Dating Snake Jewelry: The Changing Faces of Antique Snakes
You may have seen our previous blogs on snakes and how to date your jewelry, but this week's blog offers a slightly different perspective in the meeting of the two subjects - providing a guide on how to date your antique snake jewelry according to how snake faces have changed from the early Georgian to the late Victorian period. There is also a section on spotting fakes and distinguishing between modern and antique snake jewelry.
c.1845, a gold, turquoise, ruby, and diamond necklace.
18th Century & Early 19th Century Snakes
Generally speaking, snakes mostly feature in Georgian jewelry as mourning pieces, especially in ouroboros form, as a symbol for the eternal soul. Early examples feature more classical depictions of snakes from mythology, while later Georgian era examples generally speaking were depicted in profile, with open mouths and etched detailing on the faces, often in gold.
An 18th-century agate cameo of Medusa in a gold frame with diamonds and emeralds. These snakes are classical snakes with forked tongues. - From Peter Szuhay via Instagram.
It's important to note that many Georgian snakes may not initially look like snakes to modern-day collectors. At that time, it was very unlikely that your average Georgian jeweler had seen an actual snake, so most depictions were derived from stories and mythology, including depictions of giant sea serpents and dragons, which is why some of the faces appear beaked. The Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London housed over a hundred rattlesnakes in 1828, and the first reptile house at the Zoological Gardens didn't open until June 1849.
#1 is a depiction of an Ouroboros from 1682, #3 is an illustration of a winged snake representing the world spirit from 1760, #4 is a depiction of the serpent Moses crucified also from 1760. All from Alchemy & Mysticism by Alexander Roob
18th-century antique French ouroboros earrings, the 18-carat gold embossed with scales, the eyes set with garnets - Antique Animal Jewelry
c.1795, bracelet with a miniature of Caroline Felicitas (1734-1810), Princess of Nassau-Usingen (great-grandmother of Queen Mary, wife of George V). The miniature is set in a gold bracelet with a blue enameled ouroboros frame. - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
c.1800, Georgian ouroboros opening rings that reveal hidden messages or souvenirs like hair.
c.1800, a gold mourning brooch with a frame in the form of a serpent (ouroboros, though it's not quite devouring its tail here) set with seed pearls and a ruby enclosing a glass-fronted locket for hair, England, ca.1800. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
c.1810, a gold and enamel mourning ring for Princess Amelia. The oval bezel is bordered by an ouroboros and enameled with a coronet and monogram 'A' with the words: 'REMEMBER ME'. The enameled white inscription around the ring reads: 'Princess. AMELIA. DIED. 2. NOV. 1810. AGED. 27.'
c.1817, mourning ring mounted with a glazed oval miniature of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817) within a frame of a gold ouroboros with a diamond eye, the band enameled in black and white with a mourning inscription 'IN MEMORY OF PRINCESS CHARLOTTE 1817'. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
19th-century Neoclassical cast rings that copy Roman snake rings.
c.1800-1830, a gold ring with a single serpent with three coils, the eyes set with rubies, England. Said to have been a favorite ring of King George IV who is perhaps wearing it in a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence in the Wallace Collection. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
1810 - Black Enamel Crosshatching
Crosshatched black enamel scales on antique snakes were characteristic in ouroboros jewelry from 1810-15, with some later pieces inspired by this style dating up to around the 1840s and the beginning of the Victorian era.
c.1810, a Georgian ouroboros snake mourning ring. Inscribed 'Sarah Lane ob 27 Mar 1810 at 60'. The ouroboros is boldly crosshatched with black enamel inlay, and lies around a foiled and collet-set central garnet. - From Heart of Hearts Jewels
c.1811, a gold mourning ring enameled in black, white, red, and blue. The oval bezel with the Union flag is surrounded by a crosshatched ouroboros serpent. Inscribed behind 'Captn. James Newman Newman lost off the Haak in the Hero 74. Dec. 24, 1811, aged 46.', England.
c.1813, a mourning ring for Princess Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick. The ring is gold, enameled in black, inscribed in gold letters, 'Died/ 23 March,/ 1813./ aged 76'. The bezel depicts a princely coronet above a monogram A in enamel, with a relief serpent border set with a small rose-cut diamond eye.
c.1827-30, a stunning gold swivel ouroboros memorial ring, the bezel containing miniature gold medallion under glass with relief head of Frederick Duke of York, framed by a black cross-hatched enamel ouroboros with a red enamel eye; shoulders with foliate ornament in relief. © The Trustees of the British Museum
c.1827, another crosshatched, ouroboros-framed depiction of Frederick Duke of York (George IV’s younger brother). This is a memorial piece following the death of the Duke in 1827, featuring an onyx cameo with the use of the Idar staining technique. - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
c.1835, a Georgian ouroboros crosshatched enamel snake mourning pendant, shown here on a snake link chain, with enamel detailed central panel with urn design in gold and cream surrounded by a border of pearls. The back has a hair panel locket and inscription ‘Eliz Challen died 21 May 1835 aet 25’.
