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Antique Portuguese Jewelry: An Empire of Gold and Gems

Portugal is a country with a historically huge trade route, and in the 17th and 18th centuries they had access to much of the world's gold and gemstones. As a result, Portugal's antique jewelry is quite astonishing. Breathtaking in their elaborate designs and opulent decoration, they are perhaps more colorful and more gem-abundant than any other nation's jewelry from that time.


18th-century Portuguese chrysoberyl demi-parure

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



A selection of incredible 18th-century Portuguese jewels - silver with topaz, chrysolite, and rock crystal

From Peter Szuhay



A Portuguese Rococo diamond demi-parure, c.1750-60, consisting of a large girandole pendant and a pair of pendeloque earrings, altogether set with 259 diamonds in a body of solid silver. Typical of the mid-Rococo period, the cuts range from deep rose-cuts for larger central stones to flat mirror-cuts in the scrollwork surround, to two table-cuts - From @heartofhearts.jewels via Instagram



18th-century orange foiled topaz triple drop pendant and a pair of earrings en suite, Portuguese, c.1760. The pendant and earrings are formed by an openwork foliate scroll cartouche centered by a principal lozenge shaped cluster, with graduated pear-shaped drops hung below, close-set in silver

Via S.J. Phillips



A selection of stunning antique Portuguese jewels - silver with topaz, chrysolite, and rock crystal

From @colonialdame via Instagram



18th-century Portuguese topaz demi-parure

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



A suite of 6 multi-colored gemstone and diamond brooches. Two large and one smaller sprays, two flower baskets, and one bow set with topaz, amethyst, and diamonds. c.1760

Photo from Sotheby's via theadventurine.com





A Very Brief History of Portugal


To understand a little bit more about why certain styles and motifs were popular in antique Portuguese jewelry, it is helpful to consider some of Portugal's history. Portugal was once part of what was known as the Iberian Peninsula, along with Spain and parts of France. The Iberian Peninsula was a mix of different religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Muslim Caliphate of Cordoba dominated huge swathes of Iberia for hundreds of years while the kingdoms of the north were generally more Christian, though Christians and Jews were allowed to live in the Caliphate as part of a stratified society. The longstanding Islamic and Arabic influence on Iberian art, architecture, and design is evident in a lot of antique Iberian jewelry, even in pieces with Christian or Catholic motifs or symbols, and has played a significant role in shaping the character of Iberian jewelry.


A map of the Iberian Peninsula showing the Muslim Caliphate of Cordoba and the northern Christian Kingdoms, c.1000 - Via euratlas.net



By the 15th century, Catholicism had swept across Iberia, provoking wars and resulting in the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. Portugal and Spain became staunchly Catholic, and many reliquaries and jewelry featuring crosses and Catholic symbolism were created in abundance, though Moorish elements of design were still heavily present in these pieces.


Gold three-part openwork pendant ending in a cross. Each part is set with rose-cut diamonds in closed settings, Portugal, c.1650-1750. In the 17th century, new ways of cutting gems, particularly diamonds, led to a new style of jewelry throughout Europe, in which the gems themselves had greater prominence. This cross pendant, made from sheet gold cut in a delicate openwork pattern resembling filigree and set with facetted diamonds in raised settings, is typical of that trend.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Gold and antique diamond cut late 17th-century Portuguese necklace

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



Gold pendant with reliefs under glass. On the reverse, the Annunciation and on the obverse the Holy Family, made in Portugal, 1700-1750

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Ornate Portuguese gold cross, c.1821-1855

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



After a period of expansion to the south in Iberia, the Kingdom of Portugal began establishing a vast colonial empire overseas. For a while, Portugal had many trading posts and colonies in both Asia and Africa, but when the English, French, and Dutch challenged their presence in these places and claimed many of them for themselves, Portugal focused their energies on Brazil. In 1500, a navigator landed in Brazil and laid claim to it in the name of King Manuel I of Portugal. (By this time Iberia had pretty much become only two kingdoms - Portugal, and Spain - and with both intent on expansion and colonization they agreed on a treaty whereby the world was divided in two by the Tordesillas Meridian line. All land discovered East of that meridian was to be the property of Portugal, and everything to the west of it went to Spain.) After several years of warfare with the Dutch, Portugal took control of Brazil. It was this access to Brazil and its precious materials that would change the possibilities of Portuguese jewelry forever.


