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German Jewelry: rings in the age of classicism

A collaboration between Antique Animal Jewelry and Heart of Hearts Jewels.

Lovers of 18th Century Jewelry always fall head over heels for pieces that are carved, painted, and embellished to resemble miniature scenes under glass. Scenes of love, and loss, and friendship, so exquisitely executed. Skills now lost, never able to be replicated. Some were French and some were English but many of these rings were made in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th century.

We thought we would put our heads together and write about these miniature works of art. Hope you enjoy it!

Inscribed, 'I count the hours until we meet again'. Rings - Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick - P99

Defining 'German' rings

So where do we start? First of all, what is a German ring exactly?

By 'German' rings, we really mean rings that were made in territories where the German language is, or was, spoken. This broadly includes various states within the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, and parts of modern-day Netherlands, Poland, and Switzerland. Language is an important distinguishing factor when identifying rings, and often the only way to identify a ring as German is via the language of the inscription.

As a general rule, a German inscription always points to a German origin, just as an English inscription always points to an English origin. French inscriptions, however, are in no way a clear indication of French origins, as French was considered the 'international language of love' as well as being the colloquial language of the educated German bourgeoisie until the 19th century. For this reason, many 'German' rings can have German or French inscriptions.

'An extraordinary mourning ring, circa 1790. The high carat gold shank supports a compartment with a most unusual mourning scene depicting Chronos, the personification of time. His wings and hourglass were early Renaissance additions and he eventually became a companion of the Grim Reaper, personification of Death, wielding his harvesting scythe. Here Chronos places a painted wreath of flowers on a tomb. The tomb is inscribed in German: Henriette Louise geb 12 Apr 1761 gest 5 Jan’y1793. [Born 12th April 1761, died 5th January 1793]. He carries a scythe and his hourglass lies abandoned on the ground, as time no longer matters. The ring is covered by a domed crystal. The ring is size M [US 6] and the head of the ring measures 1 and 1/4 inches by 3/4 of an inch. Exceptional carving on a microscopic scale, unable ever to be replicated.' - Michele Rowan

From rowanandrowan.com

Some Historical Context

To give some background to the production of jewelry at this time, a bit of context might be needed. In the 18th century, Germany as we know it now did not exist. Due to the peace treaties that were signed in The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the area we now call Germany was divided into hundreds of states, duchies, principalities, free cities, and ecclesiastical states. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the two largest of these states - Prussia and Austria (Holy Roman Empire) - vied for dominance, with the smaller states seeking to retain their independence by allying themselves with one or the other, depending on political necessity.

With so many divisions, although the people were Germanic, they had little sense of national identity or unity. However, after France declared war on Prussia and Austria in the spring of 1792, taking control of the Rhineland in 1794, a more unified 'Germany' began to emerge. Under Napoleon’s rule, The Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist, the French occupation authorities pressured smaller states, cities, and entities to be incorporated into their larger neighbors, and Germany was reorganized from around 300 independent states to 39 much larger ones.

Emperor Napoleon I and Empress Josephine recentered the French court as the heart of European fashion, casting the French nobility as its 'trendsetters'. The Rococo styles of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the splendor that symbolized the hated feudal absolutism that the French Revolution had railed against, were vehemently rejected by the new bourgeoise and fell into total obsolescence. A new style was born - that of a new kind of classicism - embracing and remaking the styles of ancient Greece and Rome.

The Napoleonic court was full of ancient heroic symbols, with cameos being retrieved from ancient archeological sites in Italy and set in jewelry, creating a style of imperial Roman pomp that lent grandeur to Napoleon’s rule. However, the story was not the same for the other countries of Central Europe.

The 'German' neoclassical style

Following France’s victory and occupation of the German states, France demanded that a heavy war indemnity be paid, leaving the German states impoverished. Both the court and the people had to live as simply and thriftily as possible. In 1809, the Prussian royal family sold jewelry and tableware from the crown treasure, even contemplating selling the crown jewels in their entirety. Pearls and diamonds were not seen at court for a long time - being reserved by the nobility only for big occasions under festive candlelight - and under Freidrich Wilhelm III’s rule, a women’s association appealed to the Prussian public to give up their gold and silver in favor of a new style.

