Halley's Comet Jewelry
With the Spring Equinox approaching this weekend, it seems like the perfect time for a blog about another great astronomical event - the passing of Halley's comet and the rise of comet jewelry in the Georgian era. Maybe you've seen some of these gorgeous pieces before, with a small gem at one end and a cluster of gems or a large foil-back gemstone trailing behind, connected by intricate metalwork. Well, this week's blog is all about these delicate little pieces of jewelry, and how they came to be.
Georgian Halley's comet brooch, the comet itself is a turquoise cabochon, and the tail is represented by fine granulated and cannetille goldwork finishing in a flat-cut garnet pansy, 15k gold, c.1835.
A Time of Great Astronomical Phenomena
Halley's comet has accompanied human history from the beginning of our species on this planet to now, lighting up the sky every generation. It's no wonder that jewelers of the Georgian era became fascinated with the astronomical object, creating beautiful recreations of it in gemstones and impressive metalwork. It probably helped to feed the popularity of the fashion that a considerable number of other astronomical discoveries were being made at the time, turning everyone's eyes and minds upward to the night sky.
In 1781, William Herschel discovered Uranus, calling the planet "Georgium Sidus", after the King at the time (George III). It was more popularly known, however, as Herschel. It wasn't until 70 years later that the planet would be renamed Uranus, as we know it now. Between 1801 and 1804, four more planets were discovered, though they were later reclassified as asteroids. That meant that in 1810, the planets were thought to be: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Pallas, Jupiter, Saturn, and Herschel - they seemed to be popping up everywhere, meanwhile the census of comets, fixed stars, and other galaxies was growing year on year.
In 1811 there was a beautiful comet (not Halley's Comet, but another) with a tail 100,000,000 miles long. It was called the Great Comet of 1811 and was visible for 17 months in the night sky. In 1843, a comet appeared with a tail twice as long as the Great Comet of 1811. In 1861, the Great Comet Tebbutt tore through the sky and left an indelible mark on those who witnessed it. The Georgian era, it seems, was a time where the sky was frequently filled with wonders.
Great Comet of 1861, also known as C/1861 J1 or comet Tebbutt
The History of Halley's Comet
For thousands of years, the passing of the comet that is now known as Halley's Comet has been observed and recorded as a significant event. It has filled those watching below with awe and fear, supposedly bringing great change - good or bad. The first recording of the comet that we know of is from its pass above China in 467 B.C, where it would become known as the "Broom Star". Centuries later, in 164 B.C. the comet was seen again over Babylonia, and the sighting was recorded on an ancient tablet.
An astronomical diary on a clay cuneiform tablet, c.164 B.C
Some historians have suggested that the star of Bethlehem in the nativity story from the Bible might actually have been Halley's comet, which would have been visible in 12 BC as well as in AD 66, around the time the Gospel of Matthew was written. Without knowing about this theory, the artist Giotto di Bondone used the comet as a reference for the star of Bethlehem in his painting, Adoration of the Magi, which he painted after witnessing the comet in 1301. A spacecraft launched in 1985, on a mission to observe Halley's comet, was named after Giotto because of this.
Adoration of the Magi, c.1320–1325, by Giotto di Bondone (1267 - 1337)
Image via Wikimedia Commons
In June 451, Halley's Comet appeared once again in the night sky of Europe, a red point of light with a fearsome tail streaming behind it. Within 3 weeks, Attila the Hun had invaded Roman France, weakening Rome. Theologians at the time believed he was sent by God to wreak destruction upon sinners.
In 989, an Anglo-Saxon wrote that a comet appeared, "...trailing its long flaming hair through the empty sky: concerning which there was a fine saying of a monk of our monastery called Æthelmær. Crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star, ‘You've come, have you?’, he said. ‘You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.’"
In 1066, the comet passed again, over England, and later that year Harold II of England was killed by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The comet was depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry as a fiery star, and surviving accounts describe it as being four times the size of Venus in the sky, shining with a brightness equal to a quarter of the Moon's.
Bayeux Tapestry showing Halley's Comet in 1066
In 1222, Halley’s Comet made yet another flyby, which The Great Khan Temujin, known to the west as Genghis Khan, supposedly took to be his own personal star. It's said that he took its westward trajectory as a sign that he should focus his conquests westward.
