• Cameos and Intaglios in the Victorian Era

    Victorian Style Cameos Photo Source: Blooming Vine's Design Blog Victorian Style Cameos
    Photo Source: Blooming Vine's Design Blog

    by Angela Magnotti Andrews

    I love statues, carvings, and all things beautiful and tiny. This makes cameos some of my favorite forms of jewelry. Though I am most familiar with what Anna Miller calls the "vapid females,” I have learned that cameo carving is an intricate and ancient tradition (Miller, Cameos, 1).

    Believed to be culture-in-art at its finest, the first cameos were used as tokens of historical events, teaching tools for ethics and morals, talismans to ward off evil spirits, and amulets to enhance health (Miller, Cameos, 1). Throughout the Victorian Era, the memorial and historical nature of cameos fit nicely within the romantic idealism of that time.

    The use of cameos in necklaces, earrings, bracelets, brooches, and rings is one of the most prolific jewelry motifs used throughout the Victorian Era. The first cameos were carved into precious stones; however, around 1810, artisans began to carve cameos out of seashells. Not only was shell easier to sculpt, but designers also began to layer gemstones beneath or on top of the shell to create a new layering effect.

    Freind (ship) Intaglio Photo Source: Jean Jean Vintage Blog Freind (ship) Intaglio
    Photo Source: Jean Jean Vintage Blog

    Cameo carving has a twin technique, intaglio (in-tal-y-o), in which the design is etched into the stone. Both styles date as far back as ancient Roman civilization, though the intaglio design was used more prominently in ancient civilizations as official seals. When designed as rings, these intaglio rings could be worn by merchants, kings, and other authorities. Wearing the seals offered further protection from theft.

    With the signet ring of a merchant, you could buy or sell wares. With the signet ring of a landowner, you could collect rent or assign property rights. And with the signet ring of a king, you could dispatch an army or call for a sumptuous feast.

    Though the advent of the personal signature and modern-day stamps have eliminated the requirement for signet rings, many monarchs and prestigious families still have personal signet rings with family crests or their initials engraved in them. I have yet to find out if they actually use them to seal important documents. If you find a link with this information, please leave me a comment so I can check it out and update this post.

    1. Anna M. Miller. Cameos: Old & New, 3rd Edition. Woodstock: Gemstone Press, 2002.
    2. Monica Lynn Clements. "Victorian Cameos." New England Antiques Journal, accessed May 8, 2012. http://www.antiquesjournal.com/pages04/archives/cameos.html.
    3. J. E. Cornett. "What is Intaglio Jewelry." eHow, last modified February 3, 2012. http://www.ehow.com/about_6217549_intaglio-jewelry_.html.
    4. Fredrik Brodin. "Seals and the signet ring." The Armorial Blog, December 15, 2011. Accessed May 8, 2012. http://armorialblog.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/seals-and-the-signet-ring.
    5. Duff. "Victorians Just Wanna Have Fun." Jean Jean Vintage, January 31, 2011. http://jeanjeanvintage.blogspot.com/2011/01/victorians-just-wanna-have-fun.html.

  • Olaf Skoogfors Brooch on Display at MAD's Current Jewelry Exhibition 'Wear it or Not'

    Photo John Bigelow Taylor, 2008 Photo Credit: MAD Photo John Bigelow Taylor, 2008
    Photo Credit: MAD

    A brand new jewelry exhibition, 'Wear it or Not', opened just a few days ago at New York's Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). The show will run fairly briefly, closing on June 2, 2013. Featuring jewelry from the 1950s to present day, the exhibition explores the techniques and materials chosen by contemporary jewelry designers to infuse their pieces with "conceptual, social and political resonance" {cited}.

    The brooch pictured here is part of the museum's permanent collection and will be on exhibit in the show. Made in 1975 by professor and artist Olaf Skoogfors, it is a prime example of MAD's aim to explore jewelry as an art form, and not as mere decoration.

    Constructed by Professor Skoogfors out of sterling silver and gold plate, this contemporary brooch is a prime example of the artist's later work. In 1972, just three years prior to making this piece, the renowned jewelry designer expressed a shift toward barbaric, primitive, and peasant design as inspiration for his pieces.

    In speaking of his interest in the strength and vitality of such archaic designs, Professor Skoogfors captured not only his own philosophy of jewelry design, but also the very essence of MAD's current jewelry exhibition: "I believe jewelry must be wearable, but have a strong, forceful image. It should not just be casual decoration, but a reflection of the creator and the wearer." {Olaf Skoogfors, 1972}

    The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and general admission of $15 grants access to all permanent exhibitions as well as to 'Wear it or Not.'

    For more information, including hours, tours, and more, visit MAD's webiste.

  • The Illustrious Ilias Lalaounis


    Lalounis Butterfly Brooch


    Ilias Lalaounis brushed 18k gold to form the wings of what appears to be a brimstone butterfly. Polished gold wires accentuate the intricate veins of the wings. On the back, the makers' mark establishes this estate designer brooch as a part of the illustrious jewelry house of Ilias Lalaounis.

    The lauded Greek jeweler dedicated his life to reviving ancient Greek  goldsmith practices at a time when his contemporaries thought him a complete fool. Beginning in the 1990s, his four daughters picked up the baton and continue to carry the legacy he left them to even higher levels in business, craftsmanship, and design. The name Lalaounis is intrinsically linked to excellence in craftsmanship and represents more than mere luxury or beauty.

    In his stunning book, Metamorphoses, Mr. Lalaounis wrote that as he designs his pieces, he endows each one with greater significance than just decoration: "Beyond its decorative function, beyond its intrinsic aesthetic value, I believe that each jewel should at the same time carry a message," for one day that artfully designed piece of gold will be "grafted onto the life of the individual...who wears it," and will thereby become an intrinsic part of that person's story.

    This elegant butterfly pin was made in the 1990s as part of Katerini Lalaounis's "Pastorale" collection. Handcrafted with passionate artistry and excellent craftsmanship in a Lalaounis workshop, its very creation endowed it with a message, perhaps the message of the butterfly--that all things will one day be transformed into glorious beauty and freedom.

    This estate designer brooch, made with care for that person who would one day take it home and allow it to become more to them than mere ornamentation, already holds the memories of a lifetime. How wonderful it would be to learn some of its secrets, to witness the luncheons, the business meetings, or the soccer games it has seen while perched upon the lapel of its beautiful owner.

    Alas, like the walls of a home, jewelry holds tightly to its secrets. While we may not be able to coax its stories from it, we can be sure that has room for many more.

  • Verdura Swan Brooch (1948) May Represent the Three Graces of Greek Mythology

    Verdura Swan Brooch Made for Barbara 'Babe' Paley in 1948 Photo credit: The Philosopher's Stone Verdura Swan Brooch
    Made for Barbara 'Babe' Paley in 1948
    Photo credit: The Philosopher's Stone


    A golden swan fashioned by Verdura flies through the air carrying a large faceted diamond in its beak. Diamonds pave its collar, and its large body, made from a single Baroque pearl, appears to have been etched with tail feathers. Draped across its broad chest lies a diamond necklace, and it wears two diamond bands around its onyx ankles.


    Verdura + His Three Swans

    One of three jeweled swan pins made by Duke Fulco di Verdura, this stunning vintage brooch was fashioned in 1948 for society maven Barbara 'Babe' Paley. Though the legendary jeweler made several variations on this theme of swans, he made this one first.

    Two other followed, which he gave to Ms. Paley's contemporaries, Fiat's first lady, Dona Marella Agnelli, and the "statuesque Mexican beauty" {cited}, Mrs. Gloria Guinness.


    Renaissance Symbolism

    A representative at Verdura confirmed that the masterful jeweler would have drawn heavily from Renaissance symbolism for his design of the swan brooches. Although any conclusions made by this writer are estimations at best (speculations at worst), a brief study of Renaissance imagery and literature allows for the possibility that Signor Verdura endowed these swans, and therefore the three powerful women he gifted them to, with eloquent meaning drawn from Greek mythology.

    Lauded by Elsa Maxwell, famous international hostess and gossip columnist, as someone who would "guarantee the 'most perfect party imaginable'" {cited}, Duke Fulco di Verdura was well versed in Renaissance and Romantic literature, art, and culture. He kept numerous volumes on the art and literature of those historic periods in his library, which served as reference for both work and pleasure.

    Drawing from this rich cultural epoch, Signor Verdura enjoyed playing with references and weaving double meanings and rich symbolism into his jewelry and his conversation. His use of the Baroque pearl in this brooch serves as further evidence for his inspiration from Renaissance Italy. Signor Verdura crafted many whimsical animals out of these asymmetrical cultured pearls, likely inspired by the Baroque jewelry viewed in the European museums he visited in his younger years.


    Queens of Song

    In her 1996 text, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Barbara Walker proposes that swans symbolize the Greek Muses, attendants to Apollo, god of music and poetry. A simple conclusion that the swan brooches were symbolic of the designer's affections for these women who served as muses might be made. However, another far richer symbolism may surround these unique creations.

    For wherever the Muses went, so went the Three Graces (Thalia, Euphrosyne, and Aglaia) , those patronesses of the arts who reigned as "queens of song and orderers of the festivals in heaven and on earth" {The Spenser Encyclopedia}. In some texts, it is inferred that swans represents not only the Muses, but also the Three Graces.

