Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Fit for kings

The intricate, versatile jewels of the Georgian era reflect their makers’ creative use of metals and tap into the romantic milieu of the period.

By Phyllis Schiller

Encompassing most of the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th, the Georgian period is named for England’s successive kings George I through IV. And while collectors and antique-jewelry lovers have always sought pieces from that era — which spanned 1714 to 1837 — the lavish costumes of Netflix’s Bridgerton TV series have shone a spotlight on the period’s jewelry.

Necessity begets invention

One hallmark of Georgian jewelry was innovation, according to Lisa Stockhammer-Mial, owner of online retailer The Three Graces. “Gold was still scarce during 1813 given the Napoleonic Wars. Jewelers became highly creative at making less gold look like more. Often, pieces were wafer-thin, and techniques such as cannetille work sprung up close to that time.” Jewelers would use “fine, threadlike filaments of gold [to build up] tiny beehives, flowers and whorls...on a thin surface. Granulation also added surface detail and three-dimensionality with the minimum of gold.” Artisans would often use large semiprecious gems, since diamonds were scarce as well, to help “hide the fact that a great deal of gold wasn’t being employed in any one piece.”

Another reason Georgian jewelers were economical with the metal was that the large gold discoveries of the 19th century’s second half had not yet occurred, notes Suzanne Martinez, co-owner of Lang Antiques in San Francisco, California. Iron and cut-steel jewelry with incredible detail was “at its apex during the Georgian era,” she says. “In an attempt to create gold from base metal, [18th-century clockmaker] Christopher Pinchbeck created a wonderful alloy of copper and zinc, and in a rather magical way, it became desirable in its own right. These metals, along with gold and silver, were all utilized [in] Georgian jewelry.”

New equipment also changed the crafting process. “Prior to 1750 and the invention of the rolling mill, apprentices had the task of hand-hammering blocks of gold down to the desired thickness, which the master goldsmith could then transform into jewelry,” Martinez says. “The invention of the rolling mill to roll out uniform sheets of silver and gold streamlined this process and saved a great deal of labor.”

Motifs and materials

Another common style was long chains in various shapes “with patterned links, woven or knitted,” Martinez continues. “In France, the collière d’esclavage featured swagged chain of various link designs [connected] to central plaques, creating a draped symmetry.”

Most Georgian jewelry available today, she says, is from the early 1800s and is characterized by repoussé designs. “Floral and scroll motifs are typical, and commonly used gemstones include semiprecious colored stones — garnets chief among them — and early faceted rose-cut and table-cut diamonds. These were often enhanced by foil-back settings, creating the beloved fire...best appreciated under candlelight. Standards for gold in the Georgian era were usually 18-karat and higher, giving the finished jewels a lovely rich luster. Each sumptuous jewelry creation was completely handcrafted.”

In daytime jewelry, “materials from nature were abundant,” Martinez relates. “Coral, amber, ivory and pearls, along with turquoise, translucent agates and carnelian, were used in a variety of ways. Strands of beads, rivière necklaces, parures, cameos, and intaglios all featured these natural gems. Right alongside, and almost equally popular, were the imitations: paste, faux pearls, opaline glass, Vauxhall glass, tassies, and Wedgwood’s Jasperware beads and cameos.”

For the period around 1813, Stockhammer-Mial lists symbolism, romanticism, understated drama and exquisite craftsmanship as prevalent motifs. “While some of the pieces were quite large, the delicacy of the elements and attention to tiny details created something unlike any other time in history.” Indeed, she adds, if pieces were “larger or longer, such as dangling earrings for those décolleté dresses, they were light in weight.”

Forget-me-nots or other flowers, many with an assigned meaning, “could impart a hidden message,” she says. “Lockets were often tucked behind pendants or on the underside of rings, many times with braided hair inside.” While these could be memorial in nature, they were also “often romantic or sentimental. Hearts, crowns, arrows and similar themes could be found.”

Day-to-night earrings were popular in the early to mid-19th century, offering versatility. “An earring had two or more parts, and the top surmount could be worn by itself, or with its showier dangle or drop,” elaborates Stockhammer-Mial.

Modern collectors

Today’s buyers of Georgian jewelry want to wear it, says Stockhammer-Mial. “Pieces that can be worn during the day or for evening casual often are the most admired. True collectors are always seeking out the rare and unusual, but still want something they can wear and live in, fitting a modern lifestyle.”

Martinez says modern collectors seem to be interested in pieces “both in their original form, and to upcycle/reinvent...into new pieces.” Purists, who might spend years searching for an elusive item or a specific provenance, design, or material, “regard these as works of art and carefully wear them as intended.” Alternatively, she says, some look for ways to provide a modern context. “There are many designers who rescue, repurpose and reinvent Georgian components. We often see the bits and components of larger pieces such as grand brooches broken up and refashioned into trendy earrings, pendants, rings. Small conversion pieces [like these] connect the wearer to the romance of the past but are more approachable and affordable for a new generation of collectors.”

What’s in demand

Martinez lists three categories of Georgian jewels available today: “Original, never-altered pieces, of course, are the most desirable; altered pieces, such as a button later converted to a ring, are also very desirable and wearable. Decent reproductions have been made throughout the 20th century, especially in the Middle East, as well as The Netherlands in the mid-20th century. If you see a 585 hallmark in the shape of an oak leaf, these were made after 1955 in The Netherlands. They usually feature symmetrical rose-cut diamonds set in silver over gold.”

Demand for Georgian items has grown over the past year and continues to rise, according to Stockhammer-Mial. “Often, the sticking point is finding authentic pieces in the right condition. Rings have always been of interest; memorial or sentimental styles [are] two examples. The fabulous long earrings of the period, with gems such as amethysts and garnets, garner attention. Flower-motif pieces...are in high demand. Great suites of jewelry always provide intrigue,” though these are usually expensive and difficult to source.

What the Georgian era has to offer, she says, is “its fine workmanship, supreme aesthetics, elegance, and handmade quality [that is] no longer available.”

Bridging the Bridgerton connectionThe popularity of the Bridgerton series on Netflix “has absolutely inspired a surge of interest in the Regency-era aesthetic,” declares Emily Friedricks, internet sales and Instagram specialist at Lang Antiques.

Inviting the audience into a colorful fantasy world of sumptuous textures and glittering décolletages, the jewelry the show features “is not particularly period-appropriate, and doesn’t try to be,” she says — but “to most viewers, that truly doesn’t matter.” The allure, Friedricks explains, “is not in the accuracy of the depiction, but [in] the emotions these pieces provoke. Georgian and Regency-era jewelry has become more popular, but all types and periods of antique and vintage jewelry have as well.”

Most fans of the series are looking for “pieces that look and feel different from modern jewelry offerings, jewels that seem to hide intimate secrets of a romanticized past, and tokens that invite conversation from admirers,” she says.

So what does appeal to Bridgerton watchers? “Jewelry with locket compartments, pearl embellishments, colorful feature stones, and enamel details. The cherry on top will always be any piece engraved with dates, names or messages, as these really encourage the imagination to run wild with stories of the original owner.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2021. To subscribe click here.

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