Acrostic Jewelry: The Language of Stones
If only stones could speak - they might reveal all sorts of interesting ideas and secrets of sentiment to those listening... Well, from the Georgian era through to their peak of popularity in the Victorian era, Acrostic Jewelry was a way to do exactly that - make stones speak. It was called the 'Language of Stones'. By combining gemstones in a particular order, acrostic jewelry could spell out messages or words using the first letter of each gemstone. Imagine that - coded words, messages, and declarations of love, that were embedded in gemstones and carried close by the wearer; a precious secret.
This ring spells 'DEAREST' with the central Diamond surrounded by Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and Topaz. Via iletaitunefoislebijou.fr
The History of Acrostic Jewelry
Acrostic jewelry is said to have been the invention of Jean-Baptiste Mellerio (1765-1850), a favorite jewelry designer of Marie Antoinette and the French court of the 18th century. Acrostic jewelry was created as a way of relaying sentiments of love or affection, as well as commemorating important dates. It is said that Mellerio started the idea with a ring, across which was spelled 'J ’ADORE', meaning 'I love' in French. J'ADORE was spelled using Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby, and Emerald, with one of each gem set in that order on one ring. The idea of acrostic jewelry was a beloved one, and it soon captured the interest of Empress Josephine and Napoleon Boneparte.
In an age where romanticism and jewelry were very popular, these sparkling love letters caught on very quickly, spreading across France and soon crossing the English Channel. Despite the ongoing Napoleonic wars between Britain and France, many pieces of acrostic jewelry in England spelled French words or used the French names of the stones (which were luckily mostly the same as the English names). For the educated and wealthy in England, French was still used as a primary language, and of course, was associated with romance as the 'language of love'.
Acrostic jewelry gained increasing popularity in Georgian England and reached its height during the Victorian era (1837-1901). You might notice that many Georgian pieces were more obviously love tokens, in the shape of love knots, padlocks with keys, or hearts, as an open declaration. while Victorian pieces are tended to be subtler and more secretively coded.
Heart locket; the first letter of each stone spells out a secret acrostic message: REGARD. The goldwork to the front is exceptional, with applied oak leaf details to the center, and intricate scrolls and granulation around the border. To the reverse is a heart-shaped glass locket compartment. Modeled in 15k gold throughout, c.1815. Via Butter Lane Antiques
Left: Forget-me-not gold cannetille padlock with gems spelling out REGARD, c.1820. Right: Acrostic gold double-sided cannetille locket spelling out REGARD on one side and DEAREST on the other, c.1820.
Pendant locket, two-colour gold set with precious stones spelling out the word 'REGARD' around a forget-me-not of five turquoises, England, about 1830. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A locket spelling out REGARD in gemstones, set with turquoise and gold on the front. The message of love intended by this jewel is expressed in its heart shape and through the padlock and key, suggesting the sentiment, ‘you have the key to my heart’. This is reinforced by the message of the stones. The pendant opens to reveal a panel of woven hair under glass, c.1840.
Georgian acrostic REGARD pendant with tricolor gold grapevine embellishments, symbolic of Christianity. The reverse features four turquoise cabochons with cannetille decorations.
Via @parkavenueantiques on Instagram
The Victorians embraced sentimentality, and were renowned for their love of symbols and hidden meanings in jewelry; from the language of flowers and stones to scenes and elements from antiquity and the symbology of animals. Given the strict system of rules surrounding courting in Victorian times - such as having to visit a woman for the first time in the presence of the whole family with the permission of the parents, and the dance-like game that followed of leaving calling cards, attending dinners and balls, and being chaperoned for private conversations - it is no wonder then that the Victorians loved the idea of secret messages or notes that could be passed to those they were courting through the gift of jewelry.
Acrostic jewelry was therefore hugely fashionable as a new and exciting linguistic puzzle amongst those who could afford it, what with all the precious gems it required. The most popular pieces of acrostic jewelry were rings, but other pieces such as bracelets, brooches, and lockets were also given.
The Language of Stones
In the age of acrostic jewelry, there was a gemstone that could be used for almost every letter of the alphabet, so that the jewelry could spell out anything from a handful of commonly used terms of endearments to names, nicknames, mottos, events, or even dates.
This is an A-Z we have constructed from several other A-Zs existing online, documenting the stones that were or might have been used at the time, many of which are translated from French lists
As you can see, stones did not really exist for the letters 'F', 'K', 'Q', 'Y', and 'Z'. Letters like 'Z' were not commonly used in acrostic jewelry, so this was fine, and letters like 'K' did not really exist or were very rarely used in the French alphabet at the time. In France, it was not considered acceptable to use the color of a stone as part of its acrostic association, but English jewelers were not so strict. In England, 'F' was often created by using 'fire opal' while 'W' could be achieved with a white stone and 'Y' with a yellow zircon or yellow garnet. In England, quartz was also commonly used for 'Q', when needed. Modern makers of acrostic jewelry use zircon in the rare instances that a “Z” is needed.
