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Jewelry from the French Revolution: Martyrs, Mottos & Motifs

The French Revolution was a movement that shook France from 1787 till 1799. In this week's blog post we're going to be taking a look at some of the revolutionary jewelry that came out of this time of political turmoil and national upheaval.

The two portraits stamped on the hoop of this silver ring commemorate the revolutionaries Jean-Paul Marat (1743–93) and Louis-Michel Lepeletier de St Fargeau (1760–93). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The French Revolution - Some Historical Context

For those of you in need of a refresher, the first thing to know is that before the revolution France was divided into three 'estates', also known as Estates-General or États-Généraux. The First Estate was the clergy (the country's ordained religious ministers), the Second Estate was the nobility, and the Third Estate consisted of the great majority of the people, the 'commoners'.

Pre-revolution Rings with the Etats de Bretagne (the sovereign court of the Duchy of Brittany) of 1788. 'TRIPLICI FOEDERE TUTA' translated from the Latin means, 'protected by a triple bond'.

Fabian De Montjoye

There were many tensions in France at the time, all of which surely played their part in the revolution. Firstly, opposition to the feudal system was mounting. Merchants, manufacturers, and professionals who were prospering were becoming a wealthy elite, or 'bourgeoisie', with political aspirations. In addition, the living and education standards of the peasant class were improving, and many of them now owned land, wanting to get rid of feudalism to ensure their full rights as landowners and increase their holdings.

Secondly, with 26 million inhabitants in 1789, France had become the most populated country in Europe. Greater demand for food and resources caused an economic crisis that started many small revolts and put great pressure on social reform.

Thirdly, 'the Philosophes', - literary men, scientists, and thinkers with great influence over the French people via press like pamphlets and newspapers - were calling for reform.

Dieppe Ivory depicting the graves of Voltaire and Rousseau - key thinkers of the Enlightenment, with their works being heavily drawn upon by French revolutionaries. Both writers emphasized the importance of reason, with Rousseau adding the need for emotion and passion as well as reason to effectively fight injustice - an ideology that reigned during the French Revolution

Fabian De Montjoye

The first 'wave' of the revolution took place when the controller general of finances tried to increase taxes on the privileged classes. The privileged classes resisted - strongly. Unrest followed amongst the common people in the cities and towns, forcing the king to yield and promise a meeting of the Estates-General to resolve the matter. The meeting was a disaster. The Third Estate - the common people - outweighed the rest greatly in numbers. Arguments broke out, groups of people were locked out, troops were gathered to disperse the meeting, and rumors spread of an “aristocratic conspiracy” by the king to overthrow the Third Estate of the common people. This led to the Great Fear of July 1789; peasants rose up against their lords, and a Parisian crowd seized the Bastille.

Soon after this, the National Constituent Assembly decreed the abolition of the feudal regime, introducing the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaiming liberty, equality, the inviolability of property, and the right to resist oppression. The Estates-General (and the 'ancien régime' it signified) were dissolved and replaced by a system of French départements, districts, cantons, and communes. This, however, was not enough for the revolutionaries.

Wanting to spread revolutionary principles beyond France, with the king hoping to either strengthen his authority or be rescued by backing them, France declared war against Austria in 1792. Prussia soon joined the war and France faced defeats. With an Austro-Prussian army headed for Paris, many believed the Austrian-born queen, Marie-Antoinette, had betrayed them. The people of Paris revolted, occupying Tuileries Palace, and imprisoning the royal family. Meanwhile, the nationalism that the revolution had awoken led to a bolstering of the French army that stopped the Prussians, showing France the strength of its people. On the same day, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the republic was declared. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were executed in 1793.

No more jewels

In a time of such economic crisis and political upheaval, wearing jewelry - particularly anything made with precious gems - associated you with the monarchy and aristocracy, placing you on the 'wrong' side of the revolution. During the 'September massacres' and the 'reign of terror' - in which a group of presiding radicals arrested and executed 17,000 people without trial - wearing expensive jewelry was enough to lose your head. Therefore the jewelry that was worn at the time mostly consisted of revolutionary jewelry, plain and made from metal, with revolutionary symbols or commemorative themes.

