The discovery of gold deposits in Australia brought about significant economic, political, and social changes that were reflected in the decorative arts of the period. Perhaps more than any other medium, jewellery reflected the considerable societal changes taking place.
Gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851, bringing about a wave of immigration with almost 300,000 men and 200,000 women arriving to the colony during 1850s. Quickly becoming one of the wealthiest cities in the world, Melbourne had a growing market for luxury items. As a universal form of personal adornment, jewellery was a popular expression of this newly acquired wealth.
Amongst the immigrants rushing to Australia were accomplished jewellers and goldsmiths, many of whom had trained and practiced in Europe. In early jewellery pieces we see a European influence combined with uniquely Australian motifs, resulting in a distinctive style that made use of an abundance of gold. The mid to late 1850s saw increased interest in the flora and fauna of the antipodes. Animals such as the kangaroo, emu, kookaburra, and cockatoo were featured, as were native plants such as the banksia, palm, native pear and fern. With import costs still high, local gemstones were also incorporated into designs, including opals, operculum shell, malachite, amethyst, citrine, agate and quandong seeds. Many beautifully crafted pieces were sent to England for exhibition as a celebration of colonial success.
With the goldrush in full swing, various jewellers began incorporating mining and manual labor motifs into their designs. Buckets, picks, shovels, cradles, mattocks and even miniature miners all began to feature, as did gold nuggets. Sometimes stylized as a simple crossed shovel and pick, at other times elaborate and detailed scenes within foliate borders, these pieces were crafted from local gold and gifted to sweethearts as a celebration of digger prosperity.
Identification of jewellery from this early period can prove challenging as pieces are rarely marked with manufacturer stamps. By the 1880s, the Manufacturing Jewellers Association of Victoria was formed, and members began to adopt regulatory marks. Standardized marks were included to denote gold purity; a pick and shovel for 9ct gold, a fleece for 15ct gold, and a ship for 18ct gold.
Notable and collectable Melbourne based jewellers at this time included Aronson, Duggin, Lamborn & Wagner, and Willis amongst many others. Whilst Australian jewellery has been a popular collecting category for many years, items in excellent condition or by notable manufacturers tend to be most highly sought after, achieving excellent results at auction.
Bethany McGougan / Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces