli depicting the Doves of Pliny, copied from the original Roman mosaic excavated at Hadrian's villa in 1737. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The bezel is set with a panel showing two doves on an urn-shaped basin under the inscription 'Amitié' or 'friendship'. The three-dimensional design of the urn is created with chopped hair, decorated with tiny half-pearls. The reverse of the bezel shows the initials SS and JLH with the date 1787, commemorating the moment when the ring was given. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

French Object of Virtu: a Viniagrette c. 1780. A neoclassical urn carved from mother of pearl with 18-carat gold accents and two enameled ring-necked doves kissing on a branch. On white enamel around the lid reads, 'plutot mourir queue nous separens' - 'rather die than we separate'. The lid opens to a gold grille, which in turn opens to hold a scented cloth. Antique Animal Jewelry

A ring with a miniature carving of doves sat upon a fountain. Antique Animal Jewelry

Two doves sat upon an urn. The inscription reads 'not lost but gone before'. Antique Animal Jewelry

A group of mourning jewels with gold, mother of pearl, seed pearl, ivory, and blue enamel under glass. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Doves and Other Classical Symbols

Many depictions of doves in jewelry throughout Europe were also accompanied by other classical imagery with its own symbolism and significance, such as specific plants, wreaths, and classical architectural features such as urns, alters, and columns.

Dedicated to two people, celebrating and commemorating their love and commitment to each other. This ring depicts the dove (purity, love, devotion), crown/wreath (redemption), hearts (togetherness/love), and an unbroken column (eternity). Credited to Barbara Robbins, via The Art of Mourning

This scene depicts two doves together (love, devotion), hearts (togetherness/love), an unbroken column (eternity), and a dog sat watchfully beside it (faithfulness/loyalty). Antique Animal Jewelry

A scene very similar to the ring above, with the addition of initials in the design and the torch and bow of cupid laid at the foot of the column. Antique Animal Jewelry

Two doves ring (Paris, 1798-1809) inscribed, 'souvenir', meaning 'remember'. Enameled and engraved gold. From The Power of Love by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Brooch with billing doves on an altar of love (c. 1775-1800). Gold and seed pearls. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Via The Power of Love by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

18th-century Portuguese lovebird pendant believed to be a marriage piece. From the personal collection of @colonialdame

Gold finger-ring set with a small ruby, enameled in white and translucent green with touches of red, with a pair of billing doves. The inscription reads 'UNIS A JAMAIS', meaning 'forever united' (French betrothal ring). © The Trustees of the British Museum

Locket ring - onyx cameo, gold, silver, rose diamonds (late 18th century). Beak to beak, the turtledoves express their affection for each other on the bezel of a ring, given as a sign of love and friendship. Inscribed 'IMITONS EUX' - 'let us be like them', and the bezel lifts up to show a woman grieving at a tomb shaped like an urn on a plinth. Albion Art Jewelry Institute - via Le Grand Frisson by Diana Scarisbrick

Love KNots

A motif found on pendants, watch fobs, and even wax seals, it often consists of two birds, usually doves, each with one end of a lover's knot in their beaks. It is frequently accompanied by the phrase, 'Le Plus Loin, Le Plus Serre', which has been translated from the French to mean, 'the farther we fly, the faster we tye', or 'the further apart, the tighter the bond'.

This motif symbolizes a love that will go on forever unbroken, only being strengthened and tightened by any physical or emotional distance experienced. The lover's knot dates back to antiquity and has been favored over the centuries by sailors, and those others who were often separated from their loved ones.

The two birds (winged souls) tie the knot of eternity and love as a ship sails away from a castle on a cliff. The boat can be interpreted either as a representation of sentimental distance or as the passage of a soul towards the afterlife - in this case, the passage towards the horizon suggests the latter. On the reverse is a thick weave of the hairwork in a lattice. Credited to Barbara Robbins, via The Art of Mourning

Two doves tying a love knot between them, expressing the sentiment of 'le plus loin, le plus serre'. Antique Animal Jewelry

Pendant with a gold frame, enclosing a composition in mother of pearl and seed pearls on blue enamel. Two birds carry a string of flowers beside an altar inscribed 'A Vous Dedié' ( Dedicated to you) with flaming hearts above and a basket of flowers, all under glass. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Dove and the Olive Branch

In Victorian jewelry, doves also symbolized love; but instead of being accompanied by Greco-Roman symbols, they were often presented alongside the popular Victorian symbolism of flowers, branches, and specific use of stones/materials. For example, when depicted with an olive branch in their beaks (like the olive branch carried by Noah's dove in the Bible), doves were often used as symbols of hope, friendship, and peace - especially when accompanied by the word 'pax', which is Latin for peace.

Brooch, made of silver set with brilliant-cut diamonds, in the form of a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak with emeralds for leaves, a ruby for an eye, and diamonds as feathers. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A dove pendant, carrying an olive branch in its beak. Antique Animal Jewelry

Doves in Victorian Jewels of Sentiment

Jewels of sentiment featuring doves, particularly love-tokens, were often bombe set with turquoise, which was intended to bring good luck to the wearer and to represent true love.

Doves and forget-me-nots, English, 1830–50. Forget-me-nots signified remembrance, or the sentiment, 'think of me', turquoise in jewel lore is an affirmation or pledge of love, and ruby stands for passion; the combination of turquoise and ruby is often found in jewels of sentiment. See some of the individual pieces in this set below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Silver brooch, with a gold backing and pavé-set with turquoises, in the form of a dove with ruby eyes and a pendant heart. The wings are spread and engraved with feathers on the reverse with a compartment for hair in the back of the heart. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Bloomed and chased three-colour gold demi-parure of brooch and earrings set with turquoises, rubies, and pearls in the center of forget-me-nots. The birds are no doubt intended to be doves as messengers of love. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Chased two-colour gold brooch set with turquoises in the form of a dove with wings hinged to tremble.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Two-color gold comb-mount in the form of a leafy oak twig entwined with a wreath of forget-me-nots and surmounted by a bird, with a ruby eye and ring in its beak, on a trembler spring. The branch is encoded with the word 'dearest', spelled out by the gemstones in the order used: diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, turquoise. There is a hair compartment in the reverse of the bird.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Turquoise-set colored gold brooch in the form of a dove with cabochon ruby eyes and a heart-shaped pendant hanging from its beak with turquoises and ruby and rococo scrolls. Compartments containing hair are in the reverse of the bird and the heart.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Pendant - gold, silver, enamel, rock crystal, diamond, ruby, emerald (Paris, c.1850-1900). The oval rock crystal pendant hangs from a rose diamond trophy of Cupid's wedding torch, quiver, and arrows. Rose diamond turtledoves in flight to each other symbolizes marriage. Via Le Grand Frisson by Diana Scarisbrick

Three-colour gold brooch in the form of a fruiting peach spray (sometimes used to symbolize purity, virtue, love, or unity) with a dove (love/devotion) mounted on a trembler spring. The 'bloom' on the peach is inlaid in a patch of red-gold into the green-gold. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Two doves ring (Paris, 1905 or later). Gold, gilded silver, cabochon turquoise, diamonds. From Fauna - The Art of Jewelry by Patrick Mauries and Evelyne Posseme - page 26.

Ring with billing doves flanking three apples, the attributes of the goddess Venus (Vienna, 1866-72). Gold, silver, diamonds, rubies. Alice and Louis Koch collection in the Swiss National Museum, Zurich. From The Power of Love by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Victorian shell cameo earrings c.1870, each cameo carved with a dove. The drops are separated from the tops by a brown diamond. Antique Animal Jewelry

Tortoise-shell comb with a bloomed and chased two-color gold mount, set with cabochon-cut rubies (passion) in the form of a spray of leaves and flowers surmounted by a bird (probably a dove, symbolizing love) mounted on a trembler spring. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pair of brooches, two-colour gold, bloomed and chased, set with turquoise (good luck and true love), in the form of oak leaves and twigs (strength, endurance, prosperity) surmounted by a bird mounted on a trembler spring. Converted to brooches from comb-mounts. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Holy Spirit, or The Saint Esprit

The dove also was, and still is, often associated with the Holy Spirit, or 'Saint Esprit'. To distinguish the dove as Holy Spirit, it was frequently depicted descending from heaven, pointing downwards with its wings wide. This type of dove was used to represent faith, hope, and religiously imbued love. The dove of the Holy Spirit was depicted widely in jewelry across the Western world.

Dove of the Holy Spirit pendant (France, mid-19th Century). Silver, brilliants, and glass. From Fauna - The Art of Jewelry by Patrick Mauries and Evelyne Posseme.

Pendant of the Saint Esprit (France, 19th Century). Silver, precious stone, and fine stone.

From the Musée de la Vie romantique

Dove of the Holy Spirit pendant (Rome, c. 1870). Gold and mosaic glass. From Fauna - The Art of Jewelry by Patrick Mauries and Evelyne Posseme.

Two examples of French designs depicting the 'Saint Esprit'. Left: Two-part pendant dove with an openwork branch in its beak, hanging from a stylized bow in an openwork surround and set with colorless pastes. Right: Two-part pendant dove, pavé-set with colorless stones, hanging from an openwork frame set with colorless stones, with a branch in its beak set with red, blue, and green pastes. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A French Saint Esprit necklace from the personal collection of @colonialdame

Portuguese Holy Spirit / Saint Esprit pendants (18th century). From the personal collection of @colonialdame

The dove continues to be an important symbol in jewelry and culture, and to this day its connotations of love, peace, and hope persist. However, by pairing the symbol of the dove with other important classical or religious symbols, and by carefully choosing the materials used, it's clear that Georgian and Victorian era dove jewelry meant much more than just these things. They had many layers of meaning and were coded with elaborate messages, making each antique piece personally meaningful.

To wrap up, here are some more of AAJ's pieces featuring doves:

For more rare Georgian and Victorian jewelry, follow Antique Animal Jewelry on Instagram.

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