Dated c.1837 though the ring may have been made earlier and later inscribed. An antique ring with a black crosshatched enamel ouroboros snake, coiled around a landscape agate, with a patterned enamel band. The back inscription reads ‘ Thomas jones ob 11 October 1837’.
c.1843, ‘In memory of my dear mother born 21st june 1769, died Aug 16th 1843' - with her initials in diamonds AE beneath the crown and a wonderful pair of curling snakes in black crosshatched enamel. These are some fearsome-looking snakes depicted with sharp teeth detailed in open mouths and gem-set heads, bridging the transition from Georgian to Victorian snake jewelry.
Mid-19th Century/ The Victorian Era
With the dawn of the Victorian era comes quite a distinct change in the faces of antique snake jewelry. This is particularly thanks to the snake becoming a more romantic motif, symbolizing eternal love. On the announcement of Queen Victoria's engagement to Prince Albert in 1839, he presented her with an 18-carat gold serpent engagement ring, set with rubies for the eyes, diamonds for the mouth, and a large emerald at the center.
An imagined representation of Queen Victoria's engagement ring, via The History Press.
This new romantic association transformed the representation of snakes in jewelry, which were now usually depicted from above, often with closed mouths and wide-set eyes, and friendlier, sweeter, more romantic-looking features. They often also had heads encrusted in gems or set with one large stone.
c.1838 18-carat gold snake bracelet/cuff set with a trail of cabochon garnets and one diamond. With a secret locket compartment and the inscription- ‘Friedrich et Auguste Dobrity d: 7th October 1838’. The inscription and the romantic motifs suggest that it was a wedding bracelet.
c.1839, an elaborate gold bracelet set with a miniature of Queen Victoria, the strap engraved with arabesques, the serpentine mount set with diamonds and rubies, the reverse engraved with Queen Victoria's monogram and the date. Commissioned by Queen Victoria and given by her to Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge on her birthday, 25 July 1839.
c.1850-1900, gold ring ornamented with a single coiled serpent, set with a brilliant-cut diamond and cabochon rubies. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1830s-40s - Snakes with Pendants
At this time, brooches frequently featured snakes twisted into elaborate shapes with a drop pendant hanging from their mouths or bodies, which is usually either commemorative or romantic.
c.1832, both given as gifts to Queen Victoria in 1832, the first a gold brooch commemorating the births of Princess Feodora Hohenlohe-Langenburg's eldest children - Charles and Ernest (later called Hermann) - with the initials C and E. - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
c.1840, a gold brooch enameled in dark blue in the form of a coiled serpent, set with ruby head and eyes. Set with four large moonstones. Given by Princess Clementine to Queen Victoria 10th June 1840. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
An early Victorian 18-carat gold crosshatched enamel snake brooch with cream enamel accents and a matching heart locket. Notice how the eyes are large and wide-set, almost googly, and paired with the beautiful enamel heart it becomes a very romantic and sweet motif. It is also depicted from above, with a closed mouth, creating a less threatening effect.
c.1840, the eyes here are not set so wide, but they are large and fitted into a pointed face in a way that looks very sweet. This is an unusual snake bracelet made from carved bog oak wood, and set with a hinge and paste pale blue stones for the pear drop and head, and clear pastes for the eyes.
Snake bracelets became particularly popular in the mid-1840s. These bracelets often feature a kind of gold scale-like linking for the body, or a scale-like meshwork, with gem-set heads that are usually mounted with one large stone or a cluster of gemstones. Queen Victoria wore a serpent bracelet to her First Council, to signify to all those attending that she had achieved the ‘wisdom of the serpent’ and was therefore ready to rule.
c.1840, a gold, enamel, and diamond snake bracelet with an ingeniously concealed clasp. The pear-shaped diamond suspended from its jaws is a later replacement, and would likely originally have been a larger, enameled, and gem-set drop. - Understanding Jewellery by David Bennett & Daniela Mascetti
c.1840, a snake bracelet made of braided hair, head & tail in gold with engraved floral decoration, the head set with garnets. - From Nathalie Pavula via Instagram.