There are, however, many pieces of acrostic jewelry that no-one has yet managed to decipher. This can be because the pieces are written in another language, because some stones were known by other names (as with Garnet also being known as Vermeil at that time), or because missing gems have been replaced or some gems have become discolored. These pieces hold their secrets still, centuries after their making.
Common Acrostic words
In Georgian jewelry in particular, the following words are considered to be the most commonly found:
The most common word in English acrostic jewelry, by far, is the word 'Regard'. This is so much the case that acrostic jewelry is also often known as 'Regard Jewelry'. At the time it was being used, the word 'regard' was a much more romantic sentiment than it might sound. 'Regard' was used to imply, 'I hold you in the highest regard', which might be equated to something like 'I revere you', 'I cherish you', or 'I greatly admire you' today. REGARD was most frequently spelled out using one of each of the following: Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby, Diamond.
Georgian Love Knot brooch decorated with florette appliques and delicate hand-chased details. Six hand-cut paste stones set in open back colette spell out REGARD. Via The Hidden Chamber Georgian & Victorian Jewelry
18th-century acrostic REGARD basket brooch which can also be worn as a pendant
From Spare Room Antiques
Witches Heart pendant modeled in 9k gold with a border of pearls and a locket compartment in the middle. Acrostic gemstones are set above, spelling out REGARD, c.1815.
Via @_butterlaneantiques on Instagram
Georgian REGARD ring made from pastes to mimic the appropriate gemstones Antique Animal Jewelry
Late Georgian cannetille REGARD acrostic ring of finely-worked 15k gold, featuring cramp settings flanked by coiled filigree and granulation, the shank of inter-woven braided filigree, c.1820s.
Via @heartofhearts.jewels on Instagram
Late Georgian REGARD acrostic ring c.1820 from Le Grand Frisson: Bijoux de Sentiment de la Renaissance a Nos Jours by Diana Scarisbrick, p.300-301
An early Victorian REGARD ring in the shape of a floral cluster with the gemstones set to a gold shank with floral shoulders, c.1840. Not all acrostic jewelry was spelled linearly. In this case, REGARD is spelled starting with the Ruby on the top left, moving anti-clockwise through Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby, and then moving to the Diamond in the center.
Antique acrostic ring spelling REGARD in gemstones Antique Animal Jewelry
Victorian-era acrostic ring spelling REGARD in gemstones, Antique 10ct Gold. Via Ruby Lane
A Victorian-era ring set with six colorful gemstones of varying shapes and sizes, spelling the word REGARD. 15ct yellow gold hallmarked and dated Birmingham, 1868. Via laurelleantiquejewellery.com
A late Victorian 15ct gold REGARD locket brooch. The locket conceals a panel for notes, a lock of hair, or something else personal. Via inspiredantiquity.com
Victorian-era 15k two-color gold purse-form locket spelling out the word, REGARD.
Via @alavieillerussie on Instagram
Another word often found in British acrostic jewelry is 'dearest', which was usually spelled with one of each of the following: Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and either a Turquoise or a Topaz. Because the word was longer and used more precious gems, 'dearest' jewelry was likely a more expensive gift to a loved one than other acrostic jewelry might have been.
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 (all strong love symbols). The branch is set with gemstones whose initials spell DEAREST in Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and Turquoise. There is a hair compartment in the reverse of the bird, c.1830.
Late Georgian DEAREST acrostic ring c.1820 from Le Grand Frisson: Bijoux de Sentiment de la Renaissance a Nos Jours by Diana Scarisbrick, p.300-301
DEAREST acrostic ring spelled left to right, ending in Turquoise Via iletaitunefoislebijou.fr
DEAREST acrostic ring Antique Animal Jewelry
Mid-Victorian acrostic ring is set with stones that spell out the romantic sentiment DEAREST, starting with the Diamond in the middle, then up to the Emerald above it, continuing anti-clockwise through Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and Topaz. Modeled in 12k gold, hallmarked 1873. Via 1stdibs.co.uk
Traditional Victorian DEAREST ring with gemstones set in the shape of a flower, delicately crafted in yellow gold, with fine detailing on the shoulders. The stones are Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and Turquoise. Via @audreyandwolf_antiques on Instagram
An Edwardian 18ct gold mounted DEAREST ring with rope-twist borders, collet-set with circular-cut gemstones, right to left: Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and Topaz. Via Lyon & Turnbull
Supposedly, the very first acrostic ring spelled the French 'J ’ADORE', so it is perhaps unsurprising that there are quite a few acrostic rings spelling ADORE dating from the Georgian and Victorian eras. ADORE was a word that could be used in both French and English, and is most commonly spelled using the gemstones: Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby, and Emerald.
An ADORE ring spelled in Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby, and Emerald, c.1830.
Via @gembreakfast on Instagram
Victorian acrostic ADORE ring. All gemstones are round and prong-set in an elaborate channel that has a border reminiscent of a castle. Bright 18K yellow gold and hallmark inside 18CT, likely made in England. Via Gray and Davis
Victorian-era acrostic ring with the word 'ADORE' spelled in Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby and Emerald, set in 18ct Yellow Gold. Via @lancastrianjewellers on Instagram
SOUVENIR, AMITIE & AMOUR
It is thought that SOUVENIR (memory or remembrance), AMITIE (friendship), and AMOUR (love) were the most common words found on French pieces of acrostic jewelry and that many such pieces also found their way into British fashion. Though there are not as many examples of these existing today, they were usually spelled as follows:
SOUVENIR: Sapphire/Sardonyx, Opal/Onyx, Uranite, Vermeil, Emerald, Natrolite, Iris, and Ruby
AMITIE: Amethyst, Malachite, Iris, Turquoise/Topaz, Iris, Emerald
AMOUR: Amethyst, Malachite, Opal, Uranite, and Ruby
Georgian acrostic locket modeled as a purse in three-tone gold and decorated with applied flowers. It is set with stones to spell out the word SOUVENIR: Sapphire, Opal, Uranite, Vermeil, Emerald, Natrolite, Iris, Ruby. It opens up to reveal a locket compartment for storage of a memento or keepsake, c.1810.
Bracelet set with gemstones to spell out the French word SOUVENIR, meaning 'remember' or 'memory', c.1860. Photo from S. J. Phillips Limited via 4cs.gia.edu
LOVE & OTHER WORDS
Instead of the word AMOUR, English pieces would sometimes spell out the word LOVE. This was usually done using Lapis lazuli, Opal, Vermeil, and Emerald.
Gold acrostic LOVE pendant set with: Lapis lazuli, glass in an imitation of Opal, Vermeil (the old name for Garnet), and Emerald, c.1830. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Other words such as FOREVER, BELOVED, DARLING, PET, and DEAR were rarer but were also used.
A Georgian heart locket spelling DEAR in Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, and Ruby. Via @luckandlockets on Instagram
Acrostic jewelry was also used to spell-out names, to commemorate special dates like birthdays and anniversaries, as well as for sharing personal and private messages. However, longer words meant more money had to be spent on the item, so a gentleman might have found himself hoping to fall in love with someone with a short name, or at the very least, a usable nickname!
NOTABLE PERSONAL ACROSTIC PIECES
Napoleon Bonapart was enchanted by the fashion of acrostic jewelry and is known to have had several pieces commissioned during his reign, many of which were created by famous French jewelry house Chaumet (known as Nitot at that time). Of the pieces he commissioned, the most well known are the bracelets he gifted to Empress Joséphine, encoded with the names of her children, and the bracelets he had made for Empress Marie-Louise, commemorating both her and himself and several dates significant to their relationship.
Sentimental jewels made by Nitot at the request of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for Empress Josephine. These acrostic bracelets combine colored stones to spell 'Hortense' and 'Eugene'. These are the names of Josephine's two children from her first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais. These pieces also feature in our blog post on Empress Josephine: Her Story in Jewels.
Photo via Chaumet.
These three bracelets memorialize Napoleon’s birthday, Marie Louise’s birthday, and their courtship.
Top: 'Napoleon 15 Aôut 1769' spelled from right to left in Natrolite, Amethyst, Peridot, Opal, Lapis, Emerald, Onyx, Natrolite, , Agate, Opal, Uranite, and Turquoise.
Middle: 'Marie Louise 12 Decembre 1791' spelled from left to right in Malachite, Amethyst, Ruby, Iris, Emerald, Lapis, Opal, Uranite, Iolite, Sapphire, Emerald, , Diamond, Emerald, Chrysoprase, Emerald, Malachite, Beryl, Ruby, Emerald, .
Bottom: '27 Mars 1810, 2 Avril 1810' (The date of Napoleon and Marie Louise's first meeting in Compiègne, and the date of their wedding in Paris) spelled out from left to right: , Malachite, Amethyst, Ruby, Serpentine, , , Amethyst, Vermeil (?), Ruby, Iris, Limestone, .
These are written-out visually below:
Image via iletaitunefoislebijou.fr
An acrostic bracelet made by Nitot in 1806. The meaning was lost when several missing stones were replaced without regard for the original code. Henri Vever however believes he has decoded it, noting that some stones, like the quartz, had become blackened through irradiation by being placed next to uranite making it harder to identify. The bracelet reads, "Napoleon 3 Juin 1806 à Lucques," a gift from Napoleon commemorating the birth of his niece. Napoleon's sister Elisa was made Princess of Lucques after he conquered Lucca, Italy (called Lucques in French) in 1805. She had been hoping for a boy to give the name of Napoleon but instead gave birth to a daughter on 3 June 1806. She decided to give her the name Napoleon anyway. Hence 'Napoleon' is the name on the bracelet.