How to Date your Georgian-Era Jewelry: Part 2
A 'Bague au Firmament' or possibly a 'Bague a L'enfantament' ring, probably English. 18ct gold with blue guilloche enamel and a white border, set with a variety of diamond cuts: a central rose-cut pear, some old-cuts and cushion-cuts; all in pinched cut down silver settings
Following on from last week's blog, which covered the early 18th century, this week's blog looks at the later Georgian period from 1770 to 1837. This period encompasses great changes across Europe: monarchy toppled, revolution, and the dawn of a new Empire in France; in Britain the rule of mad King George III, George IV, and his brother William IV, as well as the emergence of 'The Whigs' (an exclusive political group of Britain's wealthiest families with members like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lord Byron). For the rich and noble, it was an uncertain time of gambling, loose-living, drinking, and wit - with the latest fashions and jewelry always on display. The events that marked this era and the subsequent shifts in style can be very useful in dating jewelry. Through this week's blog, we hope to offer a guide by which you can roughly date your later Georgian pieces.
The Crowning of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
The rule of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette is characterized by extravagance, excessiveness, and expense; but despite the unpopularity of their frivolous money-spending reign at a time when so much of France was in poverty, they were undeniable trendsetters and fashion icons amongst the wealthy upper classes. Diamonds and pearls were particularly popular, as these were Marie Antoinette's favorite things to wear.
Both the King and Queen established and shaped what is known as Louis XVI style, an early French neoclassicism inspired by the archaeological excavations underway at Herculaneum and Pompeii, with a focus on natural floral motifs from antiquity, alongside baroque and rococo motifs like bows which enjoyed continued popularity.
Marie Antoinette's Bourbon-Parma family pieces up for auction at Sotheby's
Bagues au Firmament
The late 18th century was a time of great astronomical discoveries. Halley's comet passed over in 1758, and new planets and asteroids were being discovered all the time. As a result, people's thoughts and eyes were often turned to the stars. After Marie Antoinette was crowned Queen, she popularized a certain kind of ring called a 'Bague au Firmament' (ring of the heavens). They were particularly popular around 1778 when they were worn to mark and celebrate her first long-awaited pregnancy. In 1781, her pregnancy with a second child was marked by 'Bagues a L'enfantement', which were similar but centered on a large diamond.
French Bague au Firmament, late 18th-century. blue enamel with a border of diamonds set in silver
Left: Bague au Firmament with a border of diamonds. Right: likely a Bague a L'enfantament in royal blue enamel set with a central rose-cut diamond in a galaxy of diamond stars, within a pearl surround, c.1781
Queen Marie Antoinette of France and two of her Children Walking in The Park of Trianon
Portrait by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, 1785, via Nationalmuseum Stockholm, Sweden
From mocking red ribbon chokers worn by the English nobility to French guillotine earrings to rings depicting the martyrs of the Revolution: Marat, Le Pelletier, Chalier, Barra, and Viala - there is a wide range of jewelry associated with the years of the French revolution.
This particularly grizzly pair of guillotine earrings commemorates the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during France’s Reign of Terror. From each guillotine hangs a monarch's head, c.1793
The two portraits stamped on the hoop of this silver ring commemorate the revolutionary martyrs Jean-Paul Marat (1743–93) and Louis-Michel Lepeletier de St Fargeau (1760–93), c.1793
Another kind of French Revolution jewelry is 'poissarde' earrings, worn c.1790-1810 by the fishwives of Paris who played a significant role in the Revolution. Poissarde earrings are usually hoops of elongated geometrical design, often set with gemstones, and with a typical S-shaped fish-hook style ear wire that crosses over and threads through the ear back to front.
Georgian flat-cut garnet hoop poissarde earrings with quality stones, clasp, twist, and settings, c.1790-1810
Antique Animal Jewelry
Lover's Eyes / Eye Miniatures
Lover's Eyes or Eye Miniatures were particularly fashionable between 1790 and the 1820s. It is a fad believed to have been started by George IV while he was still Prince of Wales, during his courtship of the widow Maria Fitzherbert. Supposedly, he sent her a miniature portrait of his eye alongside a marriage proposal (they were briefly though invalidly married in 1785 before the King made them separate), and she sent one in return which the Prince of Wales wore hidden under his lapel. The significance of the piece was in its attempt to capture in the painting the eye as 'window of the soul' - the very essence of a person and their most intimate thoughts and feelings. The sentimental fashion soon spread from England to France and Russia, with the additional developments of 'Lover's Lips' and mourning eyes.