French rococo ring in 18K yellow gold with a double portrait in profile of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette engraved in an agate cameo. Edged with 46 rose-cut diamonds and eight rubies. Jewels like these were given to the king and queen's friends, political and diplomatic allies, and courtiers. This would have identified you immediately as a royalist and member of the nobility. Via Antique Jewel

'1793: it is the 'Terror'. The jewelers do not have any more work, the nobility is decimated by the guillotine and nobody dares to wear any more jewels, apart from some revolutionary jewels of the Phrygian bonnet genre, triangles, cockades, and even guillotines in earrings.'

This particularly grizzly pair of guillotine earrings commemorates the execution of Louis XVI during France’s Reign of Terror. From each guillotine hangs a monarch's head, c.1793. Via Cult of Weird - Curiosities

A silver, oval-shaped revolutionary signet/seal ring engraved with a lictor's bundle (a bundle of wooden rods with an axe emerging, symbolizing the power to carry out capital punishment) under a Phrygian cap (symbolizing liberty) and the initials AP, with the motto "French Republican". Via Coutaubegarie

French Rings depicting Louis XVII in prison

Fabian De Montjoye

Rare ring depicting Marie Antoinette in The Conciergerie (where she was imprisoned after August 1793)

Fabian De Montjoye

French Revolutionary Rings. The ring in the bottom left reads: VIVRE LIBRE OU MOURIR and LA NATION, LA LOI, LEROI, meaning 'live free or die' and 'the nation, the law, the king' From La Bague en France by Maximin Deloche

Two Revolutionary Rings c.1789. Left: features a birdcage motif and the inscription 'sacre a la liberte' meaning 'sacred freedom'. The inscription on the underside 'Bastile' is proof of provenance. According to Deloche, the chief demolisher of the Bastile - Palloy - converted the debris of the prison into souvenirs like this ring. They were known as 'rocamboles' or 'a la constitution'. Right: a personification of freedom appears both on this ring and on a medal dated 1792, said to be an official municipal and state seal, meaning they might have the same source. From Koch page 319, item 164 and 1063

The Martyrs

In the revolutionary jewelry that was worn, many pieces depict people known as the 'martyrs' of the revolution - influential revolutionaries who died for the cause. The martyrs most commonly depicted include Marat, Le Pelletier, Chalier, Joseph Barra, and Joseph Viala. The most popular items of revolutionary jewelry were medallions and rings.

Jean-Paul Marat (1743 - 1793) was a journalist and politician during the French Revolution, known for his steadfast revolutionary ideals and his fierce advocacy for the rights of the poorest members of society. He was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, thought to be a Girondin sympathizer (revolutionaries who did not support the radicalism and mass killings - especially that of the monarchs - executed by the Montagnards, the faction who ruled during the reign of terror and who 'purged' the Girondin's after taking power). She held Marat personally responsible for the September Massacres and the fall of the Girondins.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

It's also worth noting that there were many who supported Charlotte Corday's actions, holding her up as a savior who rid the nation of Marat the monster. In the months following her execution images appeared in the moderate press of her, stressing her beauty, virtue, and stoicism. Marat's supporters tried to squash this narrative of Corday as a kind of French heroine, but it was a hard one to suppress given the way that Corday had set about constructing her own legend during her trial and imprisonment.

© University College London

Louis-Michel Le Pelletier (1760-1793) was a politician during the French Revolution. As deputy to the Second Estate - the nobility - his views were initially aligned with his class. This soon changed. As part of the Constituent Assembly, his decision to abolish the death penalty, the galleys, and branding, and replace hanging with beheading, made him president of the Assembly in 1790. In 1793, he supported the trial of Louis XVI, and was one of the deciding votes in his execution. That evening, Le Peletier was assassinated by Philippe Nicolas Marie de Pâris, one of the king's guard. The Convention held a magnificent funeral for Le Pelletier.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Joseph Chalier (1747 – 1793) was a French revolutionist and the leader of the Jacobins of Lyon (anti-royalist republicans). Chalier led the Jacobins to arrest a great number of Royalists in February 1793, following the king's execution in January. He faced down the National Guard and demanded that the Convention create a revolutionary tribunal and a revolutionary army. The Convention refused, Chalier's party rose up, and Chalier was eventually arrested and sentenced to death. He was guillotined the next day. During the reign of terror, he was held up as a martyr of liberty, who died for his convictions.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Joseph Barra (1779-1793) was a drummer boy who served in the French Revolutionary Army. At the age of fourteen (too young to officially join the army), he found himself surrounded by counter-revolutionaries. He refused to surrender to the Royalists and was bayoneted. He was seen as having denied the Ancien Régime at the cost of death and became an icon of revolutionary propaganda. Songs and paintings were dedicated to him, and he is frequently depicted as one of the martyrs of the revolution.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Joseph Viala (1780-1793) was similarly a child hero in the French Revolutionary Army. He was shot as he was trying to cut the ropes of a pontoon to protect some troops from attacking royalists. According to various accounts, the 12-year-old Viala had grabbed a hatchet, launched himself at the ropes, and started cutting before he was shot.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Left: Popular print of individual woodcut portraits of the 'martyrs of the French Revolution'. Right: Cast oval silver medal with suspension loop featuring the 'heroes' that died for liberty during the French Revolution: Marat, Le Pelletier, Chalier, Barra, and Viala. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Medallion with the effigy of Le Peletier, Marat, Chalier, and Barra. Enamel, wood, and copper.

Carnavalet Museum, History of Paris

Bronze medal with the portraits of three martyrs of Liberty: M. Pelletier, J.P. Marat, J. Chalier, arranged on a background of laurel branches. On the reverse is inscribed: "In memory / of the glorious fight / of the French people / against Tyranny / Aux Tuileries / The town / of Paris".

©Department of Isère - Museum of the French Revolution

A mourning ring made to commemorate the deaths of Jean-Paul Marat and Louis-Michel Le Peletier. 10k gold profile portraits affixed to a wide silver band that proclaims their martyrdom to the cause of liberty. Via @ericaweiner on Instagram

Revolutionary finger ring in silver with gold applied low-relief portraits and an inscription: MARAT ET LEPELTIER MARTIRS DE LA LIBERTE EN 1793. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Rare THREE Revolutionaries ring, depicting the deaths of Marat (left), Chalier (center), and Le Pelletier (right) above the name Chalier or CHALIRE. The ring is inscribed: LE PELLETIR MARTIR DE LA LIBERTE and MARAT MARTIR DE LA LIBERTE

Antique Animal Jewelry

Another important figure from the revolution is Maximilien Robespierre (1754-1794), a French lawyer, statesman, and radical Jacobin revolutionary. He was known for campaigning fervently for universal manhood suffrage, the abolition of celibacy for the clergy, and the abolition of slavery. He made himself an outspoken advocate for citizens without a political voice and later became instrumental in the downfall of the French monarchy. Robespierre is perhaps best known for personally signing 542 arrests as part of the Committee of Public Safety, and for supposedly being involved in passing the law that allowed the number of executions to rise dramatically, alienating many. His obsession with having an ideal republic at any human cost eventually turned both members of the Convention and the French public against him. He became a very divisive figure, some choosing to remember him as the Revolution's principal ideologist, while to others, he was the incarnation of the 'Terror' that gripped France.

Charlotte Robespierre's oval mourning medallion containing a lock of Maximilien Robespierre's hair, made after 1794. Carnavalet Museum, History of Paris

French Rings Of Robespierre and Saint-Just

Fabian De Montjoye

Symbols in Revolutionary Jewelry

Liberté & Égalité - Liberty and Equality

The national motto of France - Liberté, égalité, fraternité - was first expressed during the French Revolution by Maximilien Robespierre who, in a speech on the organization of the National Guard, expressed that he would like the uniform of the National Guard to be inscribed with the phrase. During the revolution, it was only one slogan among many others, but the symbols of liberty and equality appeared on many depictions of events both during and after the revolution.

This blue jasper medallion allegorically depicts the French Revolution in white relief. France is shown with a staff surmounted by the Phrygian cap of revolution and is greeted by Athene the goddess of wisdom. On the alter between them stands Public Faith, holding a sheaf of corn in one hand and a cornucopia in the other. The medallion is decorated with a white floral border. Via The Wedgwood Museum

A jasperware medallion with a white relief depicting Liberty holding a pole, on which is a cap of liberty. She shakes hands with France, who wears a helmet and holds an oval shield decorated with fleurs-de-lis. Between them is an altar on which stands a figure of Public Faith holding a sheaf of corn in one hand and a cornucopia in the other. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A tortoiseshell box decorated on the lid with a miniature: under a winged depiction of victory, Truth/Liberty with a Phrygian cap on her staff gives the hand of France to the allegory of an unidentified City seated on the throne. Beside the latter is a sleeping lion. Tyrannical powers flee in the background or lie inert, c.1794-5. © Le Département de l’Isère - Musée de la Révolution Française

The Phrygian Cap

Red Phrygian caps or ‘liberty’ caps, as they were sometimes known, were soft conical hats with the top curled forward. They have a long history of association with liberty, and during the French revolution, they eventually came to symbolize allegiance to the republican cause. In ancient Rome, freed slaves wore a hat of a similar style called the pileus, to indicate their liberty, which many in Europe believed to be the same thing as a Phrygian cap. They were also worn when the people of Brittany rose against the taxation policies of Louis XIV in 1675, to declare rebel support, and were used as a visual symbol of freedom during the American revolution.