It wasn't until almost 500 years later that this incredible comet was finally given a name. Halley’s Comet was named after Sir Edmund Halley (1656-1742), the English Astronomer Royal. While writing about the orbits of comets, Halley formed the opinion that a comet sighted in 1531, 1607, and 1682 (which he saw himself) were all actually the same comet. He concluded that every 75-76 years, this particular comet would be visible again in the Earth's night sky - predicting it would next return in 1758. When it did exactly that, returning in late December of 1758 some years after Halley's death, remaining visible until March 1759, the comet was given its name: Halley's Comet.
By this time, science had an explanation for this meteorological event, so people were much less afraid. They still thought its passing would bring significant change with it, but they were less fearful that it might be a sign from some angry God or goddess. From this time onwards, comets captured the imagination of the people, and comet jewelry started appearing.
The earliest examples of comet jewelry often used diamonds and 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. Many pieces were made to commemorate the comet's passing, but also to mark events that happened during its passing, such as births, betrothals, weddings, and deaths.
Georgian Halley's comet brooch made from solid 15k gold and designed as a piece of mourning jewelry. One end holds an oval braided hair locket section with an 'In Memory Of' border and deep floral relief, with an enamel flower at the other end, c.1800
A Georgian era Halley's comet brooch unusually designed as a piece of mourning jewelry, one end set with foiled old cut white paste and the other with an enameled 'In Memory Of' panel with a hair locket, c1800
Georgian era Halley’s comet brooch also designed as a piece of mourning jewelry, set with two foiled-back rock crystal stones and an engraving of mourning on the reverse, c.1800
A lace pin in the form of a stylized comet with citrine-yellow pastes in a gold setting, England, made in the late 18th century, likely following the reappearance of Halley's comet in 1758.
9 ct Georgian Haley's comet brooch, set with paste, c.1815
Via Ruby Lane
Georgian Halley's comet brooch set with flat-cut garnets, c.1820
Georgian Halley's comet brooch, made of 12k yellow gold with six white old-cut pastes at one end and a single paste at the other. Set in fine grain silver settings with an engraved relief pattern in between, c.1770
When Halley's comet came racing through the sky trailing a blaze of light in 1759, receiving its name as Halley's Comet, only those familiar with his prediction were really looking for it. In 1835, however, the people were ready for it. There were many jewels made specifically to commemorate its passing in 1835.
Halley’s Comet brooch, 1835 From the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection
Halley’s Comet brooch with a central table-cut diamond and 11 old mine-cut diamonds around it. The embossed tail is pure romantic era, with an old mine-cut diamond at the tip, c.1835
Georgian Halley's comet brooch modeled in yellow gold with rose-cut diamonds to one end and a single diamond to the other. Set in fine silver settings with an engraved relief pattern in between, c.1830s
Halley's comet brooch with pastes set in silver and gold, England, c.1835
Georgian paste 9ct gold Halley's Comet brooch, c.1835
A diamond and ruby Halley’s Comet brooch, c.1830s, England
An unusual 9ct gold brooch set with a foil-backed flat cut almandine garnet and natural split pearls. It was most likely originally made to celebrate the sighting of Halley’s comet in 1835
A Georgian miniature comet brooch made up of a cluster with a central foil-backed oval citrine surrounded by natural pearls. To create the ‘comet’ shape, a split flared bar with detailed Repoussé work joins a round almandine garnet held in a fine claw setting, c.1835
Via Jewellery Hound
A gold Halley's comet brooch with a saphiret glass stone, prong-set and cushion-cut, 1835
Georgian Halley's Comet brooch set with a natural moonstone cabochon in a deep, open-backed claw mount. The tail has a waved, hand-carved buckle design to it. Made for the passing of the comet in 1835. From victoriousantique via Instagram
9ct gold, chrysolite and ruby Halley’s Comet pin, commemorating the 1835 passing.
From CJ Antiques via The Jewellery Editor
A gold Halley's comet brooch with a black dot paste (actually rock crystal) and a garnet, commemorating the 1835 appearance in the night sky
Via Erica Weiner
Georgian Halley’s Comet brooches, one in 15ct gold, set with foil closed-back amethyst and garnet, the other in 9ct gold set with foiled closed-back burgundy red paste. These commemorate the 1835 passing.
