A Thimbleful of History

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Antique thimbles are trinkets most often of …

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Tags: 18th century 19th Century Decorative Art Design History gold

A Micro History of Miniature Mosaics

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Antique Micromosaic Butterfly Earrings
After Napoleon’s 1814 defeat, Europe became open to tourism once again. Italy was the most popular destination, where tourists flocked in pursuit of works of art. Souvenir purchases often included copies of masterpieces and also jewelry in the form of cameos, intaglios, and, most notably, miniature mosaics.

A miniature mosaic is a composition of tiny, glass tesserae cut from pieces of glass known as smalti filati. Some tesserae are not glass, but stone. Miniature mosaics are also known as “micromosaics,” a term coined by avid collector Arthur Gilbert. His collection of mosaics, among other treasures, were originally housed at LACMA, but have found a permanent and prominent home in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Making a micromosaic entailed arranging tesserae in mastic or cement on glass panels with tweezers. Once the composition was complete, the gaps within the arrangement were filled with colored wax and the surface polished. Some of the finest miniature mosaics can have as many as 5,000 tesserae per square inch.

Micromosaics date to the eighteenth-century, inspired by the larger, interior mosaics of ancient Rome. They are still made in the Vatican workshops to this day.  Earlier micromosaic pieces lacked perspective and revealed visible spaces between tesserae.  Later artists achieved more realistic works, like the renowned Antonio Aguatti. His technical improvements made more realistic micromosaics possible and he is considered one of the leading Roman micromosaic artists from the early nineteenth-century. He made the micromosaic mounted in this snuffbox:

Antique Micromosaic Snuffbox

Many micromosaics were purchased as panels and mounted into box lids or jewelry upon a traveler’s return home. The most popular motifs were the buildings and ruins of Rome, landscapes, animals (mostly birds), and flowers.

Antique Micromosaic Bracelet

They ranged in scale, from snuff boxes and jewelry, to large tabletops and replicas of full-sized canvas paintings. In fact, when Arthur Gilbert brought his first micromosaic home to show his wife, Rosalinde, she famously thought it was a cracked painting. Little did she know it was the first of many that would amass one of the world’s finest collections.

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Oval Gold Box with Shell Design

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Oval Louis XV gold box with shell design cover.

By. D. Gouers, Paris 1728
Width: 2 3/4 inches
(Gouers worked between 1717 and 1748; one of the most highly regarded Parisian goldsmiths in the early 18th century, his work is rare and characterized by excellent gold chasing and engraving.)

Mistress and Muse, Lady Hamilton and the Maltese Cross

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Antique Pink Topaz Maltese Cross

The Maltese cross originated as the symbol of the Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights of St. John. Because of its beautiful form, as time went on, it morphed into the popular jewel we know today. This was in great measure due to Lady Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Horatio Nelson, who received one in 1800 from the Russian Emperor Paul I.

She frequently wore the cross at balls and other events, and soon, Maltese crosses, worn as pendants and brooches, were in vogue, with the trend peaking in the 1830s and 1840s.  Though mainly set with diamonds, designs also used carved hardstones like agate and chalcedony. The form evolved over the years in accordance with current fashions, but never becoming unrecognizable. Our diamond Maltese cross is an example of the liberties taken with evolving nineteenth-century fashion.

Maltese Diamond Pendant

Lady Hamilton’s life was a succession of scandals. Her origins as a courtesan, coupled with her reputation as a woman “no man can resist” rendered her not highly regarded in English society. Quite beautiful, she was the muse of many artists. In fact, she is thought to be the most painted woman in all of British history. Mistress and muse, history acknowledges her with another term: trendsetter.

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A Pebble in the Rough – Scottish Jewelry in the Victorian Age

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Antique Scottish Stickpin

Queen Victoria was so enamored of the Scottish landscape that she and Prince Albert purchased a Scottish residence, Balmoral Castle, in 1852. The royal family soon adopted Highland dress in the form of tartans and jewelry. Such jewelry came from the land itself, often called “Scotch pebbles”, from the use of native hardstones.