With a fundamentally different political and economic situation to that of France, the classical style was still taken on in Germany, but they sought a stricter, simpler, and more affordable form. Greek antiquity, in particular, seemed to convey the kind of noble simplicity and quiet greatness they wished to assume. With this in mind, across the German states, the style began to plunge into Greek classicism - from architecture and equipment to clothing and jewelry.

The artificial styles of Rococo splendor were exchanged for new ideas of 'naturalness' and candor; with women attempting to resemble the Greek goddesses in portraits, their jewelry reflecting these ideals. They could not, therefore, be overloaded; at most, a diadem (the headdress of Greek goddesses), a shoulder bar, and an upper arm bracelet or ring were the perfect complement. At a time when little jewelry could be afforded, this seemed the perfect style to emanate.

A portrait painted by Joseph Grassi in 1802 shows Queen Luise of Prussia (Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz) classically decorated in this way. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

German Miniature-Work Rings

Gone were the days where the appeal of a piece of jewelry was based on the shine of diamonds and the play of light and shadow on expensive cut gems. Jewelry would instead be appreciated in the Germanic states for the opposition of matt and shiny metal and stone surfaces, and the delicate interplay of fine lines.

German miniature-work rings can be characterized as a bourgeoisie phenomenon, exemplifying the styles of the time. That meant, in many cases, that labor and fullness of composition were valued above expensive raw materials, using 'cheap' but labor-intensive mediums such as hair work and watercolor. They were not gem-heavy, but were instead heavy in sentiment, and enriched by the skill and love of the workmanship.


Some notable defining features of German miniature-work rings are the greater use of polychrome embellishments than in contemporary examples from France or England, and also a greater variety in the materials in general used for each piece: while French examples tended to use the same material throughout, many German rings were mixed-media compositions.

Miniature-work rings could be made of any combination of materials: enamel, colored glass (often foiled), ivory, and woven hair were often used for grounds; painted details were often done in polychrome, sepia, or en grisaille watercolors; ivory, boxwood, and mother of pearl could be microscopically carved into intricate miniatures; painted cut paper could be used to make small flowers and other details (likely influenced by Fenbein carvings from neighboring Switzerland); and embellishments frequently used gold wire, seed pearls, beads, masticated hair, and silk.

Lempertz Auction May 2019

A fine example of mixed media. White enamel, polychrome, hair, and glass

Germany 1790

From @inezstodel_jewelry- Sentimental ring from the late 18th century. Inscribed, 'Mein Herz Suchte und Fand Dich' - 'My Heart Searched and Found You'. The flaming torch symbolizes love and life, when it is turned upside down it symbolizes a life extinguished, but here it is lying on the ground as if cupid has dropped it - Sarah Nehama

Cut Paper Pendant from Schmuck, by Brigitte Marquardt - page 178

Boxwood Ring - © The Trustees of the British Museum (French)

Antique Animal Jewelry

From Schmuck 1780 - 1850, by Brigitte Marquardt - page 259 (1800-1820)

The patterned enamel border with champlevé gold pattern is a typical germanic feature

From Schmuck 1780 - 1850, by Brigitte Marquardt - page 258 - Designs for rings 1800 - 1820

Popular motifs also featured images of Cupid’s bow, torch, and quiver, doves and cherubs, and other decorative motifs like ribbons and garlands, foliage and flowers, rosettes, acanthus, laurel, and vine leaves.

Craftsmen & Artists

In essence, miniature-work rings were the product of many hands; a collaboration between trades, from goldsmiths and carvers to miniature painters and hair work specialists. The German cities and towns of Augsburg, Pforzheim, and Schwäbisch-Gmünder each had strong jewelry making specialisms - for example, Schwäbisch-Gmünder had a centuries-old tradition in the manufacture of devotional and traditional jewelry, and Augsburg was renowned for its miniature ivory carving - but for many other intricately carved elements, surviving examples suggest that there were only a few masters for such delicate work.

Famous German chronicler Dominikus Debler (1757-1836) mentions several such specific German artists and craftsmen who contributed to miniature-work rings in his records, including: miniature painters Schnitter and Merz; ivory carvers Faber and Ernst Maler (in Pforzheim); the painter Urbon (who made naturalistic flowers from all kinds of materials such as bone and silk); the carver Geiger who worked with mother-of-pearl; Andreas Scharf and his pupil Walther, who became famous for their fine hair work; the hair artist Rohner from Herisau; Hartmann, J.Recih, Spiller, and Rietmann, who created elegiac pictures in crushed hair and gum; and the eminent German ivory carvers G. Stephany and J. Dresch.

Themes & Motifs

The contemporary obsession with classical styles of antiquity led to many Greco-Roman motifs being used in jewelry of the time. Rings and pendants featured anything from architectural elements and monuments - like temples, obelisks, urns, and columns (whole or broken) - to trees, flowers, classical figures, and scenes from mythology.

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The sun with gold wire rays is a distinctive germanic motif

- as is the temple and the bright green grass

A similar design from Schmuck 1780 - 1850, by Brigitte Marquardt - page 192, ring plaque 1800

Christie's (2014) - Late 18th Century Portrait Miniature Necklace

Note the sun with rays again, the temple and the bright colors

The Three 'Cults' of Feeling

Much of the popular German jewelry from this time conforms to one of the three 'cults' of feeling. These three cults consisted essentially of the 'cult of friendship', the 'cult of sentimentality', and the 'cult of mourning'. Across Europe, during this time of social and political upheaval and of unification, an emphasis was being placed on a heightened sensitivity to individual expression and the emotional life, acknowledging a new depth and intimacy between people that had not previously been felt. It was a requirement of this age of sensitivity to speak the language of the heart: friendship, love, and mourning.

Protestantism had first acknowledged the idea of relics as emotional memory objects, with a lively presence that acted on living bodies and minds. From this, many protestants developed a relic culture that valued the remains of evangelists and politicians. This was further compounded throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by the emerging fascination with objects of classical antiquity, seemingly filled with meaning and import. It is perhaps natural, then, that this feeling toward objects as being capable of holding, retaining, and evoking emotional memory bled through into the jewelry of the time.

In miniature-work rings, hair was often used for its emotional significance. It was considered 'pars pro toto' - a piece of the whole person; the lock of hair of a loved one - alive or dead - connected the memory of the person with something concrete to carry with you.

The Cult of Friendship

Relationships of like-minded souls, characterized by openness and soulful affection, were considered particularly desirable in German bourgeois life. Famous Germans of the age - such as Klopstock, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller - all pursued such friendships.

Therefore, at this time many miniature-work rings were given between friends as a Freundschaftsring (literally, 'friendship ring'). Friendship rings often featured such things as inscriptions of friendship and gratitude, and images of clasped hands, alters, and temples - places where the friendship’s fire could burn forever in honor of the friend - as well as Greco-Roman motifs of foliage and classical figures.

Inscribed 'Preuve de mon amitie', meaning 'proof of my friendship' (Dutch) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Cut Paper Pendant from Schmuck by Brigitte Marquardt - page 178 - 'AMITIE'

The paper cuts were made by folding several layers of paper and correspond closely in technique

and ornamentation to the baptismal slips that were made around 1790 in memory of

baptisms in the Bernese Oberland

Such rings were an expression of sentiment between friends and family; a pledge of unchangeable and loyal friendship, to keep the remembrance of, and longing for, one another alive - a notion not dissimilar from lover’s tokens. Surviving diaries show that these personal gifts meant a lot to givers and recipients.

The Cult of Sentiment

Amatory love and marriage rings were also popular. Such rings often featured tableaus of women in classical dress writing love letters, sacrificing at the altar of Venus, or lamenting the departure of a lover as a ship sails away from the shore. A man about to go on a journey might give his lady a ring with a clock dial on the bezel, symbolizing the sentiment: 'I count the hours until we meet again'.

