The Victorian period is named for Queen Victoria of England, the monarch who presided over the British Empire for more than six decades between 1837 and 1901. Until Victoria’s reign, fine jewelry had been mostly the province of aristocrats. However, during these years, jewelry became more broadly accessible, as an emerging middle class in Europe and the United States began to wear jewelry that was luxurious enough to be fit for kings and queens.
Because jewelry happened to be one of Victoria’s favorite realms, her exquisite taste helped guide public preferences. Victorian jewelry styles mirror the phases of Victoria’s life, as she moved from joy, to despair, and then back to joy again. In the Romantic Period, from 1837 to 1861, Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were deeply in love. Jewelry from these years expressed confidence, serenity, and romance. Hearts, bows, flowers, and birds were common motifs, as were enameled serpents and snakes.
Upon Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria entered a long period of mourning. During the Grand Period, from 1861 to 1880, jewelry became darker and more melancholy. Black jewelry made of jet, a fossilized coal, became popular, as did jewelry made of black onyx and black enamel. It was also during this period that revivalism became a trend; Victorian jewelers adopted designs inspired by ancient and Renaissance art. Eventually, Victoria emerged from her mourning. The Late Victorian period, from 1880 to 1901, was characterized by a return to more whimsical, buoyant designs. Stars, dragons, griffins, and crescent moons made their way into jewelry, and Japanese influences were notable.
An important factor behind the evolution of Victorian jewelry was increased availability of gemstones and precious metals. By the mid-1800s, a series of gold discoveries had reduced the price of gold. Victorian jewelers were freed to try techniques, such as engraving and filigree, which enabled them to create splendid pieces of gold jewelry. Although silver was also becoming less expensive, it was gold that became the era’s preeminent metal. Diamonds, likewise, were becoming more abundant. The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867 permitted diamonds to become a favored gemstone in Late Victorian jewelry.