Victorian jewellery can be split into three distinct periods. Early Victorian or the 'Romantic' period, mid Victorian otherwise known as the 'Grande' period and late Victorian or 'Aesthetic' period.
Many styles in clothing and personal adornment came in and went out of fashion but all can still be said to be "Victorian". Transitions were not usually clear or abrupt - several styles coexisted at once as tastes slowly changed. Motifs and choices of gems may be said to be more typical of one period or another but will inevitably be found throughout the ages. Family suites of jewellery from the previous generation would be broken apart or combined with newer pieces melding the styles of both periods. Large pieces would be cut down or simplified for a different use, part of a brooch resurrected as a ring for example.
In Europe the ruling families often set the tone and styles, this was certainly true of Queen Victoria who came to the throne at 18 years of age in 1837. The Queen loved jewellery, her influence on design contributed greatly to the many styles that developed throughout her long reign. The quality of jewellery varied depending on the budgets of the customers - jewellery worn as an outward sign of wealth and worth did not always reflect good taste and design.
The 'Romantic' Period. 1837 - 1860.
The art and fashions of the early years of this part of the Victorian era were described as romantic or sentimental and reflected the youth and courtship and marriage of the young queen. The Romantic Period was a time of marital bliss and joyous family life for her. Jewellery was decorated with intricate engraving, delicate enamel work, and serpentine designs. In the early Victorian era diamonds and pearls were rare and expensive. The first diamond mines were opened in South Africa in the 1870s and so mid-century diamonds were available only to the rich. With few exceptions they were alluvial and faceted in rose cuts or old mine or squared off cushion cuts. Round fully faceted diamonds were for late Victorians when true round shape could be attained. But there were many alternatives accessible to the middle class. Jewellery could often be accented with seed pearls, set in jewellery instead of stitched in with horse hair as in the period previously, small turquoise beads from trade with Turkey though most was Persian in origin, a pale blue without matrix. Amber, ivory and pink coral were carved and set. Garnets continued to be popular, more often faceted, both red and green.
This red was a deeper colour than would be popular later when the Bohemian pyrope, a clearer and fierier red to red brown appeared. The old favourites, natural pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and amethysts along with topazes continued to be popular. Unlike today where the faceting requires light coming through a stone many coloured stones were foiled or enclosed on the back, the pooling of light deep in the stone the goal. Today, foiling or closed backs are often the mark of an imitation stone. Likewise faceted stones were collet, bezel, or claw set. Gems or stones and the way they are set into a piece of jewellery can be major clues to determining its dating. It's either a reproduction or a "married" piece" when you find one with a gem that is "wrong" in a piece of Victorian jewellery. Alexandrite, tourmalines, hematite, bright blue (heat treated) topaz, tanzanite were not used by early Victorian jewellers. In 1848 Victoria and Albert bought a manor house called Balmoral in Scotland. Scottish style influenced jewellery, 19th Century Scottish brooches typically incorporate the thistle or the foot of the grouse set into gold or silver. Some were set with cairngorm. This stone is most commonly a tea coloured transparent quartz found in the Highlands. Authentic Cairngorms are no longer available and citrine or smoky quartz are commonly substituted. Queen Victoria loved Scotland and all things Scottish. Her pride in her Stuart ancestry and the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's novels made Scottish jewellery a fashionable accessory. Jewellery set with Scottish agates and jaspers (Scottish pebbles) were popular throughout England and America but declined after the death of Albert in 1861.
Cameo carving came back into fashion in the early 19th century. An art that had existed since before the days of Christ had slowly died out over the years but was revived in part by Napoléon Bonaparte and also the Pope. Cameos were worn in all forms of jewellery, today it is most common to find cameo brooches. Older cameos usually depicted themes from mythology, another popular theme was 'Rebecca at the Well' based on the painting by Carlo Maratta which depicted an episode from the Old Testament.
Yellow and rose gold were the metals of choice in the Romantic Period, platinum was hard to work and silver was not in demand. Most of the romantic period preceded the great gold rushes in California, South Africa and Australia. As a result gold was still scarce and therefore expensive. Early Victorian gold jewellery is either 18 carat or above. The 1854 Act allowed goldsmiths to work in 9, 12 or 15 carat gold, as well as the older standards of 18 and 22 carat. This brought gold jewellery within the reach of a greatly extended public. The 12 and 15 standards were eventually replaced by 14 carat gold in 1932. Not all pieces were hallmarked but if you see a mark showing less than 18 carats you can be fairly sure it was made post 1854. When diamonds were set they were almost always set in white metal to enhance their beauty. A style of jewellery strongly linked with the Victorian period is 'Hair Jewellery'. Although it was around in Georgian times (and popular in 16th century Sweden) the sentimentality of the Romantic Period brought it more into the mainstream. Sometimes the lock of hair was from a deceased person and therefore considered mourning jewellery. Sometimes it was simply a token of love. Different patterns had different meanings, a rose signified love or hope. A butterfly signified the three stages of life - the birth, death and the resurrection. Some patterns were plain, some extremely intricate; even watch chains have been found made out of human hair. Many people today find it to be macabre, to others it is fascinating. Not often can you hold a perfectly preserved part of someone who has been dead for over 200 years.