• Antique Animal Jewelry

Bird Symbolism In Jewelry: Doves

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.