Snake Symbolism in Jewelry: A Rich History
Snakes have been a popular symbol in jewelry for thousands of years. With their long, malleable curves, they are the perfect animal for modelling elegant designs and have been represented in rings, bracelets, pendants, brooches throughout time.
The enduring charm of the snake can be traced back as early as ancient Greece, where the snake’s ability to shed its skin was seen as a regenerative power. It was therefore associated with Aesculapius, the Greek God of Medicine, and used as a symbol for healing, and was often found on bracelets and amulets. Interestingly, the link between snakes and medicine still stands today – just think of the snakes on hospital and ambulance signs.
In fact, there are two different symbols featuring snakes that can be found in medical contexts - the Rod of Caduceus and the Rod of Aesculapius. The rod of Caduceus features two snakes entwined around a winged sceptre. The origin of the symbol is from the God Hermes, whose winged feet are parallelled in the design. Hermes is the herald God and is associated with trade, so this rod symbolises wisdom, commerce and negotiation.
The rod of Caduceus: a late 19th-century brooch set with diamonds (Via Bentley & Skinner).
On the other hand, Aesculapius' rod is the traditional medicinal symbol stemming from snakes' association with the Greek God Aesculapius. However, hospitals and doctors have often been known to confuse the two symbols, meaning that both Caduceus and Aesculapius can now be spotted on medical signs and logos!
1915 Rod of Aesculapius Bar Brooch (Via Adin)
Elsewhere, in Ancient Egypt, the Nile Cobra once acted as a sure symbol of nobility and royalty, known to have been represented in expensive jewelry as a status symbol. Snakes were also a mainstay in Roman jewels; a gold snake bracelet was found intact at Pompeii and is displayed at the British Museum.
1st Century bracelet from Egypt (Via The Met).
While snakes are often designed into winding, layered shapes, the ouroboros remains a firm favorite amongst serpentine jewelry and symbolism.
The ouroboros is a spherical snake shape, depicting the snake swallowing or biting its own tail. This shape has long been understood as a sign of eternity and infinity, and it saw a particular spike in popularity in the Georgian and Victorian eras, alongside the trend for acrostic jewelry, otherwise known as jewelry imbued with secret meanings and messages.
Georgian Ouroboros Ring
Perhaps the most famous wearer of snake jewelry, Queen Victoria was gifted a serpentine engagement ring after she proposed to Prince Albert in 1839. It featured an emerald on its head to correspond to her birthstone. Victoria was also known to have worn a serpent bracelet to her first council meeting as Queen in 1837.
Victoria’s monarchic trend-setting led to a further rise in popularity for the snake. Snakes made for beautiful symbols of eternity in love jewelry and could be combined with acrostic gems in order to create romantic individualized meanings. Where two snakes intertwined, for example, it often symbolized togetherness. However, after Prince Albert’s death, snakes also began to be used as mourning jewelry, where eternity is an equally key sentiment. Victoria famously mourned for Albert for the rest of her life, and it is believed that she was buried wearing the snake engagement ring that he gave her.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This pencil and chalk portrait by Frederick Sandys, 1880, is thought to be a marriage celebration portrait, showing Florence Emily Sharon, the bride, wearing a snake bracelet that symbolises fertility (Via V&A collection)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This 1860s sketch shows a watercolor and pencil design for a serpentine bracelet by John Brogden’s firm (via V&A collection).
Our gorgeous 1860 bracelet has a similar design, with garnet eyes and natural pearl crowning on 18 carat gold.
Intricate Georgian Ouroboro opening rings, circa 1800.
18-carat gold ring with natural pearl and white enamel shoulders, circa 1830.
A romantic snake ring holding a heart. This Georgian piece twists around a lock of hair from a loved one. The engraving on the back of the head reads M.J; a stunning ring with a story.
French Quizzing glass with snake handle, 18 carat gold circa 1820.
Georgian snake fobs.
Early 19th Century mourning brooch, pearls with central hair panel, from the Bloomsbury Group Provenance. The inscription reads “to Sarah Parker 1821”. Sarah Parker was a forebear of Philip Morell. His wife, Ottoline Morell, was the owner of this brooch. She was said to have had a stormy love affair with Bertrand Russell, as well as being famous for her unique beauty and style. DH Lawrence’s Hermione Roddice in Women in Love is reportedly a parody of Ottoline.
Snake Necklace with diamonds
Snakes – whether symbolizing health, eternity, love, or mourning, they have an enduring, romantic history with jewelry that continues to this day. Women have been wanting to decorate themselves with snake accessories for millennia, so it’s safe to say they won’t be falling out of fashion anytime soon.
See Antique Animal Jewelry's archive of beautiful serpentine pieces below: