Meaningful Motifs in Victorian Jewellery

Symbolism and allegory have formed an important part of personal adornment throughout history, and at no time was this more prevalent than during the Victorian era. Both overtly and covertly, symbols of love, mourning, loyalty, spirituality, and friendship were all incorporated into jewellery designs to navigate the social restraint and restrictions of the 19th Century.

18ct Gold and Diamond Interlocking Snake Ring, Birmingham, 1901
$1,000 – $1,500

Representing wisdom and eternity, snakes and serpents have appeared in jewellery designs across various cultures since antiquity. With ancient civilisations being of particular interest to the Victorians, they translated the coiled snake motif into rings, bracelets, brooches, and pins. The motifs surged in popularity after 1839 when Queen Victoria’s husband to be, Prince Albert, proposed with a snake engagement ring. Embedded with the Queen’s birthstone (emerald), the coiled snake was thought to represent everlasting eternal love.

14ct Gold Onyx and Seed Pearl Mourning Locket, 1890s
$400 – $600

The natural world was of particular interest to the Victorians, reflected in the jewellery of the period. Forget-me-nots, ferns, ivy, violets, butterflies, and doves were worked into designs in keeping with the Victorian preference for the elaborate and intricate. Ivy for example was frequently worked in gold as a symbol of friendship, whereas ferns were a means of showing sincerity. Flowers such as forget-me-nots were set into mourning jewellery in memory of a loved one. As gemstones were also used to communicate further meaning, the forget-me-not flowers were often detailed with seed pearls to represent tears in these sentimental pieces.

Birds such as swallows were also frequently featured in jewellery of the period, with swallow motifs becoming popular gifts for sailors and fishermen. As swallows were typically sighted near land, the talisman was gifted to those departing for travel with the hopes of guiding them home to land safely. Soon the swallow motif became associated with returning home, a tradition that continued well into the 20th Century. It was common for swallow brooches to be gifted by soldiers to their sweethearts before heading to abroad during World
War I.

9ct Gold Curblink Padlock Bracelet, A. Saunders, Circa 1900 $400 – $600

One of the more overt symbols of love in Victorian jewellery is the heart padlock. Hanging from a curb link or gate link bracelet, these charming pieces rose in popularity during the mid to late 19th Century, reflecting the highly regarded values of chastity and loyalty. They were typically gifted to women by their beloved before they travelled for an extended period, with the lock protecting their love for one another. The padlock could then be unlocked by the key held in his possession upon his return.

18ct Gold
and Diamond Swallow Brooch, Circa 1880
$2,000 – $3,000

Referencing a feminine goddess in ancient cultures, the crescent moon symbol surged in popularity during the Georgian and Victorian eras. During these periods, the crescent represented change, cycles, and the ebb and flow of life. Brooches and necklaces were often gifted to the wearer in the hopes that a newly embarked upon relationship may result in marriage, turning the crescent moon into a full moon. Newlywed Victorian brides were sometimes gifted a ‘honeymoon’ brooch, with a crescent moon cradling a flower or star.

An incredible single owner collection of over 200 lots of Victorian, antique, and vintage jewellery will be offered at Leonard Joel on Monday the 20th of September.

BETHANY MCGOUGAN / Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces

Banner Image: 18ct Gold and Sapphire Snake Pin | $200 – $300
18ct Gold and Diamond Interlocking Snake Ring, Birmingham, 1901 | $1,000 – $1,500
9ct Gold Curblink Padlock Bracelet, A. Saunders, Circa 1900 | $400 – $600

July 2021