ALVR Blog: Snake Jewelry

… forming rings, bracelets, necklaces, and armbands. While designs remained constant, the snake’s symbolism evolved over the last 6,000 years. In antiquity, serpents represented wisdom, eternity, and the form of a guardian spirit. Through much of the nineteenth-century they symbolized everlasting love, but by the fin-de-siècle they came to be seen as a symbol of sinister danger.

In 1840 Albert presented Queen Victoria with an emerald-set engagement ring in the form of a snake biting its …

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Tags: Jewelry Symbolism Victorian

September 13 – Symbolism in Snake Jewelry


Snakes have adorned humans since antiquity, their coils naturally forming rings, bracelets, necklaces, and armbands. While designs remained constant, the snake’s symbolism evolved over the last 6,000 years. In antiquity, serpents represented wisdom, eternity, and the form of a guardian spirit. Through much of the nineteenth-century they symbolized everlasting love, but by the fin-de-siècle they came to be seen as a symbol of sinister danger.

In 1840 Albert presented Queen Victoria with an emerald-set engagement ring in the form of a snake biting its tail, a symbol of eternal love. At the time it was customary that an engagement ring feature the wearer’s birthstone. Symbols of love and romance were recurring themes in the jewelry Albert designed for her. A true romantic of her age, Queen Victoria’s love of symbolism made snake jewelry an enduring motif throughout her reign. So precious was Prince Albert’s initial token of affection that Queen Victoria is buried with the ring that inspired a renewed fashion for serpents.

Our collection includes snake jewelry ranging from the early nineteenth-century to the mid-twentieth demonstrating the wide range of meanings and styles as illustrated on our Pinterest board:

Keeping it (Sur)real: The Jewelry of Salvador Dali


Salvador Dali Gold Angel Wings RingMost are familiar with the Surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali, but few might be aware of the full range of his artistic expression. Among his many artistic endeavors, he designed jewelry.

Concerned about jewelry being less appreciated for its artistic merits and more so for the quality of gems and metals, Dali sought to revive jewelry design as an art form, thinking of the Renaissance artists who did not confine themselves to a single medium. He said:

“My art encompasses physics, mathematics, architecture, nuclear science – the psycho-nuclear, the mystic-nuclear—and jewelry – not paint alone. My jewels are a protest against emphasis upon the cost of materials of jewelry. My object is to show the jeweler’s art in true perspective – where the design and the craftsmanship are to be valued above the material world of the gems, as in Renaissance times.”*

Salvador Dali 'Tristan and Isolde' BroochDali selected materials based on impression, as well as color and quality. Each piece was made with meaning. The Tristan and Isolde brooch, for example, has their heads arranged to form a goblet, suggesting “the effluence of love possible between a man and a woman.” The ruby lips brooch was first modeled after Mae West, and later, Marilyn Monroe, and were inspired by the poetic cliché of ruby lips and teeth like pearls, which Dali found fitting inspiration for his surrealist jewelry.

Ultimately it is the viewer, Dali believed, who completed each composition by giving the pieces life. Dali’s perspective on jewelry can teach us a lot about how to interpret his work. Just as importantly, we must remember to appreciate jewelry for more than the intrinsic value of gems and metals, but for their beauty and artistic merit as well.

*Source: Art-in-jewels by Salvador Dali: The Collection of the Owen Cheatham Foundation

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Symbols of Love in Antique Jewelry

Antique Jewelry

Gifts of jewelry as tokens of affection date from ancient times, featuring design trends like cupid, clasped hands, lover’s knots, mottoes, and hearts.

The heart symbol has been a consistent representation of love. Mythologists surmise it evolved from the ivy leaf, an ancient symbol of immortality. It was a common wedding gift in ancient Greece, and came to represent friendship and fidelity due to its snuggling and nestling characteristics and year-round greenness.

Certain historical symbols of love seem quite strange to modern eyes. For example, the use of hair in sentimental jewelry was quite popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hair was woven into jewelry, or hidden in lockets and underneath portrait miniatures of loved ones.

Some pieces of nineteenth-century jewelry contained messages through the ‘language of stones,’ where stones were arranged so that the first letter of each one revealed a hidden message. A later example of the mystery in sentimental pieces is our Naval Signal Flag Bracelet, spelling out “ I Love You.” In case that wasn’t cute enough, the gold links are kissing seahorses, another symbol of commitment as they mate for life.

These symbols of love have stood the test of time, just like antique jewelry. Our collection includes hearts, bows (if you are about to “tie the knot”), or you might choose something unconventional to imply your own hidden message. Whichever you choose, it will be timeless; after all, diamonds are not the only things that last forever.

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The Enduring Appeal of Antique Jewelry

Fine antique jewelry is beautiful from all angles...

Fine antique jewelry is beautiful from all angles…

Not only is antique jewelry beautiful and fun to wear, but it also demonstrates a real marriage of artistry, craftsmanship, intrinsic value, and context.   Part of the beauty of antique jewelry is that it comes with stories, allowing one to touch the past.  Some pieces have incredible provenance, and many pieces have an interesting historical context, much of which we’ve been exploring on the blog. For example, nationalism and Berlin iron, Victorian revival styles, romanticism, science and insect jewelry, the rise of leisure and sporting jewelry, and so much more.  Antique jewelry is very much a reflection of time, and therefore needs to be appreciated the same way one appreciates works of art and paintings: you have to learn about it. Since people have been adorning themselves since the beginning of time, there is an antique style for everyone!

On a more personal level, there is an intimacy to antique jewelry. In some families, the only surviving heirlooms are jewelry. Jewelry is valuable and portable, making it more easily transferrable to future generations, and therefore carries irreplaceable sentimental value. There is real power in being able to connect with your ancestors by wearing a piece of jewelry that has been in your family for generations. It is a unique feeling when you slip on a ring and realize you have the same ring size as your great grandmother whom you never met.

Greater thought went into designing antique pieces. Unique stones, selected for their beauty, and symbolism inspired well thought out, one-of-a-kind compositions. Today, stones are often selected for their intrinsic value and standardized for mass produced mounts. That is not to say that there are not exceptions, but even people who do not have an academic knowledge of jewelry can visually understand the difference between antique and modern work. A quick quality test is to turn a piece over, a true work of art will be just as lovely on the reverse. While there are a handful of modern jewelers who are master craftsman, mass production has really replaced handcraft in the industry.

Many of our pieces come from a more formal era, a time very different from how we live today. It is fun to imagine how they were worn then, and even more fun to incorporate them into today’s fashions. The constant evolution of fashion breathes new life into antique jewelry. More often than not we find ourselves in jeans as opposed to ballgowns, but a great piece of jewelry and some confidence looks good with anything!

... including the reverse

… including the reverse

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ALVR Interview in Jewelry Connoisseur by Rapaport


Jewelry Connoisseur by Rapaport interviewed A La Vieille Russie’s Mark Schaffer about the enduring popularity of floral jewelry.

Screenshot of online Jewelry Connoisseur article interviewing Mark Schaffer

ALVR Blog: Opal-Essence

main view, black opal ring

Opal is the birthstone for October, but we think this gem should be celebrated year round! Opals are truly a wonder to behold. A hydrous variety of silicon dioxide, it’s composed of tiny silica spheres bonded together with silica and water. Known for their brilliant flashes of color, this optical phenomena is the result how the silica spheres are layered within the stone, scattering the light in different directions.

Opals come in a brilliant range of colors, including orange, yellow, red, green, blue, and purple. White opals are the most common. Found in Hungary, white opals feature flashes of color against a white, almost translucent, ground. Black opal, one of the more prized forms that is  mined in Australia, exhibits a play of color against a dark ground. Fire opal, so named for  its bright yellow, orange, or red background color, is primarily found in Mexico and Ethiopia.

Opals have been revered for centuries. Because the colors of other gems can be found in opals, the Romans considered opal to be the most precious and powerful of all gemstones. In the Middle Ages, opals were believed to bring good luck by embodying the virtues of all gemstones.

Although admired since ancient times, the reputation of this luminescent gem darkened in the nineteenth century. In this period, opal lost its luster thanks to the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel, Anne of Geierstein. In the novel, the character Lady Hermione wears an opal with supernatural powers that changes color according to her mood. After the opal is sprinkled with holy water, it loses its color, leaving her ill, and the following day, reduced to ashes. Scott’s decision to use the gemstone as a supernatural life source must have been inspired by the flashes of color seen on an opal when it’s exposed to light. Misunderstanding of this optical phenomenon, along with the stone’s delicate nature, inspired awe and superstition.

Unfortunately, Scott’s artistic license had consequences for the opal market, rendering this once lucky stone to be quite the opposite. In fact, within one year of its publication, sales of opals decreased by nearly 50% and remained low for the next twenty years. Superstition arose from a misunderstanding of opal’s delicate nature. They rank 5.5 to 6.5 out of 10 on Mohs scale of hardness, making opal more fragile than other stones. Because of their high water content, they’re particularly sensitive to sudden climate changes. While Sir Walter Scott exaggerated this sensitivity, it should be noted that the stone can crack under dry conditions, or rapid changes of temperature.

Like Sir Walter Scott, nineteenth-century American poet Hannah Flagg Gould was inspired by opal’s lifelike qualities. In her 1845 poem “The Opal,” she describes the stone as “the gem with the burning heart,” referring to the luminous spot that changes position in the light. Her interpretation is more optimistic than Scott’s, implying that the stone is imbued with holy light:

Gem with the burning heart,
That, as a living soul,
Pervading Every Part,
Gives beauty to the whole,
What angel’s hand thy bosom lit,
With the bright spark enkindling it.

Published in 1845, the poem illustrates opal regaining favor by mid-century. However, at the time of the Crimean War, old superstitions returned briefly when the stone was blamed for giving soldiers bad luck. In subsequent decades, attitudes warmed as more opal deposits were discovered, rekindling the opal market. This was particularly so later in the century when, in 1877, black opal was discovered in New South Wales, Australia. Queen Victoria also played a significant role in restoring opal’s reputation. She loved to wear them and was known to give them as gifts. She gifted opal jewelry to each of her five daughters as wedding presents and loved to give opal rings to many of her friends. 

In this age opals are revered once again. So long as it’s taken care of, the burning heart endures.

“Deceptively Modern Jewelry” in JCK Magazine


Amy Elliot of JCK Magazine wrote about our exhibition for JCK Magazine.

Deceptively Modern Jewelry 1940s-1980s


Deceptively Modern Jewelry: 1940s-1980s

An elaborate collection of post-war jewelry featuring Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Mauboussin, Verdura, Pierre Sterlé, Angela Cummings, David Thomas, and Andrew Grima.

October 23 – November 15, 2019

As seen in:

Forbes, “A La Vieille Russie Takes Us On A Jewelry Journey from the Post War Years through The 1980s.”

Katerina Perez, “A La Vieille Russie: Virtual tour around the upcoming ‘Deceptively Modern Jewellery’ exhibition.”

Vogue, “A La Vieille Russie Hosted a Glittering Cocktail Party to Celebrate Its Latest Jewelry Exhibition.”

JCK Magazine, “You Need to See This Antique Jewelry Exhibit ASAP.”

Art & Object, “Legendary Antiques Dealer Exhibits Stunning Mid-Century Jewelry.”

ALVR Blog: All Jewelry is Costume Jewelry

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.

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)

The Irony of Fabergé Eggs: Mourning Jewelry for Alexander III

Faberge gunmetal and gold pendants
Memento mori miniature egg and shield pendants with monogram of Alexander III
Gunmetal and gold
By Fabergé, St. Petersburg, workmaster M. Perchin
Egg: 2 x 1.2 cm; shield:  3.2 x 1.8 cmFaberge gunmetal and gold shield pendant reverse

These two miniature gunmetal and gold pendants memorialize Tsar Alexander III (1845 -1894). Appropriately somber in tone, the egg lacks ornament but for Alexander’s monogram and crown. The similarly adorned matching shield pendant bears his monogram and crown on the obverse with his date and time of death on the reverse: 2:15 am, October 20, 1894.

Gunmetal’s dark hue aptly signifies mourning and its sturdy nature make it a fitting tribute to the great autocrat.

An alloy of copper, tin, and zinc, gunmetal is a resilient material, valued for its ability to withstand heavy loads and resistance to corrosion. These qualities match Alexander III’s character and strength of body. The Victorian journalist and biographer Charles Lowe described Alexander III as the man with the iron mask, referring to his reserved public persona, but the Tsar was a man of iron in many ways.

The assassination of his father, the great reformer Alexander II, significantly impacted the course of his reign. Hardened by the consequences of his father’s leniency, Alexander III ruled with an iron fist and staunchly defended autocracy. Described as “herculean” and the “Russian Samson,” the six foot four burly Tsar was an imposing, strong man. He could bend, and then re-straighten, iron fire pokers, crush silver rubles in his fingers, and tear double packs of cards in half, and he often performed these marvels for the amusement of his children and assembled guests.

Alexander III

Portrait of Alexander III, oil on canvas, 1886, I.N. Kramskoi (1837-1887), Wikimedia Commons

His great strength famously came of use in 1888 when the Imperial train derailed and Alexander held up the wrecked carriage’s roof on his shoulders while his family escaped. No one at the time could have guessed that this strong body belied growing weakness. In this moment of heroism, the Tsar bruised a kidney, considered to be the root of the nephritis that ultimately killed him. In the words of biographer Charles Lowe, “nobody had any idea that a malignant disease was gnawing at the apparently robust man in the prime of his life.”

Years later after the accident, in 1894, Alexander’s health began to rapidly deteriorate. Diagnosed with terminal kidney disease that year, a heavy cold exacerbated an already weakened condition. His worsening health in September prompted a move to the country palace of Livadia in the Crimea, hoping he would improve in a warmer climate. Unfortunately, his condition worsened.

Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna

Empress Maria Feodorovna with the body of Alexander III (from the album Death of Alexander III in Livonia), Watercolor and pencil on paper, 1895, Mihaly Zichy (1827-1906), Wikimedia Commons

Biographer Charles Lowe wrote of Alexander’s wife,

“The Empress [Maria Feodorovna (1847-1928)]   was almost beside herself with grief, but up to the last minute she nursed her husband with the most devoted care. She took no rest. Day and night she was beside her consort, holding his hand in hers, keeping back her tears with all her strength, and softly whispering words of hope. ‘I have even before my death got to know an angel,’ the Tsar said, pressing her hand to his lips.”

Maria wrote to her mother,

“He was fully conscious until the last moment, speaking and looking at us until he quite calmly fell asleep into eternal life without any great struggle and in my arm!
Oh, but how heart-rending it was! Incredible that one can survive such sorrow and despair, and now the eternal longing and emptiness everywhere where I am! How shall I bear it? And the poor children, how desolated they are, too, and poor sweet Nicky especially, who has to start that burdensome life while still so young. They are so charming with me, all of them, so full of love and warm feelings. Alicky also shows me so much fond sympathy, which really binds her still closer to my heart.”Imperial Gifts with Xenia's waterdcolor album

This egg pendant belonged to Alexander and Maria’s daughter, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna (1875-1960). It was recorded in her inventory of Easter eggs, a collection of descriptions and watercolor illustrations of Easter eggs and other smaller pieces of jewelry that she acquired between 1880 and 1905, totaling 499 pieces. This inventory page is illustrated in the 2002 exhibition catalogue Treasures of Russia – Imperial Gifts.

Of the mourning pendant, Xenia recorded that she received it from Aunt Michen (Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna the Elder (1854-1920)). Xenia passed the pendant onto her son, Prince Andrei Alexandrovich, who passed it on to his daughter, Princess Olga Andreevna. Accompanying the pendants is a letter from Princess Olga stating their provenance:Princess Olga letter

While eggs are traditionally emblematic of life, this egg pendant embodies grief, a sentiment more connected to the famous Fabergé Easter eggs than their opulence implies. Tsar Alexander III began the Romanov tradition of commissioning the eggs. Wishing to comfort Maria, traumatized by Alexander II’s death, he had the idea to give her an Easter egg in the style of one she liked from her childhood home in Denmark. So pleased with Fabergé’s creation, Alexander and Maria granted him an Imperial Warrant to make an Easter egg every year, in addition to other commissions.

Initially a remedy for grief, Fabergé eggs became annual tokens of affection emblematic of life. To this day, they are forever associated with Romanov splendor. While simple in ornament, these gunmetal and gold egg and shield pendants are no less precious. Together, they are a testament to the loss of a tsar and his lost world.

For all our ALVR Blog posts, please click here.

Fabergé. New York: A La Vieille Russie, 1983.
Lowe, Charles. Alexander III of Russia. New York: Macmillian and Co, 1895.
Ruslands skatte -kejserlige gaver – Treasures of Russia – Imperial Gifts. Kobenhavn : Det Kongelige Solvkammer, 2002.

Artist Jewelry Exhibition Preview

Hand of Fortune by William Harper

Helen Drutt: Philadelphia and A La Vieille Russie request the pleasure of your visit to a preview, November 10th through the 29th, of an artist jewelry exhibition opening in the spring. This preview will feature the work of William Harper.

William Harper is renowned for his cloisonné enamel work and play of materials, ranging from the precious, like gold, silver, and pearls, to the unusual, such as teeth, nails, and feathers.

We welcome you to view a small selection of his wearable art beginning November 10th through the 29th  during gallery hours: 10 to 5:30 Monday through Friday and 11 to 4 on Saturdays, closed Thanksgiving and Sundays.

Admission is free.

William Harper gold earrings

We are supporters of the Wounded Warrior Project and would welcome any donations.

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