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Victorian Sentimentality: Teeth in Jewelry

Sentimental jewelry is unlike any other; where gemstones and expensive metals usually denote value, the true worth of sentimental jewelry is determined by the wearer's emotional connection to the piece. Such is the case with tooth jewelry; precious stones they are not, but they hold infinite value because they symbolize loved ones.

"With material value all but eliminated, the sentiment becomes the currency, the raison d'être of the piece." - Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria.

Throughout history, children losing their milk teeth has been an important rite of passage to be commemorated. The Vikings had a tradition where children could trade in their baby teeth for money, and in Medieval England, children were instructed to burn their milk teeth or else risk eternal damnation. In some thirteenth-century Norse cultures, warriors wore children's milk teeth as necklaces as good luck charms for battle. Nowadays, of course, we have the tooth fairy, who swaps fallen-out teeth for money or treats.

'Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things' by Sophie Gengembre Anderson, 1869. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Superstition and tradition surrounding children's milk teeth have existed for centuries. In Victorian times, this celebration happened to take upon a sentimental, jeweled form. Wealthy families would keep their children's teeth and commission unique jewelry pieces incorporating them, often in the place of gemstones. These pieces would then be worn mostly by the children's mothers. The jewelry acted as a sentimental dedication to their beloved children, but would also remind mothers of the earlier days of childhood.

Queen Victoria, despite her reputation as a reluctant and even cold mother, commissioned a brooch (below) to incorporate the tooth of her eldest daughter, Victoria. Later on, Victoria would go on to commission even more pieces containing her children's teeth. As the Queen and therefore the ultimate influencer of the era, Victoria's jewelry choices often became mainstream trends. However, the process of designing individual pieces to incorporate teeth was expensive and only available to the wealthiest families. As a result, surviving milk tooth jewelry is few and far between, incredibly rare and special.

Hair jewelry, on the other hand, could be made in pre-designed or mass-produced pieces by jewelers, and then fitted with the individual person's hair afterward. As such, hair jewelry was easier to partake in as it made for far simpler customization techniques.

Victoria and Albert's eldest child, Princess Victoria, lost a baby tooth when they were on holiday in Scotland so it was made into a brooch in the shape of a thistle – with the tooth representing the seedhead that you get at the top.

Photo via the Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

A pendant and a pair of gold-mounted enamel earrings in the form of a Fuschia flower set with milk teeth from Princess Beatrice (1857-1944), Queen Victoria's youngest child. Fuschias represent 'taste' in the Victorian language of flowers, linking thematically to the teeth. These are suspended from an enameled ribbon. Via the Royal Collection Trust.

A necklace given to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert. Around the outside are the teeth of a stag he shot on the Balmoral Estate. Sometimes teeth were also set into jewelry to commemorate successful hunts, though this is less of a sentimental effect and more of a display of pride and hunting prowess. Via the Royal Collection.

This gorgeous charm bracelet also got a shoutout from us in our previous post about Queen Victoria's story as told through jewelry. This piece was also a sentimental gift to commemorate Victoria's children: the gold and enamel bracelet was given to Victoria by Albert in November 1840, three days after the birth of their first child, Victoria. Another enameled locket was added for each of the couple's children to come: pink for Princess Victoria, turquoise blue for Albert, red for Princess Alice, dark blue for Alfred, translucent white for Helena, dark green for Louise, mid-blue for Arthur, opaque white for Leopold and light green for Beatrice. Some of the lockets also contain the hair of the children.

Photo and info via the RCT.

Yet another piece of jewelry to celebrate Victoria's children: a bracelet with miniatures of Victoria, Princess Royal, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, Princess Alice, Prince Alfred, Princess Helena, and Princess Louise c.1845-50. 

Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Victoria, Albert and their nine children in portraits.

To learn more about Queen Victoria's jewelry specifically, visit AAJ's previous blog on the topic.

Other milk tooth jewelry designs from the Victorian era bore intricate and varying designs, despite not coming from royal provenance.

Victorian Ruby Milk Teeth Ring. Two milk teeth surrounded by a halo of glittering rubies in an intricately pierced, openwork setting. Gold, rubies, baby teeth, 1860. Via Louison Rare and Fine.

A gold ring set with children's teeth and diamonds.

Sold by Woolley & Wallis in July 2018.

Ring set with a milk tooth, via Bell and Bird.

An antique 14ct gold brooch set with a central diamonds, rubies and 8 milk teeth.

Sold by Ewbanks Auctioneers in March 2018.

Gold Victorian ring with baby tooth, via KC Auction company.

Baby Tooth Ring – gold, sapphire, diamond, and baby tooth. English. Centering a baby tooth framed by sapphires and rose cut diamonds. Circa 1890. Courtesy of Doyle & Doyle.

Victorian milk tooth ring. Two pearly whites sit side by side, possibly symbolizing two children, in a golden ring. Via The One I Love NYC.

Gold brooch set with four baby teeth and diamonds, via Les Bijoux Des Français.

Gold ring with baby teeth, via Les Bijoux Des Français.

French Victorian gold, ruby and milk tooth ring via The Moonstoned.

An incredible collection of Victorian milk tooth jewelry by Beatrice Temperley via Instagram.

Beatrice's entry into our #AAJ100kGiveaway #AAJ10storeystack also features some milky whites! If you haven't already, find out more here to enter the giveaway.

Via Beatrice Temperley on Instagram.

To feast your eyes on more beautiful antique jewelry, follow AAJ on Instagram.