Commonly used stones, often mounted in silver, included bloodstone, carnelian, polished agate and granite, citrine, garnet, pale amethyst, and jasper. Cairngorm, a smoky yellow quartz, from the Cairngorm Mountains, was the most favored stone. Victorian Scottish Sgian Dubh Brooch

Brooches were among the most popular forms of Scottish jewelry. The Scottish dirk, or dagger, was a recurring design motif, evidenced by our sgian dubh brooch, covered in a previous blog post. Other common designs included the Saint Andrew’s cross, butterflies, anchors, and love knots.

Circles were also common, like our agate, bloodstone, and citrine open ring, or penannular, stick pin (pictured above).  Our stickpin is an abstraction of the generic Scottish-ring brooch, which usually featured a pinhead in the form of a thistle. Such brooches are inspired from the penannular brooches with thistle-headed pins of the Viking period (793-1066) found in Ireland and Scotland, and were used to fasten garments.

In the Victorian age, Scottish jewelry was often worn with tartan costumes for ice skating. In our own age, they are suited for everyday wear, no matter your intended activity (or lack of plaid).

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Taking Liberties with Arts and Crafts Jewelry

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Knox Arts and Crafts Necklace

The necklace pictured is from the ‘Cymric’ line of jewelry sold at the London retailer and design firm Liberty & Co.  ‘Cymric’ jewelry capitalized on the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement, but disregarded most of its founding principles.

Liberty & Co. aided in spreading the Arts and Crafts jewelry style across greater echelons of British society. Launched in 1899, the ‘Cymric’ line featured the typical characteristics of Arts and Crafts movement jewelry and appeared to be handmade, but was actually mass-produced. While some details still required hand finishing, cheaper machine processes were used whenever possible. Manufactured by Haseler of Birmingham, these high quality pieces were a fraction of the cost of their handmade Arts and Crafts equivalents.

Much of the line’s success can be attributed to the painter, teacher and designer of jewelry and metalwork, Archibald Knox (1864-1933). From 1897 to 1912 Knox designed not only jewelry but also a wide array of silver, pewter, carpets and textile designs for Liberty. As Liberty’s chief designer, Knox infused the Arts and Crafts aesthetic with Celtic inspiration from his native Isle of Man. His elegant adaptation of Celtic interlace became one of the most distinctive characteristics of the line. ‘Cymric’ jewels were produced in both gold and silver and often set with turquoise, blister pearl or mother-of-pearl or decorated with enamel. This blister pearl, opal and gold necklace ca. 1900, designed by Archibald Knox for Liberty and Co. illustrates many of the key characteristics, materials and techniques found within the ‘Cymric’ line of jewelry.

The chain and gold pendants on this delicate necklace were mass produced, while the setting of the opals as well as the pearls required expert hand finishing. Though not entirely handcrafted, the integrity of the design attests to the clever hand of its creator.

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Arts and Crafts Jewelry, An Introduction

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Arts and Crafts Sybil Dunlop Kilt Plaid Brooch

Pictured above is a Scottish kilt plaid brooch by Sybil Dunlop, a designer highly regarded for her Arts and Crafts jewelry of the 1920s and 1930s. Made of silver, cabochon stones, and done in a Scottish design, this piece adheres to the Arts and Crafts principles that have their roots in the 1860s. In this post we will explore the background of the Arts and Crafts movement and how it applies to jewelry.

The British Arts and Crafts movement flourished between 1860 and 1910. Inspired by the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and spearheaded by William Morris (1834-1896), the movement was a reaction against mass-production and mechanization. Distraught over the impoverished state of the decorative arts as well as the conditions in which they were produced, those involved in the Arts and Crafts movement aimed to both reform design and reinstate the dignity and importance of the individual craftsman. While the Arts and Crafts style and philosophy were successfully adhered to a majority of the decorative arts, producing jewelry within the movement’s aims proved to be quite challenging.

