What’s your jewelry trying to say to you? Vintage and antique jewelry can have a special language all its own and if you know what to look for, you can become fluent in the hidden meanings behind sentimental jewelry.
Although sentimental jewelry has been around for centuries, it really took off in a big way during the Victorian era. Starting in earnest around the time of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, the young Queen gave her country a youthful spirit and her early reign reflected her happy marriage to Prince Albert and her growing young family.
As the years went by and after her beloved Albert died, Queen Victoria sparked other trends in mourning jewelry through the final years of her long reign.
Queen Victoria's 5 daughters mourn near a bust of their father, Prince Albert.
MOONS AND STARS
Jewelry design began to reflect sentimental thoughts and feelings and these hidden meanings began showing up on pendants, brooches, bracelets, rings and more.
Popular design motifs included romantic brooches, lockets and stickpins adorned with crescent moons and stars, often embellished with seed pearls, diamonds or rhinestones and opals.
A crescent moon was symbolic of "spirituality" and of the "Moon Goddess".
Stars and starburst jewelry represented symbols for "spirit, guidance and direction" for its wearer.
One of the more popular and certainly one of the more romantic design motifs at the time were jewelry pieces adorned with images of birds....
....particularly Swallows, which are birds that are known to "mate for life" and they became symbols for "home and heart" since Swallows always return home to their nest.
Prince Albert set off a trend that eventually spread through all of Europe when he presented Victoria with a snake ring on their engagement. Her ring double entwined around her finger and was studded with an Emerald on the snakes head, which was her birthstone.
Victoria’s snake ring was meant as a symbol of "everlasting love" and a love that will "last for an eternity".
Snakes have been symbolic since the beginning of time…think back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden! Snake jewelry has remained popular ever since.
Jewelry embellished with clovers and horseshoes were also favorite styles and popular symbols for "success, luck, many blessings and good fortune" for the wearer.
The popularity of heart jewelry during the Georgian era carried over into the Victorian era. Hearts which were symbolic of "love, passion and charity" were sentimental favorites during this time. Popular were the Witches Heart, which was symbolic of a lover who had become “bewitched” and Luckenbooths brooches in Scotland.
In Ireland, the heart motif in a Claddagh is being held by two hands. Heart designs with other meanings include double hearts topped with a crown to symbolize "fidelity reigning over a marriage", while a single heart topped with a crown was symbolic of “ruler of my heart”. Two hearts entwined symbolized "continuous everlasting love". Two hearts set side-by-side represented “two hearts together as one” Hearts with flames on top symbolized a “burning passion”.
A locking padlock heart was popular to symbolize "a heart locked with love". Some hearts had key holes which meant “you have the key to my heart”.
In early Victorian times, trinkets of sentiment were exchanged and worn by both men and women. Small pins, charms and rings were set with a variety of gemstones whose first letter was used to secretly spell out a word of endearment. For example the word “Regard” would be set with the corresponding gemstone – Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby, Diamond.
Other popular sentiments included “Love” – Lapis-lazuli, Opal, Vermeil (an old term for hessonite garnet) and Emerald. Also, “Dearest” - Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, Topaz. This type of jewelry is known as Acrostic jewelry.
The Victorian were obsessed with flowers and their gardens. Botanicals were in fashion and this carried over into jewelry design as well. Floral motifs were added to all manner of jewelry items for extra meaning and sentiment.
The most popular of these motifs were forget-me-nots for “remembrance”, pansies for “think of me”, Ivy for “fidelity".
Tulips and Roses declared “love” orange blossoms for “everlasting love”, Lily for "purity" and "innocence of the soul" and violets for “faith”.
If any one piece of jewelry is symbolic of sentimental jewelry representing the Victorian era, the Victorian era locket has to win hands down. Whether worn as a sentimental token of love or worn in memory of a lost loved one, a locket could represent every sentimental milestone from birth to death. A lockets secret compartment could hold cherished photos, messages or locks of hair from a loved one. Lockets came in a wide variety of designs with the most popular being lockets embellished with crosses for “religious faith”, swallows for “forever love”, buckles for “protection, authority and victory”, anchors for “hope and steadfastness”, horseshoes for “good luck” and flowers as shown in the section above.
Lockets would also be engraved with personal sentiments, initials, names and dates that represented births, marriages, death or other important occasions for the giver or wearer.
Unfortunately, death was no stranger during this time in history. Disease, childbirth, unsanitary and harsh environments contributed to high mortality rates. Mourning jewelry had been around for centuries before as a way to cope with loss, but by 1861 when Queen Victorian was in deep mourning for her beloved Albert, mourning jewelry jumped to a whole new level.
The most popular jewelry being worn while in mourning were pieces made with Jet (a black fossilized coal), gold jewelry pieces with intricate chased design details with black enamel filling the engraved areas and of course, hair jewelry.
Although hair mementos had also been around for centuries, the Victorians brought it to a whole new level of design and wear ability.
Hair strands from the dearly departed could be gathered and tied or woven into braids or other intricate patterns and designs. Hair was hidden inside lockets or exposed in special compartments under glass so that the hair could be seen. By the 1830s hair jewelry had taken on a three dimensional aspect and was being created into braided lengths that formed long chains for necklaces and watch chains, bracelets bands and even rings were made with plaited hair.
ARE YOU INSPIRED?
In an age where we now use cartoon like emoticons to communicate feelings...
the Victorians had their own beautiful symbols to express feelings and emotions. There is so much to learn and I have only touched on some highlighted aspects of symbolism. I hope you’ll want to learn more and I hope this inspires you to take a second look for the hidden meanings in the jewelry you may already own or come across in your travels.
References: Photos noted with sources. All photos without notations via Pinterest.
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