Turquoise also became very fashionable in snake jewelry around this time, representing a promise of love. The Victorians were very keen on symbolism, and there were many variations on a similar turquoise-covered snake design for Victorian bracelets.
c.1840-1845 - several gold turquoise-set bracelets. Top left: c.1845 with a hinged and sprung body, in a popular design of the time but set with garnet eyes rather than ruby, making it more affordable to the less wealthy; Top right: c.1845 set with a diamond on its head and the inner sleeve of the hinge also set with turquoise, as is the entire body. Middle and Bottom: c.1841 an unusual expanding bracelet with the sides and back hinged and sprung - a variation of the popular snake motif. Expanding bracelets appeared around 1840. - Understanding Jewellery by David Bennett & Daniela Mascetti
c.1845, a gold, enamel, and diamond serpent bracelet - a typical example hinged in four places and decorated with royal blue guilloche enamel. - Understanding Jewellery by David Bennett & Daniela Mascetti
c.1846, a gold and black-enameled mourning ring in the form of a snake, with diamond sparks for eyes, and a locket fitting with plaited hair. The ring commemorates the scandalous George Edward 7th Earl of Waldegrave, who died on the 28th September 1846, aged 30. He eloped to Gretna Green just past the Scottish border to marry Frances, the widow of his elder, illegitimate brother. The marriage would have been illegal in England, being within the forbidden degrees of kinship. He led a wild life, and in 1841 was arrested and briefly imprisoned in Newgate prison for a drunken assault on a policeman.
c.1846, a Victorian mourning stickpin with a black enamel snake wrapping around an oval of pearls with a central agate motif, the forget-me-not. To the back, the snake bears the inscription, 'Samuel Whitbread born Jan 18 1764, died July 6 1815.' and 'Lady Elizabeth Whitbread born April 7th 1765, died Nov 28 1846.' Antique Animal Jewelry
Rare mid-19th-century Russian snake ring with french import marks in gold and finely detailed blue enamel with a large stone set into the head.
Snake Chain & Teeth on Show
Appearing c.1840-50 but reaching a height of popularity in 1860 were snake necklaces with an enameled or turquoise-covered head attached to a 'snake chain' imitating scales, sometimes also known as 'Brazilian chain'. The chain is made up of round, curved plates that join together to form a tube that bends like the slithering body of a snake. They were time-consuming to make compared to simple loop-in-loop chains.
c.1840s, two snake necklaces with scale-like linking, the heads gem-set.
Around 1860, there is a brief return to depictions of fairly fearsome-looking snakes with open mouths and sharp teeth on display, often as part of a fastening mechanism. This is purely a bit of fun speculation, but we wonder if those wicked-looking teeth might have had anything to with an incident that took place at the Zoological Gardens Reptile House in 1852. One night, Edward Gurling - one of the reptile keepers - returned from a night of merrymaking and gin-drinking to the Reptile House, and in a moment of 'rashness and indiscretion' decided to make a visit to a cobra, handling it roughly. He was swiftly bitten between the eyes and died an hour later. We wonder if the fear this provoked in the public might have altered the depictions of snakes for a time.
A Victorian 15ct gold, turquoise, silver, and diamond serpent necklet with garnet eyes in a fitted original case, the snake chain body set with turquoise all the way along.
A Victorian turquoise, rose cut diamond & ruby snake, most likely c.1840-60.
c.1860 fine Victorian gold and enamel snake.
c.1860 snake necklace in 18ct gold with a pearl and rose-cut diamond crest and ruby cabochons for eyes.
Snake Bracelets with Teeth Bared
As mentioned above, the brief return to open-mouthed snake faces, some with teeth bared, seems to have resulted in bracelets from the 1860s also featuring open-mouthed snakes - some scarier-looking than others. Snake chains were also popular in bracelets as well as necklaces in the 1860s, superseding earlier scale-link and mesh bodies from the 1840s.
c.1860 18-carat yellow gold snake bracelet with detailed gold chasing and a gem-set head.
c.1860 Victorian 15-carat snake bangle with graduated turquoise decoration and ruby eyes.
c.1860 high-carat snake bracelet with a wonderful pavé turquoise head. Antique Animal Jewelry
c.1870, 14k yellow gold necklace with an undulating scale-like snake chain graduating in size from tail to head. The friendly face is studded with Persian turquoise cabochons and garnet eyes and conceals a hidden clasp. A turquoise pavé heart pendant is suspended from the snake's mouth.
From Erica Weiner
1860s - Blue Enamel Snakes
Around the 1860s, there was also a fashion for blue enameled snake jewelry with diamond or pearl-encrusted heads and ruby or garnet eyes.
1860 - Left: A design by the firm of John Brogden, 1860, for a gold and royal blue enamel bracelet depicting a serpent with ruby eyes. The body of the snake is decorated with bands of pearls and the head is ornamented with a large diamond surrounded by pearls and set in gold. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Right: An 1860 bracelet with a similar design, with garnet eyes and natural pearl crowning on 18-carat gold - Antique Animal Jewelry.
1870s & 1880s - Jet Snakes
Perhaps due to the difficulty of carving jet, snake faces in jet jewelry seem to be a little goofier looking than their predecessors, with chunkier heads and almost cartoonish looking eyes.
c.1870 extremely chunky and tactile Victorian Whitby jet snake bracelet.