In accordance with the philosophy of the movement, a jewel was to be designed, created and decorated from start to finish by a single craftsman. The movement not only shunned the use of mechanization but also held disdain for the practice of specialization within any given field. While a successful piece of furniture could be achieved within these parameters, they proved to be quite detrimental when applied to the art of jewelry making. Historically fine jewels are often the result of many specialized craftsmen (lapidaries, enamellers, chasers, engravers, modelers etc.) and the collaboration of these specialties are most exemplified in the jewelry of the Renaissance era.

The Arts and Crafts jewelers aimed to create handmade jewelry of artistic rather than intrinsic value. Silver was preferred over gold and while faceted stones were rarely used, diamonds never were. Cabochon or uncut stones enlivened the designs while recalling Medieval tastes. The natural qualities of the materials were celebrated and mother-of-pearl, turquoise matrix and unique baroque pearls were some of the jeweler’s favorites. The nineteenth century revival of Renaissance and Medieval enameling techniques were also hugely important to Arts and Crafts jewelry. Not only did the traditional non-precious material embody the sentiments of the movement, it also afforded the jeweler unlimited artistic possibilities.

The Guild of Handicraft produced some of the finest examples of Arts and Crafts jewelry. Founded in 1888 by Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) the Guild of Handicraft was both a workshop as well as a school. Initially the Guild concentrated on woodcarving and metalworking but in 1891 the first jewelry classes were offered. The early pieces produced by the Guild were predominantly silver, quite large in size and unashamed of their unrefined handmade appearance. By the turn of the century, many more conventionally trained craftsmen had joined the workshop and the Guild began to produce increasingly more elaborate jewelry. In keeping with the characteristics of other Arts and Crafts jewelers, defining features of the pieces produced by the Guild of Handicraft include hand-beaten metal surfaces, the use of traditional enamel and cabochon stones as well as the preference for decorative themes derived from a romanticized pre-industrial past.

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ALVR Blog: A Shakespearean Star (Ruby)

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While we cannot enjoy the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park this year, for your viewing pleasure we are pleased to present a production of our own: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring July’s birthstone: ruby!

main view, Gold Midsummer Night's Dream Tiffany Brooch with Star Ruby

This Art Nouveau brooch by Tiffany & Co. takes inspiration from one of Shakespeare’s most famous works. The turn-of-the-twentieth-century movement focused on using new, freer forms of expression in an effort to break away from nineteenth-century historicism. Stylistic characteristics included nature, fantasy, curving lines, and female figures. A sinuous form surrounded by winged insects, a dragonfly and moth, and the brooch’s fantasy theme are quintessentially Art Nouveau. In the United States, Tiffany & Co. was the foremost company producing not only jewelry but also decorative art works in the Art Nouveau style. It is only fitting that an early Tiffany Art Nouveau piece would take inspiration from the fairy realm of a Shakespearean play.

The brooch features a 5.84-carat oval cabochon star ruby – referring to the six-pointed star visible within the stone. The use of such a stone in this design is particularly clever, with the lines of the asterism emphasizing the gold spider web surrounding it. The asterism gives the stone a magical, otherworldly quality, an enchanting phenomenon that inspires The Bard in all of us.

Tiffany Midsummer Night's Dream Brooch, ruby

In gemology history and lore, ruby is considered the king of precious gems, a title coming from the Sanskrit word, “ratnaraj.” The stone’s rarity and hardness (second to diamond) befit this title. Ruby was also valued for its perceived powers, like curing inflammatory diseases, predicting misfortune, soothing anger, and bringing success in love.

As a symbol of passion and power, ruby is an appropriate choice for a jewel inspired by one of literature’s most famous marital quarrels. To recap, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are estranged because Titania refuses to give Oberon her Indian changeling. Oberon retaliates by calling upon the fairy Puck to help him create a potion from a flower called “love in idleness.” When the concoction is applied to a sleeping person’s eyelids, they fall in love with the first living creature they see upon awakening.

“Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

Oberon hopes Titania will fall in love with an animal so he can shame her into giving up her changeling. The brooch depicts this moment of enchantment, when Oberon applies the potion to Titania’s sleeping eyelids and says:

“What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.”

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ALVR Blog: Fabergé and the Red Cross, an Enduring Symbol

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Our hearts go out to everyone during this difficult time, and we hope you are all staying safe and healthy. We look forward to welcoming you back into our gallery when this is all behind us. Until then, we intend to brighten your day with highlights from our collection on social media and the ALVR blog. 

main view, Enamel and diamond Red Cross brooch by Faberge

Recently, the US Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, arrived in New York Harbor. The sight of this massive white ship emblazoned with red crosses is a powerful symbol of hope in this trying time and reminds us of other periods of history when this emblem held particular significance. One Fabergé piece in our collection tells the story of such a time: a Red Cross brooch made at the time of the Great War.

This brooch features a red guilloché enamel cross against a white ground. It was likely awarded to an aristocratic lady in appreciation for her contributions to the war effort. That the brooch is encircled with diamonds suggests it was made for someone of particular importance.

At the onset of WWI, Russia was in great need of nurses. This need was so great, that the year-long training period was condensed to two months. In patriotic fervor, women from all classes answered the call to become sestry miloserdiya, sisters of mercy, as nurses were called in Russia. These volunteers included the wives and daughters of government officials, teachers and other professionals, and aristocratic ladies.  At the helm were the Romanov women. 

The Russian Red Cross was established in 1867 by Emperor Alexander II. Initially called the Society for Care of the Sick and Wounded, in 1879, it was renamed the Russian Society of the Red Cross. At the time of the Great War, it was led by Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, who had been president of the Russian Red Cross since the beginning of her husband’s reign. When her son Nicholas ascended the throne, she refused to cede her presidency to Alexandra, but did eventually permit her to contribute in her own way. Alexandra and her two eldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, volunteered to become nurses. In their new role, they became known as Sister Romanova, numbers 1, 2, and 3. While the two younger daughters were too young to train, Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia offered their support as hospital visitors. 

In addition to caring for the wounded, Alexandra opened numerous supply depots that produced medical dressings and also collected and distributed non-perishable food, clothing, pharmaceutical supplies, and other items. Palaces and other buildings were converted for caring for the wounded. By the end of 1914, she was patron of 85 hospitals throughout Petrograd. 

Alexandra and her daughters traded their royal finery for nurse’s uniforms in an effort to bridge the gap between themselves and their subjects. At this time, Fabergé’s artistic output also reflected austerity efforts, producing simpler pieces, and eventually, offering his workshops for making munitions. Though simple in design, this Fabergé Red Cross brooch makes a strong statement, recalling a time when people came together to overcome difficult circumstances. 

In accordance with wartime austerity measures, the Red Cross eggs made for Dowager Empress Maria and Empress Alexandra are also simply designed. Maria’s egg, now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, contains five portraits of Romanov women in Red Cross uniforms: Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna, and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Alexandra’s egg, now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, contains portraits of Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana in their nurses uniforms. The egg opens to reveal a triptych, with the central panel depicting the ‘Harrowing of Hell,’ flanked by Olga and Tatiana’s namesake saints.

The Red Cross has long been a reassuring image of protection and benevolence, a symbol of hope and care, today and yesterday. We thank all our healthcare heroes working on the frontlines of this pandemic.

ЗА ВАШЕ ЗДОРОВЬЕ! (to our health!): A Little History of Vodka

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Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Bottle Elizabeth Bem

This blog post raises a glass to Russia’s favorite spirit: vodka. Derived from the Slavonic word for water, voda, the beverage certainly lives up to the vitality implied by this etymology. Throughout Russian history, vodka has been so culturally and economically vital that it’s no wonder it’s been called, “the elixir of life, the living water.”

One decanter in ALVR’s collection is adorned in such a way that speaks to vodka’s significance in Russian history and culture. It was designed around the year 1900 by Elizabeth Bem (1843-1914), an artist most well-known for her popular postcard designs and children’s book illustrations. Her works of glass are just as highly regarded and she received significant recognition for them at many world’s fairs.

Elizabeth Bem Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bem, Wikimedia Commons, ca. 1900

Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Bottle Elizabeth Bem

Made of green glass and adorned with dancing devils and Russian drinking maxims, this decanter certainly suits our motto, Where the Unusual is Usual! The maxims translate as follows:

Oh, Vine!
My sweet friend!
Go down my throat!
It’s so wonderful, my sunshine!

Hello, shot glasses!
How do you do?
Waiting for me?
Drink-drink, and devil you’ll see!

First of all – I do not drink;
Second – I do not like it,
And third – I have had a drink already!

Got drunk, broke in fight!
Woke up, got a fix,
And friends again!

Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Decanter Elizabeth Bem_snake detailAlso of note is a green serpent in an orange box in the upper left corner of the decanter. “Zelyony zmei,” or, the’ green serpent,’ is a Russian nickname for vodka that references both drunken visions and the coils of the pipes involved in distillation. The coil, or ‘serpent’ had to be especially made, making vodka more expensive to produce than beer, mead, or kvas. It’s believed that the image of the coil within poorly distilled muddy-green vodka inspired the ‘green serpent’ metaphor. Bem appears to play on this reference with both the addition of a serpent and the green hue of the glass.

Vodka’s fiscal benefits were first realized in the sixteenth century during the reign of Ivan IV (“The Terrible” 1533-1584). In the 1540s Ivan opened a few kabaks, or taverns, with the intention of using the profits to fill the state treasury.  And so began a state monopoly on vodka production. Subsequent rulers introduced various laws to control vodka’s production and consumption. Peter the Great (rumored to drink up to half a gallon of vodka a day) created liquor licenses to constrain home-brewing, only to later rescind such restrictions. Catherine the Great limited production to the aristocracy, which helped improve vodka’s quality and fill the state treasury. Vodka’s fiscal contrition continued to rise and by the nineteenth century it became the single most important source of government revenue.

That an inebriated public was easier to rule did not go unnoticed. In fact, some historians attribute Russian sobriety to the Romanov downfall. In 1914, Czar Nicholas II was so troubled by rampant drunkenness that he made alcohol illegal. The revolution can’t be attributed to Russian sobriety alone, but lifting the drunken spell certainly must have helped. Prohibition lasted until 1925, coincidentally, when the Bolsheviks began to run low on funds.

Why do Russians drink so much? For one, alcohol consumption has always been linked to Russian spiritual and social life. From the many events on the closely intertwined church and agricultural calendars to a long list of other holidays, there has always been an excuse to raise a glass…or drain a bottle. Russia’s long cold winters also play a role. After all, vodka warms both body and soul! Russians also believe vodka has medicinal qualities. Truly an “elixir of life,” there is nothing vodka can’t cure.

Economically, socially, culturally… even medicinally, this special Russian “water” has been vital to Russia’s existence. So here’s to life, vodka, and ЗА ВАШЕ ЗДОРОВЬЕ! (to our health)!

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Sources:
“Elisabeth Boehm” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Boehm (accessed 12/28/17)
David Christian. ‘Living Water’ : Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of EmancipationOxford University Press, 1990.
David Christian. “The Green Serpent: Vodka, Marx and Primitive Accumulation” in Eat History: Food and Drink in Australia and Beyond. Cambridge, 2013.
Martin McKee, “Alcohol in Russia” Alcohol and Alcoholism. Volume 34, Issue 6, 1 November 1999, Pages 824–829. Oxford Journals https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/34/6/824/192703 (accessed 12/28/17)
Claire Suddath, “Russians and Vodka” Time January 5, 2010
http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1951620,00.html (accessed 12/28/17)
Edwin Trommelen. Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka. Russian Life Books, 2012.