Maps of the Iberian Peninsula from the years 1200, 1400, and 1800 - Via euratlas.net


Gold


Throughout the 17th century in Portugal both gold and diamonds were scarce. In fact, they were so rare that the King of Portugal at the time, Peter II (a.k.a Dom Pedro II), issued a law restricting the wearing of jewelry to only 'persons of quality'. However, three years later a group of colonial Brazilian explorers known as Bandeirantes discovered a vast deposit of gold along the Rio das Velhas, then a Portuguese colony, now known as the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines). Crowds in Lisbon gathered to celebrate the arrival of 514 kilos of gold in 1699.


Greatly excited by what they had found, the Portuguese colonists rapidly built settlements near the gold regions in southeastern Brazil. By the 1720s, the world's first great gold rush had begun. In Lisbon, the Royal Family collected one-fifth of the gold mined in Brazil, raising them to a position of extreme wealth and prestige. By the 18th century, around 80% of Europe's gold originated in Brazil. Jewelry from this period often emphasized gold over gemstones, with hugely opulent and ornate gold openwork designs.


Late 17th-century rose-cut diamond and gold sequilé pendent - a term for a style of lozenge pendant with various mobile drops, usually in gold and diamonds, which became part of traditional Portuguese jewelry

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



Portuguese large gold brooch/pendant set with rose-cut diamonds, c.1680

From Peter Szuhay



A pendant or breast ornament of three parts composed of table-cut diamonds set in scrolling, gold foliated openwork, Iberia, late 17th century - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Rose diamond and gold matched pendant brooch, c.1720

Photo from Sotheby's via theadventurine.com



A pair of early 18th century Portuguese high-carat gold and diamond girandole earrings, c.1700-1730s. Characterized by its fine chiseled workmanship, foliate ornamentation, rose-cut diamonds set in conical rub-over settings, and triangular tips, jewelry of this type represented an age of lavishness and pomp in Portugal. With its emphasis of gold over gemstones, jewelry like this is indicative of the height of gold production in Portuguese history - From @heartofhearts.jewels via Instagram



Left: Late 17th century Portuguese diamond and gold earrings. Right: Portuguese gold and diamond earrings hallmarked reg. 1783 - From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



18th-century Iberian earrings and bodice ornament, in solid high karat gold and set with vivid Columbian emeralds. The ear wires of the pendants are original large forward catch hoops

From @heartofhearts.jewels via Instagram



Early 19th-century Portuguese gold earrings

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram





Rare Relics


Although there are many accounts of the impressiveness of Portuguese jewelry in the 17th and early 18th centuries, there are very few pieces from this time still around today. This is because, on November 1st, 1755, a massive earthquake struck Lisbon followed by a tsunami and a fire, resulting in the near-total destruction of the city. Much of the jewelry in the capital was destroyed, but some few pieces and pieces from surrounding Portugal have survived, alongside accounts and drawings.


"The spectacle was magnificent and as the Portuguese nobility have a great passion for gold, precious stones and flowers to ornament their hair, the ladies' balcony presented a sumptuous sight"

- A French traveler in Portugal, 1725



Left and middle: A large 18th-century Portuguese Rococo hair jewel, c.1760-70, bearing a multi-gem polychrome flowerhead design, with a large center of imperial topaz framed by twelve petals, each set with garnet and quartz of varying triangular, trapezoidal, and square table-cuts. Hairpins were extremely popular in Portugal even while the rest of Europe favored head coverings like caps and bonnets, since the jewels sparkled so magnificently in the beautiful dark hair of Portuguese women. Right: similar Portuguese hair jewels from A Joalharia em Portugal 1750-1825 by Gonçalo de Vasconcelos e Sousa (top left), The SJ Phillips Collection of Jewels of Portugal by Diana Scarisbrick (bottom left), and Five Centuries of Jewellery: National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon by Leonor d’Orey (right)

From @heartofhearts.jewels via Instagram



When Portugal was being rebuilt, jewelry was generally understood to be a central part of repairing the economy, and extra streets in Lisbon were exclusively given to goldsmiths and jewelers to practice their art. They would work on the streets and prospective buyers could wander between the sellers to assess the pieces, bringing the jewelry trade back to life in Portugal.




Silver & Gemstones


Silver


Ironically, because of the huge rush for gold in Brazil in the 1720s and 30s, the gold deposits were significantly depleted after 1740 and the Portuguese had to turn to other materials for their jewelry. This means that a great deal of the Portuguese jewelry made after 1750, except for some rings, used silver instead of gold. Many of the emerging gemstone-set Portuguese pieces were therefore modeled in silver.