Two French revolutionary posters. Left: translated, the poster reads 'unity - indivisibility - of the French Republic - live free or die. Right: translated, the poster reads 'unity / indivisi / bility of / the Repub / Lic - Liberty / Equality / Brother / hood or death'. Both posters feature the Phrygian cap of liberty, a wreath, the tricolor flag, and on one of the posters, a pair of scales for equality.

A watch hook in the shape of a cannon barrel, surrounded by laurel branches and surmounted by Phrygian caps; the hooks themselves are snakes. Carnavalet Museum, History of Paris

Monogram “RF” (French Republic) surmounted by a Phrygian cap, symbol of the French revolution. Via Keos

Gold and hardstone intaglio ring depicting a bust facing left wearing a Phrygian cap, the inner band inscribed Jean-Paul Marat, Assasine 13 Juillet 1793. Via Bonhams

A revolutionary silver signet/seal ring with a depiction of a Phrygian cap and on which is engraved the words: COMMUNE DE PARIS and LIBERTE 14 JET 1789 EGALITE 10 AOUST 1792, commemorating the taking of the Bastille and the liberation of the prisoners in 1789, as well as the massacre of the Swiss guard on 10th August 1792. - from La Bague en France by Maximin Deloche

Tricolore Flags & Cockades

The French tricolor cockade was a symbol that was created at the beginning of the French Revolution. Initial plans for a green symbol of revolution to rally the Parisian crowd behind were quickly superseded by the two-color cockade that was worn by the newly established citizen militia. The colors were blue and red, in the ancient colors of Paris.

In 1789 when King Louis XVI went to Paris to meet the new French National Guard, its members wore the blue and red cockade of the militia, to which it would appear that Lafayette (the commander of the Guard) had added a white band representing loyalty to the Sovereign. This was the day that Louis XVI appointed the revolutionary Jean Sylvain Bailly as mayor of Paris and many members of the nobility supportive of absolute monarchy fled the country.

They were often made by circularly pleating a blue, white, and red ribbon together.

Button, France, end of the 18th century (Révolution Française). Metal, enamel, paint. With the words 'Liberte' and 'Egalite' - Liberty and Equality - and a Phrygian Cap painted above a tricolor flag

Via Pinterest

Tricolore cocarde or tricolor cockade via Pinterest

A ring featuring the symbols of the French Revolution: Tricolour Flags and a Phrygian cap, and the Triangle for equality, after 1879 - Koch page 319 item 1065


On the eve of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David - a revolutionary French artist known for joining an extremist Jacobin group led by Maximilien Robespierre - painted The Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons. The painting was exhibited shortly after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and depicted the patriotic Roman consul, Brutus, receiving the dead bodies of his sons, who he had condemned to death as traitors. Brutus -Lucius Junius Brutus in full - was the man who put an end to the brutal regime of Tarquin, Rome's last king, and established the first Roman Republic. True to his political convictions, he sacrificed even his sons, who he found had been embroiled in a royalist conspiracy, to the cause of founding the Republic. Brutus was therefore an important figure of political conviction during the French revolution in the people's quest to found the French Republic.

French revolutionary agate intaglio ring dating to c.1790. Via Ruby Lane

Intaglio swivel ring made of onyx depicting the head of Lucius Junius Brutus with a dagger beneath; set in gold, 18th century. Paris presented this to the National Convention in 1792. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The jewelry that was made during the French Revolution is a far cry from the Roccoco splendor of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette's jewelry. They are simple and plain; commemorative and symbolic rather than attention-grabbing and highly decorative, holding a vast amount of meaning in each piece. As jewelry, they were more than just an accessory, they were a form of political allegiance and motivation, a way of declaring one's ideals and hopes for France, and are the perfect example of how even the simplest pieces of antique jewelry can tell a story so much bigger than itself.

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