Not a lot of people from the ‘writerly’ side of my life know this about me, but I’m also a passionate hobby jeweller and silversmith. Antique jewellery, particularly chain maille and other ancient chain techniques, is something I enjoy replicating for my dedicated clientele, to the point where almost all my work is by commission only! I have quite a collection of books on jewellery through the ages, but sadly, there’s very little still existing from the Regency era for us to admire. Even pieces which appeared in famous portraits are gone, despite jewellery being perfectly capable of surviving for thousands of years – it’s mostly made of metal, after all.
Jewellery through the ages has been viewed as the ultimate in portable, recyclable wealth. Vikings would twist single links off gold or silver chains to pay for goods; a Hindu bride’s worth was measured by the gold and jewels she wore to her marriage, often more than a pound by weight of gold, plus precious gems. Now THAT’S a dowry which would make Caroline Bingley green with envy!
Parure jewelry suite. Photograph by Cole Bybee. Image courtesy of Lang Antique and Estate Jewelry.
Regency and Georgian jewellers were, in my view, cultural criminals – sadly. It was very common for clients to bring older jewellery to a goldsmith and ask them to melt it down and reset the gems in a more ‘modern’ setting. Jewellers today will do almost anything to convince a customer not to melt down a historically important piece, but back then, even though most jewellery was one of a kind, jewellers were more than happy to oblige. Hence, portraits are often the best reference we have as to what ladies (and gentlemen!) of the era would wear.
One of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve seen lately is a two-part YouTube series about the Cheapside Hoard, which was found in London in 1912. Some 500 pieces from the Elizabethan era were found buried in a cellar, and would have comprised the stock of a working goldsmith. One of the most interesting bits of Part 1 (here) presented by a working jeweller, is when he talks about the tools and skills from that period as compared to today – you can see this around 11:00 in the video. Discounting the polishing equipment like the hanging motor, so many tools are exactly the same; I have files and setting tools just like the ones used in this video in my personal stock and let me tell you, they take quite some training to use, as well as exceptional eyesight and a good deal of physical strength. See part 2 of the video here, where the exhibition curator talks about the possibly illicit provenance of some of the Hoard!
Sadly, the Cheapside Hoard isn’t currently on display at the British Museum, but there are some other amazing ‘hoards’ which can be seen in other museums around the UK. The Yorkshire Museum has the Bedale Hoard, an incredible Viking hoard of gold and silver (see a video here). The National Museum of Scotland has the Galloway Hoard, the early Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard has a stunning permanent gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and just about every museum in the UK will have a jewellery collection showcasing the incredible skill jewellers of yesteryear displayed.
One of the most incredible collections you’ll ever see is the Waddesdon Bequest, collected at Waddesdon Manor by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild and his father and bequeathed to the British Museum in 1898. Waddesdon Manor itself is an amazing property and the Bequest is frankly awe-inspiring – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this YouTube video about the manor and the collection; it’s fascinating viewing. From the Holy Thorn Reliquary to the Lyte Jewel, viewing the Rothschild collection in the smoking room at Waddesdon Manor must have been an incredible experience.
I’ve seen it said in numerous places that ornate jewellery wasn’t something which was worn in the Regency era because people liked ‘everything simple’ and I have to admit, this makes me laugh. The Prince Regent himself was obsessed with the ornate – the Pavilion at Brighton being the most flagrant example – but there were regular ‘crazes’ for certain time periods such as the Egyptomania which gripped high society following Napoleon’s expeditions to Egypt at the end of the 18th century. Ornate jewellery and ornamentation was absolutely something the upper class indulged in, and though gold and silver might have been out of reach for the middle and lower class, glass beads and paste ornaments were certainly cheaply available. Young ladies would have hand-painted china and porcelain beads and pendants just as they painted tables! Only consider the contempt shown for Fanny’s simple little cross in Mansfield Park (one of the few instances of jewellery mentioned in Austen’s work).
Take a look at this incredible gold and aquamarine bracelet, thought to date to around 1830 (hallmarking was not enforced until the late 1800s). The cannetille (a type of filigree) work around the aquamarines is incredibly complex and delicate, and while today I would put that texturing on the chain links using a high-speed handpiece and a sanding brush, in the early 19th century that pattern was filed and sanded in by hand, in a virtuoso display of skill. I can only boggle at the amount of hours a master craftsman must have spent making this piece – each link alone could have taken up to an hour to complete, doing all that work by hand. Recently sold for £3,850, I think you’d struggle to find a modern jeweller to replicate it for that price.
Photograph by Cole Bybee. Image courtesy of Lang Antique and Estate Jewelry.
If you’re cashed up, by the way, Lang Antiques have an incredible collection of Georgian jewellery for sale. I’ve just spent about two hours drooling over their website rather than writing this post! One look at this page of genuine Georgian-era jewellery surviving to the modern day and for sale, though, should dispel forever the myth that Regency jewellery was all ‘simple and unornamented’. Or check out The Antique Jewellery Company’s Georgian collection for heaps more inspiration!
“Message” jewellery came into prominence in the Georgian era, and a stunning example is seen here below, in this ring dating from around 1820. The names of the gemstones spell out DEAREST – Diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, topaz. Rings such as this often spelled out messages such as ADORE, LOVE, REGARD and were considered the ultimate gift between sweethearts.
Image courtesy of The Antique Jewellery Company
So if you want to imagine Darcy gifting Elizabeth a spectacular parure of gold and diamonds like the one in the picture at the top of this post, or a stunning ring like this not-so-secret message of love, or one of these two beauties below? Have at it, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re being historically inaccurate!
Photographs by Cole Bybee. Images courtesy of Lang Antique and Estate Jewelry.