A 9k gold Halley's comet brooch with foil-backed garnets, a souvenir from the 1835 appearance
Via Erica Weiner
A tiny Georgian Halley’s Comet brooch made of solid 15k gold, with black vitreous enamel and hand engraved decoration. Set with deeply cut, foiled natural rock crystal, its tail waved. Made to celebrate the appearance of the comet in 1835. From Victorious Antique Jewellery via Instagram
Halley's comet brooch made to commemorate the 1835 passing
A 14k gold Halley's comet brooch with turquoise and pearls, in celebration of the 1835 passing
Via Erica Weiner
Georgian era Halley's comet brooch modeled in 18k gold and set with pearls and turquoise stones
An antique harlequin comet brooch
Comet jewelry remained popular well into the Victorian era, due to a Victorian love of astronomy, often featuring motifs such as shooting stars and crescent moons.
A mid-Victorian era Halley’s Comet brooch featuring a shooting star and a crescent moon, with 4 carats of old mine-cut and rose-cut diamonds. This may not have been directly inspired by the passing of Halley's comet but would have been generally inspired by astronomical events of the time
A Victorian 'shooting star' Halley's comet, with a saphiret in a gold setting
A Victorian Halley's comet brooch, 14k yellow gold with an old-cut imitation-diamond - a white sapphire
Two Halley's Comet brooches, one miniature
A large Victorian era French Napoléon III comet brooch in 18k gold. An ostentatious display of wealth, this brooch reflects the affection of the period for celestial comets. It is covered with pearls staggered over three levels forming a medallion of filigree gold, designed with a festoons and volutes adornment. Via Ruby Lane
When Halley’s Comet returned in 1910, it brought age-old awe and fear with it, as well as a new wave of comet jewelry. These Edwardian jewels featured less intricate goldwork, with more streamlined heads and tails, either set with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies or with pastes in the same colors.
Halley's Comet in 1910 from Mount Wilson Observatory ©NASA/JPL via space.com
3 examples of Edwardian Halley's comet brooches to commemorate the 1910 passing. Left to right: a gold comet brooch with pastes, a black opal comet brooch, and a comet brooch with a moon and stars motif
All via Ann Longmore-Etheridge's blog
Wilson Brothers 14ct gold Edwardian Halley’s Comet shooting star brooch commemorating the 1910 sighting. Via The Jewellery Editor
Antique English 15k gold Halley's comet brooch pin set with a natural turquoise matrix cabochon, c.1910
A 10k gold and diamond pendant made to commemorate the passing of Halley's comet in 1910. The curved tail is finished with a buttercup setting that secures a tiny, yet brightly shimmering diamond, representing the nucleus of the comet. The "coma" or round orb dangles freely from the comet's tail allowing the diamond to shift and sparkle.
People often thought the passing of Halley's Comet would mean something significant for their lives. Samuel Clemens, also known by his pen name - Mark Twain - was one of these people. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died 21 April 1910, just after the comet reached its brightest.
Last and Next Sighting
Halley's Comet last appeared in the inner parts of the Solar System in 1986, and it will next appear in our night sky in mid-2061. Who knows what unlikely happenings and new jewelry will come out of that event.
A color image of comet Halley, taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island NASA via Wikimedia Commons
Even if you may not be around in 40 years' time to see Halley's comet pass, you can still see at least a part of Halley's comet each year when we intersect Halley's orbit. In early May, we see bits of Halley's comet as the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower, and then six months later, in October, we cross Halley's path once again for the Orionid meteor shower. Keep your eyes on the sky and be inspired.
To wrap up, here are some amazing collections of antique comet jewelry we love:
17 Halley's comet brooches, all from the 19th century. Vari-coloured paste and gem-stones, including garnets, citrine, pink topaz, amethyst, seed pearls, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and a memorial brooch inlaid with hair, open and closed back settings, silver and gold, 1830s and later
A collection of early - mid 19th century Halley's comet brooches, most of which are set with vari-coloured pastes and vari-cut gemstones including citrine, orange topaz ,and seed pearls, in foiled and closed back settings, 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. Via Bonhams