Bird Symbolism In Jewelry: Other than the Dove
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).
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
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.
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.