Antique Animal Jewelry. The inscription reads, 'I count the hours until we meet again'

Inscribed, 'I count the hours until we meet again' Rings - Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick - P99

From Schmuck 1780 - 1850, by Brigitte Marquardt - page 412

Decorated with gold wire rays again, and inscribed 'Ewig Dein' - 'Forever yours'

Swiss National Museum Collection

From Schmuck 1780 - 1850, by Brigitte Marquardt - page 193 - watercolour on opaque glass

Städtisches Museum. The two pigeons hold a three in their beaks. We are told here that the 3 symbolizes the baby to come (as in there are three of us now), but in German, the word for three is 'Drei' which was pronounced in Saxon like 'treu', the word for Faithful, so it has a double meaning

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson's The Power Of Love - page 75 - Koch Collection

Ring with Altar of Love and Flaming Heart - Germany 1770 - 1800

The German inscription 'Unsere Verbindung macht uns glücklich' on this love ring

can be translated as 'Our relationship makes us happy'

Ring with Initials and concealed symbols of Love. Germany 1800.

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson's The Power Of Love - page 75 - Koch Collection

On the bezel is an inscription with a love declaration 'Amour Nous Unis' - Love has united us.

The bezel can be opened and inside are the initials of the couple. The symbols such as the altar of love, the flaming hearts, and the doves holding a wreath, underline the love theme of the ring. The shank in the classical style suggests a date of about 1800.

Koch - Ringe - Anna Beatriz Chadour - Volume 1 - p 297 - German Ring 1800

A pendant in the Städtisches Museum is almost identical and enables us to reconstruct the scene.

Possibly the figure was holding a torch as a sign of love. Note also the classical dress

and the gold wire background.

The Cult of Mourning

The cult of mourning and melancholia is partially an import from England. The English Graveyard Poets influenced the development of morbid melancholia in England, and jewelry lamenting death and suffering became in vogue in England from around 1770, and in Germany from 1780.

Mourning rings of this time often featured such architectural motifs as temples, obelisks, pyramids, and altars - motifs associated with human encounters with the gods.

Koch - Ringe: Volume I - Anna Beatriz Chadour, p 294 - German Ring late 18th century

The inscription 'Souvenir', meaning 'Remember' leads to the mourning theme with urn and weeping willow. Similar pieces were produced in the German Jewellery-producing town Schwäbisch-Gmünder from the late 18th century and exported all over Europe. With French wording, this may have been intended for the French market, or it may have just been used as the language of love.

Koch - Ringe: Volume I - Anna Beatriz Chadour, p 294 - German Ring late 18th century

The spray of forget-me-nots coming from the urn underlines the significance of the word 'souvenir' and its use as a memorial ring. The use of color hints at its germanic origin.

Koch - Ringe: Volume I - Anna Beatriz Chadour, p 294

The combination of the urn with the rose and dove symbolizes love and grief for the deceased beloved.

The spirals of corded wire are very similar to a piece in the Osterreiches Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna. Again the use of color and tightly packed composition hint at its germanic origin.

Gisela Zick - Gedenke Mein'Freundschaftsspiel und Memorialschmuck - plate 22

Dutch ring 'Ouderliefde' - 'parental love' ouroboros around two flaming hearts and the initials A.L.S.

Gisela Zick - Gedenke Mein Freundschaftsspiel und Memorialschmuck - plate 11

'Ewig Theut'? - 'Forever Yours'? - 1801

1783, German mausoleum navette mourning ring

'zum andenken gewidmet' - 'dedicated to Memory' - 'Gestorben den 1 Oct 1783

Gestorben den 22 Juli 1714'.

Photo and Ring from the collection of Sarah Nehama

Koch - Ringe: Volume I - Anna Beatriz Chadour, p 293 - late 18th Century German ring

The German inscription, 'Son noch Lange', means 'Sun for a long time'. The hair in the background belonged to the beloved who died, and the sun symbolizes the heart and flaming love. The urn, myrtle, and forget-me-nots stand for eternal love

And finally some classic micro ivory scenes...

The finest ivory micro-carvings are so finely detailed that they can often only be fully seen with a magnifying glass. Some were made in the tenths or even hundredths of a millimeter range. They were considered 'Mirabilien', miracles made by human hands. © Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim

This scene depicts two women, two men, and a seated person, perhaps a child, feeding sheep. A particularly three-dimensional effect is achieved by painting thin trees in the distance on the blue background colored with crushed cobalt glass. Both the ivory carving scene and the gold setting in the form of a leaf hem are typical for rings by PJ Hess and the goldsmith's work of that time.

Natural History Museum Vienna

Visit Marion at @heartofheart.jewels and Evie at @antiqueanimaljewelry.