A Guide To Georgian Jewellery
The Georgian era of antique jewellery was an exuberant one, reflecting the excess and flamboyance of the time period. One of the most interesting eras for antique jewellery, the Georgian period was defined by skill, artisanship and glamour.
Pieces from this era are highly sought after and finding authentic items can be difficult if you aren’t sure what to look out for, so we have composed this guide to provide you with everything you need to know about Georgian jewellery.
To explain what jewellery was like in this era, we first have to set the scene.
The Georgian era is named after the four King Georges who ruled in succession, between 1714 to 1837.
It was a prosperous and revolutionary period, particularly in regard to politics, art and architecture – and the jewellery created was no exception. Many of the great English stately homes were built during this period, coinciding with the gradual building of the British empire that would span the globe. It was a time of Gainsborough, Mozart and the decorative aesthetics of Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Rococo.
Across the world, this period was marked by George Washington and revolution in America, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the French Revolution and Napoleon in France, and the rule of Catherine the Great in Russia.
All of the above, combined with great leaps in world exploration and science, the introduction of rail travel and a changing role for women in society created a fascinatingly rich backdrop for Georgian jewellery.
As we’ve already explained, the Georgian era was defined by excess and high society hedonism.
Outlandish men’s fashions brought us Incroyables and Macaronis, with bright, tight, exaggerated clothing and ostentatious hairdos.
The upper-class women’s fashion evolved from exuberant corsets and bustling skirts to the demure empire-line dresses of the Regency period, as seen in any Austen adaptation or, more recently, Bridgerton. These were influenced by the stylish French and the Ancient Greek and Roman trends, respectively.
Fashions and styles were often shared internationally, and countries drew inspiration from the world around them.
Georgian jewellery is recognisable by a few stand-out features; firstly, it was painstakingly handcrafted by skilled artisans, so metalwork and gemstones from this era are rough around the edges compared to the neater craftsmanship of more recent eras. This also means that gold, not regulated at the time, was not stamped with the karat weight, and it will take an expert to identify the best pieces.
Dramatic and ornate were the styles of the day, thanks partly to intricate metalwork designs like repoussé (hammering metal into intricate designs) and cannetille (a method of working gold wire to make it look woven).
Silver, 18-karat gold (often in combination with silver) and pinchbeck, an alloy made from copper and zinc to resemble gold, were used most often around this time.
Across Europe, Germany and France funded wars by asking their citizens to donate gold in return for iron or steel, and as a result, some beautiful steel and iron pieces exist from the Georgian era. Known as ‘Fer de Berlin’, the German iron pieces were replicas of the owner’s original gold jewellery, and each piece was engraved with “Gold Gab Ich Für Eisen”, which translates to “I gave gold for Iron”.
Sapphires, rubies, garnets and pearls were widely used in Georgian jewellery, often cut in cabochons or teardrops. Rubies and pearls were a fashionable combination at the time
Popular cuts for diamonds were rose cut, old mine cut and table cut – whilst these lack the sparkle factor of more recent diamonds due to the less refined cutting techniques, they are still beautiful in their own right as they present an image of depth.
Paste – cutting glass to mimic diamonds and other coloured gemstones) was an early form of costume jewellery, popular with the Georgian lower classes and aristocracy alike.
Gemstones were also backed by foil to provide another layer of luminescence and to intensify their colours.
Closed back, foiled jewellery was a signature style of Georgian gemstones.
Motifs and symbolism
Georgian jewellery is quite feminine in feel, with common motifs including flowers, plumes, birds, bugs and even human body parts like hands and eyes. Portrait miniatures were popular, as were intricate hair jewellery.
Tokens of love and remembrance, like portrait miniatures, silhouettes and lover’s eye jewellery were common during this era, often featuring locks of hair. Particularly for mothers, jewellery featuring a lock of their child’s hair was a cherished keepsake.
Women would often use their own hair to have mementos created for their husbands, lovers and children; by the end of the Georgian era, complete suites of jewellery, including bracelets and necklaces, were woven entirely from hair.
Whilst mourning jewellery is most frequently associated with the Victorian era, it made its first appearance in Georgian times and in a much more macabre fashion. The Victorian revival was sentimental, whereas the Georgians favoured skeletons, gravediggers and coffins.
Popular jewellery styles
The Georgians favoured dainty and symbolic stacking rings, an early echo of the contemporary stacking trend. You can find beautiful acrostic rings, as well as rings with hands clasped or holding a flower, from this time. Another popular ring style was a large central stone surrounded by smaller ones.
Pedeloque and girandoles earrings were in fashion, cascading chandelier styles exposed in all their glory by the pinned-up hairstyles from the era.
In the evenings, rose and mine cut diamonds were out in force. The diamond rivière (river of light) necklace was created to show off these diamonds, forming a shimmering circle of large gemstones around the neck. Often suspended from these necklaces were matching detachable pendants. Early ribbon choker necklaces were gradually replaced with ropes of gemstones around the neck, designed to decorate the ever-lower décolletage of ladies’ necklines.
Parures – sets of jewellery pieces designed to complement the others with matching gemstones or a common theme – often included as many as sixteen items of jewellery, and were considered to be an essential item for fashionable ladies.
Jewellery with multiple functions was popular, such as a pendant that could form part of a brooch. Brooches evolved through the era, from demure gemstone bouquets to the more spectacular pieces set en tremblant.
The Georgian era chatelaine, a chain from which essential daily items were dangled, was a very early incarnation of the modern handbag.
Towering hairstyles required headpieces to match; tiaras, bandeaus, aigrettes, combs and hairpins were crafted using gemstones and any other material that caught the light and the eye.
Georgian gentlemen weren’t left out of this glamour, either, sporting extravagant shoe buckles and buttons studded with diamonds, paste and gemstones.