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The Masked Lady in Antique Jewelry

Mysterious, romantic, flirtatious: the Masked Lady pops up here and there in Georgian and Victorian antique jewelry. She often has diamond-set eyes and a black Colombina style mask shielding only the top half of her face. But, who is she?

Though it may seem that each piece of antique jewelry depicts the same mysterious Masked figure, the lady herself is more of a symbol than a particular character. Masks have taken on a whole new meaning in 2020, but before they were used for hygiene and Covid-19 and public transport, they were glamorous decorative partywear worn to elegant masked balls.

In the Georgian and Victorian eras, masquerade balls were all the rage for the upper classes of Britain. Masks were an exciting addition to parties, lending themselves to heavy flirtation and mischief. To quote jewelry historian Beatriz Chadour-Sampson:

'Venetian carnivals in the mid-18th century were riotous affairs and morals were loose. Veils and black velvet masks led to flirtatious encounters and offered the wearer the advantage of anonymity.' (from The Power of Love: Jewels, Romance and Eternity)

The masked lady so often depicted in Georgian and Victorian jewelry, then, was a symbol of revelers, party-goers, and the romance, drama, and theatre of masquerade balls. With time, however, jewelers began to create pieces featuring the masked lady as a symbol of love; a number of masked lady jewels include romantic, intimate inscriptions.

A romantic masked woman ring, with a hidden message under the bezel reading 'je cache mes amours,' meaning 'I mask my love.' The message, touching the finger when worn, would only be known to the wearer. Forget-me-not flowers on the ring shoulders complete the romance. Mid 18th century.

Photo via The Power of Love: Jewels, Romance and Eternity by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson.

Gold, ruby, enamel, and rose-cut diamond ring, mid 18th century. The locket bezel is a masked face with diamond eyes, within a ruby border. The heart inside the locket has the inscription 'pour vous seule' meaning 'for you alone'. Belonged to the Earl and Countess of Rosebery.

Photo via Le Grand Frisson: 500 Years of Jewels of Sentiment by Diana Scarisbrick.

The masquerade ball rose to popularity in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since the renaissance, they had been a mainstay in Italian culture, particularly associated with the Carnivals of Venice. A Swiss count is credited with bringing the masquerade ball to Britain in 1708, having visited Italy and observed the tradition. It is thought that the first British masquerade was held at the Haymarket Opera House.

Masquerades usually took place in the winter months, with many around Christmas and New Year. Fancy dresses, long 'domino' cloaks, and Venetian masks abounded. Tickets had to be purchased, and prices varied from ball to ball.

Tickets to masquerade balls, 1791, 1773 and 1782.

Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Although a variety of shapes, colors, and styles of masks were worn at masquerade balls, the type most often depicted in antique jewelry is the black velvet Colombina mask, meaning the style which covers the eyes and forehead but leaves the mouth exposed. This mask is said to have been invented for an actress playing Colombina (little dove) in the Commedia dell'Arte in the 15th century. The actress was so beautiful - and so vain - that she did not want her entire face to be hidden by a mask. Thus, the half-mask was born. Meanwhile, the color black in masks symbolizes sophistication, mystery, and seduction.

'Pantheon Masquerade' by Thomas Rowlandson and Auguste Charles Pugin, 1809.

Photo via the National Portrait Gallery.

The elements of mystique and hidden appearances that masked balls bring with them have inspired many historical writers; masked balls allow for romantic intrigue and sudden revelations of identity. In Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire's novel, The Sylph (1778), the heroin attends a masked ball at the Pantheon, where she meets her anonymous pen-pal in a mask obscuring his identity. Later, Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 story The Masque of the Red Death capitalized on the anonymity of masked balls to a more gothic, sinister end, with Death himself in attendance at a ball.

This innate sense of intrigue also gives antique jewelry depicting masked women a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. The black masks contrasting with porcelain white faces offer deep contrast, which is often surrounded by other unique design elements.

Gold and silver ring with a white mask and rose-cut diamond eyes. Surrounded by rubies and diamonds in pear-shaped collets, c.1750.

Photo via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.

Gold, mother-of-pearl, colored stones, rose diamonds, and enamel, mid 18th century. The bands of mother-of-pearl beads end with enameled gold clasps featuring masked faces, rose diamond eyes and a border of jeweled flowers.

Photo via Le Grand Frisson: 500 Years of Jewels of Sentiment by Diana Scarisbrick.

A porcelain Chelsea gold-mounted patch box and cover featuring a masked lady with rose-cut diamond eyes, c.1755. Photo via Sotheby's.

Porcelain, hardstone, gold, enamel, and diamond box shaped as the head of a girl with diamond eyes and a black mask. 1760-1765.

Photo via Le Grand Frisson: 500 Years of Jewels of Sentiment by Diana Scarisbrick.

Porcelain, enamel and gilded seal or tobacco stopper, c. 1765, Chelsea porcelain factory. Photo via the V&A.

Gold, silver, enamel, diamonds, colored stones, 18th century. The necklace has seven oval links enameled with busts of masked ladies and gentlemen, within giardinetti clusters and five pear-shaped drops.

Photo via Le Grand Frisson: 500 Years of Jewels of Sentiment by Diana Scarisbrick.

A victorian tribute to the romance of Georgian masquerade. Enamel on gold demi-parure.

Photo via Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830 by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings.

A painting of a mysterious, romantic lady with a Georgian mask.

Photo via Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830 by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings.

Beautiful Georgian masked ring with a locket mechanism and 'pour vous' inscription, meaning 'for you.' Source unknown.

See Antique Animal Jewelry's collection of masked lady pieces below:


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