ALVR Blog: All Jewelry is Costume Jewelry

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Mid Century Orchid Brooch

Moonstone, diamond, and ruby brooch in the form of an orchid, set in platinum.
By  Alfred Philippe, head designer for Trifari and previously worked for Cartier and V.C.A.
American, ca. 1940
Length: 2 3/8 in.

The vintage brooch pictured above bears remarkable resemblance to the “Jelly Belly” orchids designed by Alfred Trifari orchidPhilippe for Trifari (pictured right), the leading producer of costume jewelry in the twentieth century. In contrast to the platinum, moonstones, diamonds, and rubies in ALVR’s brooch, Philippe’s “Jelly Belly” orchid, patented in 1944, features gilded silver leaves, lucite petals, and rhinestones.

These brooches may differ materially, but they equally demonstrate quality craftsmanship and creative design.  These shared characteristics reference a turning point in jewelry history when the Great Depression of the 1930s propelled fine jewelers to lend their skills to the costume jewelry trade.

Trifari patent

Alfred Philippe was one such designer and the best-known example of the transition. In 1930, after working as a master craftsman for Cartier and Van Cleef and Arples, he became head designer at Trifari where he remained until 1968. His background in fine jewelry elevated his costumed creations to anything but, applying the same high end designs and techniques – like using delicate settings, top quality materials, and setting stones by hand.

Philippe applied his expertise to Broadway and Hollywood, creating exclusive designs forTrifari flower stage and screen. But his most famous commissions came from the White House where First Lady Mamie Eisenhower wore Trifari jewels to the 1953 and 1957 Presidential Inaugural Balls.

These high profile commissions helped elevate costume jewelry to the same level of its fine counterpart, but we would argue that they are one and the same. In fact, the phrase “costume jewelry” is an anglicized version of the French phrase “bijoux de costume,” meaning, jewelry for a costume.  Therefore, whether you’re wearing diamonds or rhinestones, moonstones or lucite, it is all the same: all jewelry is costume jewelry.

For all our ALVR Blog posts, please click here.

References:
Miller, Judith. “Faux Real: Trifari Costume Jewellery.”  The Telegraph. August 12, 2013 (accessed June 9, 2017)
Trifari Sterling ‘Alfred Philippe’ Jelly Belly Orchid Pin (or Pendant)” N&N Vintage Costume Jewelry. (accessed June 9, 2017)
Vintage Trifari Costume Jewelry.” Collectors Weekly. (accessed June 9, 2017)

Diamond Flower Jewelry in Eternal Bloom

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Naturalism bloomed in the nineteenth century. Fashionable ladies adorned themselves with elaborate floral jewels like these rose and peony brooches and cornflower hair ornament. The period’s fascination with flora developed into the Victorian language of flowers, which was used to express a range of sentiments. Each of the following jewels has a different meaning and depicts a different stage of blooming, demonstrating the romantic interest in lifecycles:

The rose about to blossom,

diamond rose brooch

Diamond brooch in the form of a rose, set in gold and silver. English, ca. 1860.

Roses have many meanings depending on their color, but primarily express love. For example, tea rose symbolizes love remembered, pink rose represents secret love, and a white rose signifies innocence.

The peony in full bloom,

diamond peony brooch

Tremblant old-mine diamond peony spray brooch mounted in silver and gold. The brooch was possibly made by an English jeweler for the Russian court, circa 1860.

In the language of flowers, peonies symbolize bashfulness, compassion, and happy marriages.

The cornflower, with its cascading, en pempille, petals, on the verge of decay:

diamond cornflower hair ornament

Diamond cornflower hair ornament, set en tremblant, and mounted in silver and gold. French, attributed to Oscar Massin, circa 1850.

The en pempille technique, referring to the cascading stones, combined with the springs of the en tremblant setting, enhances the sense of delicacy and refinement the Victorians expressed through cornflowers in their floral language.

Each of these is a unique example of how master craftsman imitated nature in jewelry. Often set en tremblant, floral-themed jewelry sprang to life, with diamonds sparkling like dew drops, creating a playful rendering of nature out of nature’s materials.

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