• Sara

Up, Up, and Away! Balloons in Antique Jewelry

Updated: Oct 14


It seems that people have always had a fascination with conquering the heavens. Long before the world of space travel, airports and airbuses, however, the humble hot air balloon captivated and inspired 18th century Europe. The invention of the balloon struck European culture 'like a thunderbolt,' according to Tom D. Crouch, the senior aeronautics curator at the Smithsonian.


The first-ever untethered hot air balloon flight was Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes on November 21st, 1783, in Annonay, France. The balloon was designed by the Montgolfier brothers, who were the inventors of the popular oval balloon shape. On that first flight, the balloon rose to 50 feet. The men traveled 5 miles in 25 minutes. It was a sensation. News of the event traveled fast through Europe, capturing the imaginations of artists, makers, and designers.


Just under two weeks later, on December 1st, 1783, J.A. C. Charles and M.N. Robert made the first free flight aboard a hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries. Almost 400,000 people (at the time, this was about half the population of Paris) went out to watch the flight.


'"It is impossible to describe that moment:" wrote one observer of a balloon launch, "the women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder." One group of spectators greeted a party of returning aeronauts with the question: "Are you men or Gods?" In an age when human beings could fly, what other wonders might the future hold?' - The Landing Of J.A.C. Charles And M.N. Robert via The Smithsonian

In the decades following 1783, aeronautics became popular ways of celebrating events. They were seen as shows, performances, and fireworks were often released from the balloons once they were in the air.


With balloon mania trickling across Europe, it is natural that balloons became a popular symbol in decorative arts, including jewelry. The balloon symbolized the potential of human progression and technological advancement; it was a hopeful symbol, looking to future possibilities that seemed sky-high and endless.


Diamond and Sapphire Balloon ring from AAJ, formerly a stickpin


Gold figural pendant, circa 1783 – 1784, commemorating the inaugural flight of the first manned hydrogen balloon. It depicts Jacques Charles and Nicolas Robert in the gondola compartment of their hydrogen balloon waving flags as they begin their ascent.

Via Rowan and Rowan.


A French silver, diamond, and ruby ballooning ring, early 19th century, via Heritage Auctions.


A very similar design found in Rings: Alice and Louis Koch Collection by Ann Beatriz Chadour (1994). This is a gold, silver, diamond, and ruby ring from 1783.


"Flight of hot air balloon in front of the Conciergerie in Paris, animated by characters" and "Flight of balloon in the Tuileries Garden". Octagonal gouache miniatures forming pendants. Louis-Nicolas and Henri-Joseph Van Blarenberghe. Both 1783. Via Osenat.


One tortoiseshell snuff box, ornamented with a miniature balloon, with the fabric in diamonds and the basket in gold, from the Penn-Gaskell collection. Via © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.


French chatelaine depicting four ballooning scenes, via the Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection, NCT Archive.


Satire on the balloon craze, showing male and female 'physicists' in bizarre costumes. Illustration from 'Histoire des ballons et des aeronautes celebres: 1783-1800' (History of balloons and famous aeronauts), by Gaston Tisandier (1843-1899), published in 1887.

Via © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library.


Although a handful of women (mostly aeronaut's wives) had been up in balloons before her, Sophie Blanchard came to be the most famous and celebrated female balloonist in France in the 19th century. Her aeronaut husband, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, took her up in her first flight in 1804. From then, the small woman took on solo flights, and when her husband died, she commissioned her own small silk balloon with a special low-cut basket design.

"Blanchard was fearless to the point of recklessness—she was knocked unconscious when she flew too high to avoid a hailstorm, she would fall asleep in her balloon for hours, and suffered nosebleeds and frostbite when she ballooned over the Alps to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday." - Hadley Meares for Atlas Obscura

Unfortunately, on July 9, 1819, Sophie fell to her death after her balloon caught fire over Paris. She had been attempting to release a firework.


French balloonist Sophie Blanchard, standing in the decorated basket of her balloon during her flight in Milan, Italy, in 1811. Via the Library of Congress.


The most popular image to show on decorative arts, however, remains the flight over the Tuileries in Paris. Many snuff boxes, fans, pocketwatches, buttons, and jewelry boxes were hand-painted and decorated with the famous scene, as a celebration of the success.


Engraved gold snuff or tobacco box with balloon motif, 1783-1795, Switzerland. Via the V&A.


A French Snuffbox with Miniature Balloon-Related Watercolor, late 18th-early 19th century. Via Heritage Auctions.


Bilston Enameled Patch or Snuff Box with Ballooning Motif, circa 1790. Via Heritage Auctions.


Fan with hot air balloon scene, via the Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection, NCT Archive.


Pocket watch with hot air balloon cover, circa. 1790, via the Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection, NCT Archive.


One set of six silver lined buttons (French) painted with balloon scenes from the Penn-Gaskell collection.

Via © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.


One lid of snuff box. Inlaid ivory and tortoiseshell surround, painted scene Montgolfier's balloon ascent at Annonay. 1783-1800.

Via © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.


One umbrella top, china on copper, inscribed Lunardi. Showing a balloon & crowds.

Via © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.


18th Century print, via the Smithsonian.


Late 18th century print of the Montgolfier Balloon, via the Smithsonian.


An AAJ find: French miniature of the first unmanned flight in France.


French wood etui box for containing silver with balloon motif, early 19th century.

Via Ruby Lane.



Gouache in a metal frame in the style of Henri-Joseph van Blarenberge, c. 1783.

Via Lot Search.


A Dutch silver-cased verge pocket watch with balloon illustration, late 18th century.

Via Heritage Auctions.


Gouache in a metal frame in the style of Henri-Joseph van Blarenberge, c. 1783.

Via Lot Search.


To see more gorgeous antique jewelry, visit AAJ's Instagram.

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