A gold pendant, c.1820, containing a watercolor-on-ivory miniature of a female eye with brown iris and brown curl. The eye is set amidst clouds, symbolic of mourning.
Rowan and Rowan, via Pinterest
A Georgian eye miniature brooch, c.1820. The high carat gold brooch encloses a watercolor miniature of a male eye with blue iris in clouds, symbolic of mourning, surmounted by a pearl coronet which denotes the eye to be that of a viscount - Rowan and Rowan
A gold pendant c.1790, set with a watercolor miniature depiction of a woman's lips and nose, the remainder of her face hidden behind blue clouds. On the reverse, a lock of brown hair under crystal
Having supported the French revolution via the French army, Napoleon Bonaparte became a rising military figure. After a successful military campaign against the Austrians, in 1798 he led a military expedition to Egypt. Though the campaign ended in defeat, it granted Napoleon an enormous amount of political prestige and admiration, and a great many discoveries were made along the way, including that of the Rosetta Stone which helped create the field of Egyptology. News spread and Napoleon's discoveries captured the imaginations of the people, bringing Egyptian motifs into Georgian-era jewelry in what is known as a period of 'Egyptian revival'. This included motifs of sphinxes, pyramids, palmettes, and papyrus leaves. The desire for Egyptian-themed jewels was stoked further by later expeditions and the construction of the Suez canal, giving the fashion various peaks of popularity until well into the 1900s.
French Empirical Neoclassicism
In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte and Joséphine de Beauharnais were corinated together as Emperor and Empress of France. Jewelry was very important to Napoleon, who wanted to restore Paris to its previous position pre-revolution as the center of European fashion, but it was important to distinguish their reigning style from that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who had been beheaded for theirs.
As a result, Napoleon and Joséphine's jewelry took on a new, neoclassical style that looked back to Greek and Roman antiquity and evoked the days of the Roman empire. Ancient symbols such as laurels and oak leaves were featured in many pieces, and cameos saw a huge peak in popularity. Joséphine also brought the tiara firmly back into fashion, as an emblem of power and sovereignty, as well as the hair comb, jeweled parures, and motifs of ears of wheat. Empress Marie Louise continued to make all of these styles popular in her reign after Joséphine and Napoleon's divorce, commissioning 150 stalks of wheat (symbolizing fertility) to adorn her gown and hair as part of the Crown Jewels.
A fragment of 'The Coronation of the Emperor Napoléon I and Coronation of Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame de Paris, 2 December 1804' by Jacques-Louis David. Joséphine kneels to receive a crown from the hands of her husband, who is Emperor. Earlier sketches by David depict Napoleon crowning himself.
A painting of Empress Joséphine wearing an Emerald parure and a reproduction of that set (tiara, earrings, necklace, two bracelets). These jewels were commissioned by the Malmaison museum at the Maison Privilège Orfèvrerie. ©RMN
A Neo-classical parure and other cameo pieces. The cameos (mostly Roman, 100 BC -200 AD, with some 18th-century stones probably carved in Italy) are said to have been given to Empress Joséphine by Napoleon’s sister Caroline Murat, Queen Consort of Naples
Ears of wheat tiara where each ear can be detached to be worn as a brooch or hair ornament. Made by Nitot, c.1810. Nitot (Chaumet) was Empress Joséphine's favorite jeweler and continued to make jewelry for Empress Marie Louise after her. This tiara resembles both Joséphine's coronation crown and the ears of wheat commissioned by Marie Louise for the crown jewels.
The new classical style spread across central Europe (much of which was occupied by France), with the occupied German Kingdoms leaning towards a more Hellenic image than Napoleon I's Roman one, as it was simpler and less costly. The beautiful Prussian Queen Louise (wife of Frederick William III) was amongst the most influential trendsetters of this neoclassical Prussian-Greek style.
Portrait of Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia, by Josef Grassi, 1802
Acrostic jewelry is kind of jewelry that sets gemstones in a particular order to spell out a message or a word using the first letters of each gemstone. It was said to be the invention of Jean-Baptiste Mellerio (1765-1850), a favorite jewelry designer of Marie Antoinette who created a ring spelling J'ADORE. Acrostic jewelry was popularized more widely however by Napoleon's love for it and the acrostic jewelry he commissioned from Nitot (Chaumet) during his reign as Emperor.