Pendant of rose-cut diamonds and pink foiled topazes set in silver, in two parts, made in Portugal, c.1750

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Diamonds


This discovery of gold in Brazil pre-dated the discovery of diamonds, for which mining would not begin until 1723. But begin it did, and soon Portugal had access to what would become known as the largest diamond source in the world. Before this, almost all of the world's diamonds came from India and a smaller quantity from Borneo. For comparison, Indian production was thought at this time to be around a few thousand carats a year, while yearly production in Brazil in the 1700s reached almost ten times that.


In Portuguese jewelry, this new influx of diamonds is evident from the change in jewelry from artistic and highly skilled metalwork in gold or silver to pieces completely encrusted in Brazilian diamonds and other Brazilian gemstones. Floral as well as sacred motifs were popular tastes of the time.


18th-century diamond girandole earrings fit for a Queen. Portuguese silver earrings lavishly set with rose-cut diamonds in a floral design. From the collection of Américo Barreto, the internationally famous 20th-century Portuguese jewelry collector and dealer. These earrings employ a design favored by European courts, where the central bow has been replaced by a bouquet

From Inez Stodel Antique Jewellery



Antique Portuguese diamond, silver, and gold earrings, one c.1888-1938, the other early 19th century

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



Two pairs of 18th/19th-century Portuguese diamond cornucopia earrings ( 1 | 2 )

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



Rose-cut diamond, silver, and gold earrings from the first half of the 19th century

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



Pendant of diamond sparks and rubies set in gold and silver openwork; a bow applied to the front of the suspension loop, probably Portugal, 18th century

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Mid-18th century Portuguese demi-parure in gold and silver set with rose-cut diamonds

Photo: Carlos Pombo Monteiro © Arquidiocese de Evora / Fundacao Eugenio de Almeida via www.ruigalopim.com





Chrysoberyl & Topaz


Of all the colored gemstones, perhaps the most iconically associated with Portuguese jewelry of the 18th and 19th centuries are Chrysoberyl and Topaz. These gemstones were very rare and highly prized throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras across Europe, but Portugal had convenient access to them in impressively large quantities from the Minas Gerais mines in Brazil, so of course, they showed this off by coating jewelry in them. In the capital, gemstones were set in the latest artistic trends from Europe.


Pair of earrings set with chrysoberyls in silver openwork, with bow tops and long drops, probably Portugal, late 18th century - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Iberian 18th century chrysolite openwork cluster drop earrings, c.1770 & c.1780

Via S.J. Phillips



18th-century Portuguese chrysoberyl earrings ( 1 | 2 )

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



18th-century Chrysoberyl girandole earrings

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



18th-century chrysoberyl earrings and necklace

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



Late 18th-century Portuguese earrings, set with natural chrysoberyls in a flower cluster formation, all within foiled closed-back silver settings. According to Daniela Mascetti in her book, Earrings: From Antiquity to the Present, rounded loops at the tip of ear wires was a common feature in 18th-century earrings, which served a duo function of preventing the earrings from tipping forward when worn (thus preserving a “straight” hang), and, in the case of heavy pendeloque and girandoles, allowing the wearer to tie a ribbon to the loops and over the head to ease the weight on the earlobes

From @heartofhearts.jewels via Instagram



Brooch, chrysoberyls set in silver openwork in the form of a bouquet, probably Portugal, late 18th century

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



18th-century Portuguese chrysolite spray brooch

Via S.J. Phillips



An aigrette of chrysoberyls set in silver, in the form of a spray with a single flower and feathered scrolling stem, Portugal, c.1750-1760 - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Three 18th-century Portuguese pendants - silver set with chrysolite, all c.1760

From Peter Szuhay



Bodice ornament and earrings, chrysoberyls set in silver, with stylized flowers and leaves, and five pendants, made in Portugal, c.1760

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Demi-parure. Gold, silver, and close-set chrysoberyls, Portugal, last quarter 18th century

From the S.J Phillips collection via Bejeweled Mag



18th-century chrysoberyl necklace

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



Two Portuguese chrysoberyl necklaces, both 18th century ( 1 | 2 )

From @antique_portuguese_jewelry via Instagram



18th-century chrysolite flower and bow pendant necklace, Portuguese c.1770. Openwork design centered by a principal triple looped ribbon tied bow, each loop centered by a flower and stem, suspending a smaller ribbon bow and pear-shaped flowerhead below, on a necklace alternating stylized bows and marquise clusters, close-set in silver with shaped loop terminals to fit a ribbon back

Via S.J. Phillips



Jewel of chrysoberyls set in silver openwork with a flower spray in the center. Made as a brooch or hairpin, probably in Portugal, c.1770-80