In the 19th century, jewelry came with a sentimental look at styles of the past and contemplation over the time gone by... However, it also came with new advancements and technical improvements.
"During the early 19th century rings were a particularly popular accessory and women tended to wear several on each hand." [2.] The settings of early to middle of the 19th century rings often incorporated naturalistic motifs such as tiny leaves and flowers in applied in multi-colored gold. Such rings were worn not only on holidays, but also on a daily basis. Similarly, the rings created at the beginning of the 19th century came to the succession of generations to come. For this reason a very few early 19th century rings have survived until nowadays in good condition because that later generations of owners have increasingly worn their rings.
During the whole century, interesting style and manufacturing transformations could be observed. The era of romanticism came with a range of symbols and a dose of sentimentality that appeared in the 19th century fashion styles. From the Regency era at the beginning of the 19th century renewed interest in classical designs brought about a revival of historical styles. King George IV of England was a fashion trendsetter who wore snake rings that were set with cabochon ruby eyes. Such rings were representing a symbol of eternity. As a result of this example, snake rings became very fashionable and were produced in large numbers until the end of the century. [2.] Sources also mention that "snake rings became particularly popular after Prince Albert presented Queen Victoria with a snake engagement ring in 1839." [2.]
The 19th century is characterized by a romantic excitement about the themes that culminated with The Romantic Movement. It was expressed through literature and art, as well as jewelry, rediscovered the Medieval and the Renaissance styles. "Contemporary excavations of ancient sites in Italy offered alternative inspiration for jewelers. The firm of Castellani in Rome was the pre-eminent exponent of neo-Etruscan gold jewelry." [ 1.]
Starting from the 1820's there was a great desire to wear rings that were set with gems that spelled words or names. Queen Victoria was especially fond of wearing rings, particularly those with sentimental associations. [ 2.]
By the end of the century, the designers and jewelers of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements rejected both mass production and rich, gem-encrusted jewels in favor of artistically designed, hand-crafted pieces. During the early years of the 20th century, the Edwardian period, there was a more conservative style of jewelry being produced. Edwardian rings are usually delicate and gem-set, decorated with swags, bows or garlands in the contemporary Rococo revival style.
Signet Rings & Wedding Rings
The role and practical use of signet rings considerably diminished. This was due to invention of self-adhesive envelopes at the end of the century. In spite of this, many simple, mass-produced signet rings were made for the growing middle-class clientele. Those rings were engraved with the buyer's monograms. [ 2.]
Wedding rings of the 19th century were tokens of betrothal. Such rings were produced in the purest possible form as regards both design and material. [2.] It should be noted that most of the British 19th and 20th century wedding rings were dated, "due to the 1738 Wedding Ring act which started that they should be hallmarked."[2.] Many of such wedding rings were also engraved with expressions of love or important dates. [2.] And yet no all wedding rings were plain. Some of them were set with precious stones In the 19th century it was also not unusual to wear wedding rings set with small diamonds and pearls.
Actually gem-set rings were the 19th century fashion thing, with a great deal of sentimentalism.
Gem-Set & Sentimental Rings
During the 19th century different types of gem-set rings gained popularity. Early 19th century gem-set rings followed several standard designs, the cluster being the most popular. Cluster rings incorporating a single cabochon stone surrounded by smaller stones were particularly popular from about 1860. Although these rings came in every combination of gemstones, opals and turquoises were most frequently used. In the meantime marquise cluster rings were the most opulent of all types of gem-set rings. The five-stone rings were widely produced from 1880's.
It should be noted that gem-set rings became memorabilia in the era of sentimentalism. During the first half of the century there were a various multi-gem-set rings with sentimental meanings. Such rings are named as '"regard" rings' because of arrangements of gems with a purpose to spell a messages, such as "REGARD", "DEAREST", "AMORE" among others. [ 2.]
'Fede ring' is another example of sentimental rings. Hands, either clasped or offering flowers or hearts, are a symbol of friendship. They are usually known as "fede" rings (Italian for trust). "Fede" rings were often made to open out, allowing the clasped hands t reveal a heart or flower. [ [2.]
And yet there was nothing like those famous heart rings. Actually heart-shaped rings were among the most prominent symbolic jewelry pieces of the Romantic era. Although the heart shape has been a popular motif for rings since the 17th century, such rings culminated in its popularity in the mid-19th century with absolutely favorite cluster rings. Those rings featuring the silver and gold settings with carefully carved shanks and foliage scroll-works were showing simple designs and sentimental meaning that made them the favorites of the century. Among favorites were the rings featuring two hearts surmounted by a bow symbolizing intertwined love. Such design was popular for rings given to each other as a token by young couples in the late 19th and early 20th century. [ 2.]
In this category should also be mentioned another popular design of horseshoe ring. "The horseshoe motif as a symbol of good luck came into use around 1880, and was extremely popular with the superstitious Victorians." [2.] It should be added that "a genuine Victorian piece of horseshoe jewelry should be designed so that the horseshoe opening points up. A horseshoe with its opening pointing down would have meant bad luck." [2.]
These symbolic motifs were just some of those that Victorian society wanted to see in their jewelry. For example, flower and plant symbolism ranked among the most popular motifs in the 19th century rings. Certain types of plants and flowers had specific meanings which would have been recognizable to most Victorians. "One of the most common floral symbols was the forget-me-not ("true love"), usually represented with turquoise. Eventually, the use of turquoise alone came to symbolize this flower, and for this reason turquoise was one of the most commonly used materials in sentimental jewelry." [2.]
Art Nouveau Rings
The end of the 19th century also came with Art Nouveau characteristic swirling, graceful lines. There are references in the literature that such Art Nouveau forms lent themselves perfectly to the curved shape of the ring. [2.] But there are also opposing views saying that the ring was not really suitable for the Art Nouveau jeweler's art as because of its function little could be done to drastically revitalize the form. [4.]
During the Art Nouveau era so many techniques (especially in enamel) and unusual materials were in use. "The colors most popular were inspired by peacock feathers - iridescent greens and blues - which were realized through use of enamels and stones such as turquoise, opal and moonstone." [2.] Among the most famous jewelers and firms to mention are Archibald Knox (British, 1864 - 1933), Child & Child (British, 1891 - 1915), René Lalique (French, 1860 - 1945) among many others. However, it is already a separate story for each of them and their contribution to the jewelry scene.
References & Further Reading:
1. Church R. Rings. - London: Thames & Hudson, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2017.
2. Giles S. Jewellery (Miller's Antiques Checklist) - London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2004. [ 1997]
3. Newmann H. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry. - London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
4. Pearsall R. A Connoisseur's Guide to Antique Jewelry. - New York: Todtri Book Publishers, 1999.
5. Phillips C. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present - London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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