Whitby jet snake mourning panel bracelet, intricately carved from head to tail. The symbol of the snake was very popular in the Victorian era, used in both love and mourning jewelry alike to symbolize 'eternity'. The choice of material here suggests that this piece is a mourning bracelet. c.1880s.
1870s-1900s - Niello Snakes
A mentioned in a previous blog, Niello was a popular material in the late 19th century and early 20th, coating chains, bracelets, lockets, and more. Snake designs in Niello are rarer, but can often be dated by the use and popularity of the material.
Victorian-era niello and silver snake bracelet with rose-gold accents on the head and garnet eyes, c.1890s, possibly Austrian. The niello forms a checkerboard pattern like intricate scales. From The Eden Collective via 1stdibs
Entering the Edwardian Era
Towards the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian era, machines were being used more and more in the manufacture of jewelry, and mass production was now possible. That's not to say they aren't still beautiful pieces, but the difference is clear - no longer are bodies and heads marked with delicate handworked scales and patterns or fine enameling, instead, designs become smoother, with noticeably less facial definition. A common design in snake jewelry around the turn of the 20th century is the two-headed or double-headed snake.
c.1870 double snake ring with old cut diamond detailing. 18 carat.
c.1890 15k gold double snake ring with old mine cut diamonds and an animated little flick of the tail down the shoulders. - From @okoportland via Instagram.
c.1900 - an Edwardian double-headed diamond snake ring.
c.1900, an elegant 14-carat snake ring with a sparkly .1 carat transitional cut in an open-backed setting. This example does have finely detailed etching along the body, but it is more uniform, and the face has very simple features or suggestions of features.
How to Spot a Fake
The easiest place to start is perhaps with Georgian snakes. The Georgian era of jewelry making is esteemed largely for its hand-crafting and unique skill. This means that most pieces from the Georgian era are one-of-a-kind. Even where they share the same design as other pieces, the nature of hand-crafting means that there would have been marked differences from piece to piece. Besides this, the quality of the material, etching, and setting is also usually very high.
These three diamond serpent rings were sold as fully authentic 'Georgian' rings and were bought within a three-month period from reputable stores in London. They are not genuine. As laid out by Ginny Redington and Olivia Collings in Georgian Jewellery, 1714-1830, all three snakes have the same head, the same eyes, the same expression, and the same workmanship - which is crude and somewhat shoddy compared to a truly authentic piece. That three rings made by one particular jeweler 200 years ago could all end up in the same marketplace at the same time is also 'just too implausible'.
For comparison, here are some genuine Georgian diamond serpents...
Left: Late 18th century diamond snake earrings. Note the sea serpent-like faces. Right: Late 18th century diamond Georgian ouroboros. - Both from Georgian Jewellery, 1714-1830 by Ginny Redington Dawes & Olivia Collings
Georgian diamond snake ring
Another comparison from Understanding Jewellery by David Bennett & Daniela Mascetti is this early Victorian turquoise-set snake chain necklace, featured at the beginning of the blog as the cover image, with some fake imitations featured below...
Notice how the turquoises along the body are too spaced out, and how the heads are completely different and don't match the style of the time.
For 18th-century jewelry, some common identifiers for fakes include:
The use of modern techniques, tool marks, or materials.
Original pieces were usually made from silver or gold sheet, from scratch.
If the piece feels heavier than it should, it could be a sign that the piece was cast from a mold.
The settings are also a good tell, as modern jewelers may not painstakingly ensure that the settings are airtight like antique jewelers did, so the stones should fit the settings exactly.
Oxidation can be faked by dipping pieces in a sulphuric solution, giving the piece a matt black even finish. If you see this, be wary.
Many antique pieces will show signs of wear. If a piece is sharp in places where it should have been rubbed smooth over the years, this could be a sign that it's not genuinely antique. Unless it is a piece of 'deed box jewelry' passed down through the generations in safety deposit boxes, unworn.
If you've been told something is rare but you've seen more than one or two others, it probably isn't.
Abnormalities in design and manufacture for specific kinds of pieces that should share similar designs and manufacturing techniques is often a sign of creative modern reinterpretation rather than unique antique craftsmanship.
For snake chains especially, they quickly fell out of favor and the chains were often removed from the snake heads and sold separately. If the color of the head and the chain body don't match, it isn't necessarily a sign that the chain isn't genuinely antique, but more likely that someone found a separate chain and head and joined the two together.
Modern Snakes for Comparison
To get a handle on what more modern snakes look like, here are some examples. Notice how much more realistic a lot of the face shapes and scale patterns are for the snakes...
c.1930s, 14ct gold ouroboros set with diamonds and ruby eyes
c.1960-90, a 9ct gold sprung snake bracelet, a collectible design made by companies like Smith & Pepper.
Via The Saleroom