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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jewels in the Regency

Sparkle has always caught the human eye—and for as long as history has existed, people have decorated themselves, not just with clothes, but with gems. There is something in the allure of a pretty stone—I’ve used it myself in my Regency novel The Cardros Ruby where a legendary stone that dates back to Elizabethan times haunts the family history into the 1800’s.

We certainly all know about diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies as the jewels that catch the eye today—and inspire greed. But those gemstones have not always been the only ones to be considered as worthy ornaments of the rich and powerful.

In modern times, we consider diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds to be precious gemstones (not semi-precious, which is where most other gems are classified). Precious stones get the big bucks. However, the ancient Egyptians prized glass, both from meteor impacts and the glassblowers of ancient Hebron. Jewelry from ancient times was a sign of status and anything rare could be made into ornamentation. Prized jewelry in ancient times includes stones that are easy to work: amber, turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli, malachite, obsidian and rock crystal.

The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to use glass, or what we would call paste, gemstones. Paste jewelry became popular with in the 1700’s when sumptuary laws relaxed—or were ignored.

In England and most of Europe, sumptuary laws regulated what people could buy and wear based on class. No one was supposed to dress above their rank—and that meant jewels were not allowed to the lower classes. However, as the middle class increased in size and power, they wanted to flaunt their wealth. The paste or glass jewels of the 1700’s turned out to be just the thing for them—something new, a little bit rare, and glittering.

Jeweler Georges Frederic Strass moved to Paris in 1724 and became jeweler to the king—he also invented the rhinestone, something we think of as ‘cheep’ today but it was a hit with those who had money in the 1700’s.

Value has also always been given to the rare, the brilliant and the large, and value has been given in terms of luck or other properties a stone might bestow on its wearer—either heath, protection or even clear vision. We’ve attached gemstones to be the birthstone of someone’s birth month, and various cultures have assigned properties to various stones.

Opals are thought to be unlucky to any except those born in October. For good luck, there are moonstones—those gems with a smooth, oval surface and an opaque coloring that looks almost like moonlight. Jade is also considered lucky by many, Ancient Egyptians thought it brought balance. Jade was the stone of emperors in China, and prized by civilizations in Central America, but appears only rarely jewelry of the Georgian era and Regency. It could be worked into rings or bracelets or used in broaches. Bloodstone, jade, carnelian, ivory and other softer stones could also be carved, and that made them useful as well for signet rings.

The most popular stones for a gentleman’s signet ring to judge by the jewelry that has come down to us seems to have been ruby, amethyst, carnelian and lapis lazuli. Gold was also favored for signet rings and fobs since it could be molded and shaped.

Diamonds, of course, are still prized for rarity, clarity, color and hardness. Just as gold does not tarnish, a diamond can outlast almost anything. It can be cut but not carved. Colored diamonds—blue and yellow—are among the rarest of gemstones.

A scandal over a lavish diamond necklace was said to be part of what brought about the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette’s death. It was thought she had commissioned the necklace at a time when the country was suffering from poor harvests. In truth, her name had been used in an elaborate scheme involving a bishop and the queen’s staff to have the necklace made and then stolen away so the stones could be broken up, recut and sold.

Other diamonds such as the Regent Diamond (that’s French Regency) which Marie Antoinette once wore, the Hope Diamond (a blue diamond said to have come to Europe in the 1300’s and now in the Smithsonian), or the Koh-i-Nor (a legendary stone said to have once been 800 carets and the eye of an Hindu god, but cut down to 186 carets and which came into the British Crown Jewels when given to Queen Victoria), are said to be cursed, not blessed. Such stones always seem to have a past to them—and a bloody history.

But that doesn’t stop anyone from wanting to own and wear jewels.

Fashions prior to the Regency display extravagant jewelry in portraits. The Tudors loved to be painted with jewels, but the jewels are often shown with heavy settings. Cuts were also often not what the cuts we value today.

Malachite and Pearl Parure
As gold-working skills improved, parures came into fashion in the 1600’s offering a suite of matched jewelry. This might include: a diadem, tiara, comb, bandeau, choker, necklace, earrings, brooch, stomacher, bracelets and rings. Parures might have one gem dominant in the set or might be complimenting gems, such as ruby and diamond or amethyst and diamond or emerald and diamond.

Gentlemen, too, of the 1700’s flaunted wealth and status with sparkles. The Macaronis are shown with diamond buttons, diamonds on the heels of their shoes and jeweled buckles. Sword hilts were often decorated with gold, jewels, or even inlay. However, the French Revolution swept away the fashion for showing off jewels when it became dangerous to look like an aristo.

The early 1800’s fashions were also greatly influenced by the antiquities being discovered and returned both to Europe and England in drawings and stories. The craze for Egyptian came and went, bringing with it an influence on jewelry as well as fashion and furniture. And then the style became neo-classical, copying Greek and Roman images and statutes. Now young ladies wore wreaths or flowers or simple strands of pearl. Diadems and armlets came into fashion as did copies of Greek and Egyptian jewelry.

Earlier valued stones again became fashionable—amber, coral, turquoise, lapis and malachite are seen in many examples of jewelry for this era. Gold work became popular with simple gold necklaces, bracelets or chains that could be woven into the hair. Garnets, topaz, agates, carnelian and aquamarines became popular. Wedgewood brought into fashion jasperware, beads and cameos.

Brummell influenced restraint for the gentleman, who might sport a jeweled snuff box (and Brummell had a huge collection of snuff boxes), or a signet ring or a single jeweled fob—but to do more was deemed slightly vulgar. But a gentleman might also carry a jeweled toothpick case, if he’s a bit of a fop, as Jane Austen has her character Robert Ferrars design and buy in London.

However, not all ladies followed the fashion for minimal.

Older women who had lost the bloom of youth—or who just intended to display their wealth and status—might well decide to go for the gleam of diamonds and wear the family parure anyway. Sir Walter Besant says of Almack’s, “Riff-raff might go to Court; but they could not get to Almack’s, for at its gates there stood, not one angel with a firey sword, but six in the shape of English ladies, terrible in turbans, splendid in diamonds, magnificent in satin, and awful in rank.”

Willmott Willmott-Dixon notes in Queens of Beauty and Their Romances, speaking of Lady Jersey, one of those patronesses of Almack’s, “She had a way of showing too obtrusively that her diamonds were larger and her beauty more splendid than all her rivals.”

Certainly after December, 1804, when Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France and brought the bling and a court back to France, the style for more jewels to establish status followed.

The Empress Josephine led fashion in France and her elegant style carried over to England. She was noted for her taste and restraint, but Bonaparte had no such inclination. He was as fond of jewels in the hilts of his swords as he was of crowns and diamonds scattered about on watches, clocks and his ladies.

After divorcing Josephine, in 1810, Bonaparte had the Parisian jeweler Etiene Nitot et Fils craft an emerald and diamond parure for his new empress, Marie-Louise with 138 emeralds, 382 rose-cut diamonds and 2,162 brilliant-cut diamonds. The parure included a diadem, necklace, earrings, comb and belt clasp. The rose-cut is no longer in fashion, but the parts of the parure that survived intact—the necklace and earrings—are lovely and now live in the Louve. (Bonaparte also gave Marie-Louise two more parures, one of diamonds and one of pearls and diamonds that were mean to be part of the French Crown Jewels.)

Made by T. Gray
The Prince Regent, too, loved his glitter and added to the British Crown Jewels. Venetia Murry in An Elegant Madness, notes, “The Prince was clearly unable to pass a jewellery shop without buying what he referred to as a 'trinket', meaning anything from a diamond tiara to a butterfly brooch with emerald eyes. Among the fashionable jewellers he patronized were Hamlet's—whose customers included the Duke of York, the Duchess of Cloucester and various foreign royals—Thomas Gray in Sackville Street and Phillips in Bond Street. But his favoroute by far was Rundell and Bridges on Ludgate Hill, the principal goldsmiths and jewellers at the time. After 1805, that shop became Rundell, Bridge & Rundell.
Rundell and Bridges on Ludgate Hill

Thomas Gray on Sackville Street was patronized by young Prince George and is listed as active until 1805. Stedman and Vardon are also listed in as jewelers to Queen Charlotte in 1796 (and in 1795 as John Stedman, Samuel Vardon and Thomas Vardon), Goldsmiths and Jewelers at 36 New Bond Street.

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna mixed English aristocrats with European once more and held lavish balls, masquerades, and the jewels once associated with royalty returned. While daytime jewelry remained restrained—a watch, broach, or a ring—evening wear became more fussy (frills, ribbons, ruffles) and for important occasions, ladies again began to done their finest jewelry of diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies to show off their wealth and status.

If you are looking for reproductions from the era, I can recommend:

And for additional information:

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