Acrostic bracelets commissioned by Napoleon for Empress Joséphine. They spell 'Hortense' and 'Eugene', the names of Josephine's two children from her first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais and Napoelon's step-children. Photo via Chaumet
These three bracelets memorialize Napoleon’s birthday, Marie Louise’s birthday, and their courtship, spelling out their names and birth dates on the first two bracelets, with the third bracelet showing the date of Napoleon and Marie Louise's first meeting in Compiègne and the date of their wedding in Paris
Although Berlin iron was made as early as the 1790s, it did not become fashionable to use in jewelry until around 1813, when Prussia went to war with France during the Wars of Liberation. Severely lacking in money after paying so much to the French occupation, the Prussian Royal family asked the aristocracy and upper classes to donate their precious jewelry to help fund the war. In return, those who contributed were given iron jewelry (an inexpensive replacement) for their loyalty, many of which were inscribed with the phrase, 'Gold gab ich für Eisen' (I gave gold for iron), or 'Für das Wohl des Vaterlands' (For the welfare of our country/ the fatherlands). Some of these are dated 1813 and show a portrait of the Prussian king at the time, Frederick William III.
Left: Wedding ring inscribed 'I gave gold for iron', Berlin, 1813 Museum of the City of Dortmund, via Wikipedia. Right: an iron cross depicting the head of Frederick William III of Prussia, inscribed on the back 'Unvergeslich 1813' (unforgettable 1813), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The fashion soon kicked off across Europe, and increasingly elaborate Berlin Iron jewelry or 'Fer de Berlin' was made. Early pieces are often neoclassical in style, while from the mid-1820s pieces begin to feature more Neo-Gothic/Gothic revival motifs like trefoils and pointed arches like those of Gothic cathedrals.
Bracelet of openwork cast 'Berlin' ironwork with five classical figures in medallions, Berlin, c.1820.
Necklace, iron, with classical figures in silhouette, with vine and acanthus decoration, Germany, c. 1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A Neo-Gothic Berlin Ironwork Suite designed as a series of trefoil and quatrefoil links decorated with floral and acanthus leaf motifs, accompanied by two bracelets, an additional bracelet link, and a pair of earrings en suite, c.1830, by Johan Conrad Geiss. Via Bonhams.
Micromosaic jewelry was a particular specialty of Rome. It was a painstaking art form involving the careful application of hundreds or even thousands of tiny pieces to create miniature mosaic pieces of jewelry. They became particularly popular after the collapse of Napoleon's Empire in 1815, as travel abroad was finally safe again and many British and American tourists flocked to Europe's cultural capitals on what was known as the 'Grand Tour'.
A brooch with silver-gilt filigree resembling spiraled string, set with an octagonal Roman micromosaic of a bird on a branch, possibly a pheasant, composed of minute tesserae, c.1820-30
Cannetille metalwork - an intricate kind of wirework similar to filigree - became popular across Europe in the 1820s and 30s. Following the Napoleonic wars, there was a 'gold poverty' that meant precious metals were extremely scarce on the European continent, and the economy was struggling. Cannetille jewelry used a small amount of gold compared to other techniques, achieving impressively intricate designs with only a few entwined wires, which kept costs down. Just as quickly as cannetille came into fashion, it went - disappearing shortly after the height of its popularity in 1830.
Necklace with pendant, gold filigree with cannetille and grainti decoration, set with amethysts and pearls, France, c.1820-30 - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Pink Topaz & Chrysoberyl Cannetille Gold Cross c.1830
There are some examples of Halley's comet jewelry predating 1835, but when Halley's comet came racing through the sky in 1759, receiving its name, only those familiar with Sir Edmund Halley's work knew what it was and looked out for it. In 1835, however, the people were ready for the comet's passing, and there were many jewels made specifically to commemorate its appearance in the night sky.
The earliest examples of comet jewelry often used diamonds, emeralds, and high-carat, highly detailed goldwork. Soon afterward, this shifted to also include foil-backed paste, rock crystals, and gems like amethyst, garnet, and turquoise, meaning more people - not just the upper-classes - could get their hands on these celestial jewels. You may also find some pieces that were made to mark events such as births, betrothals, weddings, or deaths that occurred during the comet's passing.
A collection of early-mid 19th century Halley's comet brooches set with vari-coloured pastes and vari-cut gemstones, some with chased detail, some inscribed to the reverse or decorated with black enamel, including two memorial brooches inlaid with hair, mounted in silver and gold