Signs and Symbols in Antique Jewellery
I am always fascinated by jewellery with more sentimental value than purely the beauty of the gems and materials that have been fashioned into the piece. Affection for friends and family, passion of lovers, loyalty to a monarch or cause, religious devotion, birth and death, have traditionally all been commemorated in jewellery for thousands of years. As a genre, sentimental jewellery flourished throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. The Victorians are known for their preoccupation with codes, symbols and hidden messages and the more we study these jewels the more meaning we can reveal about the identity of the owner of the piece, in what particular way it was treasured and why.
Many symbols found in jewellery from the Victorian period first originated with the heraldic device in the chivalric culture of France in the 14th century. Though only those of noble or knightly rank had the right to bear heraldic crests and devices at this time, some of the imagery passed into general artistic use. The imagery used in the devices displayed on crests had a particular meaning, for example the serpent symbolised wisdom, the salamander and flames for virtue, the acorn for strength, lily for purity and the eagle for strength of will and authority of mind.
Emblems, devices and symbols preoccupied the writers, artists and craftsmen of the renaissance. The abstract emblem, which required a literary interpretation to be understood, was particularly esteemed for this reason by the learned. These emblems and devices continued to serve a practical purpose into the 19th century, as they were used in seals for sealing letters and displaying one’s identity.
In Victorian jewellery symbols continued to be in general use, often to signify a romantic or emotional message in courtship. The insect settling on a rose standing for ‘I settle’, the padlock and key motif meaning ‘thou hast the key’, the swallow for enduring love, and the buckle for loyalty and protection.
‘Floriography’, or the language of flowers, was well known and put into practice, with each flower included in a posy having a particular meaning, the combination of different flowers displaying a coded message for the receiver to decipher. Many pieces of jewellery from the period include floral designs, intended to be read and understood. The most common of these being the forget-me-not flower meaning true love, ivy leaves signifying a strong & lasting friendship, and the pansy for ‘thoughts’.
Even particular gemstones had their meanings, many originating in medieval superstition that different gemstones held real properties when worn as amulets or talismans. The gem-lore adopted by the Victorians was often associated with love and romance, the hardness of diamonds symbolising endurance in love, turquoise the emblem of true and innocent love and rubies for passionate love.
This language can be communicated through the material, motif and design of the piece, each jewel a lasting expression of emotion. The language of gem-lore, flowers and hair work would have been common knowledge at the time but has since been lost to us, with only a handful of symbolic motifs surviving into the modern day.