Victorian Period 1837-1900 An Overview

Just barely into the second quarter of the nineteenth century, in 1837, Victoria, a descendent of the Georges through her father and of German Saxe Coburg through her mother became queen of England at the age of eighteen and this event ushered in a new and clearly different period that is now called the Victorian era. When she came to the throne, there was a fervent hope that the young Queen would revitalize the fashion world. Although she had been greatly sheltered during her childhood Victoria loved jewelry, and her influence contributed greatly to the many styles that developed during her reign.

Like the Georgian era that preceded it, the Victorian era covered a long period of time and consequently it is usually broken into 3 major periods. They are called early, middle and late but to characterize them they are also described as the romantic, the grand and the aesthetic. Many styles in clothing and personal adornment came in and went out of fashion but all can still be said to be "Victorian".

Transitions were not usually clear or abrupt – several styles coexisted at once, as tastes slowly changed. The Art Nouveau era, to give an example, overlaps the time period for Victorian jewelry but has a unique and very recognizable style.

Like a dress made by a woman who moved into wearing the larger skirts of the 1850s but retained her favorite high full sleeves of ten years before on the same dress, some pieces of jewelry can be illustrative of two styles at once and that can create some confusion in dating a piece. Family suites of jewelry from the previous generation would be broken apart or combined with newer pieces melding the styles of both periods. Large pieces would be cut down or simplified for a different use, part of a brooch resurrected as a ring for instance. Georgian and even preGeorgian pieces were preserved and worn, for who would not wear at least a piece or two of a beloved grandmother’s jewelry or just have it as a keepsake in keeping with the sentimentality of the early Victorian era especially.

Clothing fashions had already begun to turn away from the styles of the late Georgian period, heavily influenced by the French court and the French revolution. Clothing styles had become anti aristocratic and some said immoral, eschewing the ornate and heavily decorated clothing for simpler dresses that had clung to the body. Jewelry which had also almost disappeared or become much less obvious, began to return with the new styles in clothing. Now, the skirts again were wider, supported in early years by many petticoats in styles that displayed the richness and patterns of the fabrics now made more affordable and available through the technological advances of mills and sewing machines.

The woman’s apparent shape and proportions were altered by her clothing. Jewelry design changed to be proportional and appropriate to the changes in dress. Victorian bodices and waists were tight. They were smooth and provided an excellent background for buttons and shoulder broaches and Chatelaines with chains that hung down from shoulder or waist to carry items such as sewing needs or pencils and watches and fobs. Necklines were high or had lace collars that required the use of pins, clips and brooches. Or they were open over white chemisettes lending themselves to long necklaces. Sleeves changed almost from year to year in the1840s and 50s. They became full and shorter allowing the use of multiple bracelets which were worn at once to cover arms bared by the changes in sleeves or worn over fine lace undersleeves and mitts. Up until the last quarter of the 19th century, the most popular style for bracelets were those of 1" or more in width, either solid hinged bangles of gold chain, pearls, and gemstones or woven of hair with gold fittings. Earrings were popular throughout the era with exceptions only for a few years during the 1840's and 1890's, when bonnet ribbons made them difficult to wear.

The spread of the empire and the calmer more peaceful times encouraged trade under Victoria and this brought access to the products and the art work, crafts and gemstones of faraway places such as the Orient and India. Mechanical and technical advances allowed mass production in both fabrics and metal work including jewelry. Gutta Percha appeared in 1842 from a Malayan tree resin and along with vulcanite processed from the rubber tree were the first early forms of moldable and durable materials.

Jewelry was being worn in abundance by everyone but it had undergone a change. Instead of being individually crafted of sheet and wire, pieces could be stamped out and molded. Many designs could be turned out one just as well made as the last. Though less expensive to make and therefore more available settings would be set with gemstones as well as glass. The quality no longer depended on the individual goldsmith or gemsetter. And rather than individual unique pieces, quality jewelry could be created to a standard that could be repeated. The new availability of jewelry for the first time to the average middle-class consumer in turn fuelled the demand and an explosion of personal adornment hit society.

Fine jewelry in the Victorian era denoted more than just wealth. It was intended to reflect social standing and status as well as convey a message about the dignity and refinement of the wearer. There were still rigid rules to determine what jewelry was deemed "appropriate". In Europe, only the simplest of jewelry was worn by young, unmarried women - crosses, pearls, chains, and mourning jewelry while married women "of a certain age" were the only ones deemed appropriate wearers of diamonds and gems. However gemstones that sparkled were considered in poor taste for women past a certain age. It does not appear that similar rules applied to men however their personal adornment in the Victorian era was much less prominent than during the Georgian with the loss of jeweled buttons, shoes and brooches. The usual jewelry worn by men in the Victorian era consisted in stickpins, watches with their attendant keys, chains and fobs and rings. Occasionally one might still see a jeweled walking stick.