    Writing in England in the 1500s, poet Edmund Spenser, whose work Signor Verduri would have been familiar with, referred frequently to the service of Three Graces  to those "earthly ladies of great beauty or position" {The Spenser Encyclopedia}. Another story involving the three sisters is the epic Greek narrative Of the Judgement of Paris, which became very popular among the social elite in the early 1950s. In fact, it's quite possible that these works of antiquity became popular because the Duke regaled his social equals of the mythological tales at their splendid parties. Most certainly, he would have shared these details during one of his collaborative design sessions with his clients, including Babe Paley.


    Orderers of Feasts and Parties

    In one version of the legendary story, the Three Graces promise to confer their inherent virtues onto England's Queen Anne. Sister Thalia offers the Queen "contynuall success" or "ryches", Euphrosyne bestows "hartie gladnes" or "felicitie", and Aglaia grants "stable honour" or "wysdome" {Empire and Nation in Early English Renaissance Literature}. 

    It is no great leap to consider that hidden within these swan brooches was Signor Verdura's hope that the Three Graces would bestow these same gifts upon three of his favorite society women, women who in their day were the reigning "orderers" of splendid feasts and parties on earth.

  • Mauboussin Hummingbird Brooch Sold at Christie's Likely Made Between 1947 and 1967

    Gemstone Bird Pendant a similar motif as Mauboussin This gorgeous gemstone encrusted pendant shares similarities with the Mauboussin bird pendant sold at Christie's. Click here for more information. Photo ©2018 EraGem Jewelry.


    A lovely enamel brooch hummingbird sold for $2405 at Christie's this past January. Featuring a cabochon sapphire and diamond eye, the stylized bird clip was made at an unrecorded time by the jewelers at Mauboussin. As is well known, trends in jewelry come and go much like the ebb and flow of the tides. Christie's did not provide a date for the piece, which presents an intriguing mystery for any avid jewelry collector.

    Hummingbirds were most certainly in vogue during the 1870s, a time in which the French jewelry firm was enjoying grand success. However, it was far more popular at that time to fashion these ornaments out of real hummingbird heads and feathers. While this practice abated by the 1890s, jeweled birds remained wildly popular during the Art Nouveau period, particularly the grand peacock.

    Once again, though, it does not appear that this hummingbird brooch was made at the turn of the century. For one thing, the tiny jeweled creatures were a passing fancy and not a real trend of the period. More importantly, this particular brooch, though highly stylized, has none of the artsy characteristics of Art Nouveau jewelry.

    Heading into World War I, the fashion tides changed once again. Out swept the natural motifs of France's "New Art," and in flowed the architectural lines patterned after the modern mechanical wonders, the steam engine, the airplane, and the automobiles. The jewelry firm, founded by M. Rocher, weathered the transition well, now with Georges Mauboussin at the helm.

    As Primavera Gallery reports, Mauboussin won Grand Prize at the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1925 for their jewels, "which boasted legibility of design, clear bold lines and a proclivity towards geometric patterns." Clearly, this hummingbird design does not find its origins in the Art Deco period, which lasted through the 1930s.

    By turning to Mauboussin's ad campaigns in the 1940s and 1950s, one can finally see where this little birdie might have made its debut. Thanks to the Paris firm, HPrints, there exists a limited record of Mauboussin's design trends throughout this vintage period. The ads of the early '40s feature hints of the bird beauties to come, with brooches and earrings increasingly featuring the classic feather tips and jeweled plumes indicative of the emerging naturalist themes. Butterflies make their debut in a photo shoot by Edgar Elshoud, a prominent ad photographer in the 1940s. In addition to Moaboussin, his clients included the likes of Cartier and Boucheron, as well as many famous couturiers.

    A brooch featuring two whimsically plump birds perched upon a branch rounds out a 1945 spread for Mauboussin accessories, and the first stylized 'bird of paradise' appears in a 1947 ad spotlighting the design talent of Rene Sim Lecaze. In 1948, we see the first sign of the peacock's influence on Mauboussin's designs. An ad illustrated by S. Markovitch features a magnificent necklace. Its expertly placed emerald and ruby cabochons evoke images of the tail feathers of a peacock in repose. It is absolutely breathtaking in its execution and its evocation.

    The bird motif became increasingly popular as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s. During this time, all the major houses were making sculpted birds in gold and precious stones. This ad, dated 1947, features examples from France's top four jewelers, including Cartier, Mauboussin, Boucheron, and Van Cleef & Arpels. A similar ad taken out in 1959 features a comparable layout featuring stylized bird clips made exclusively by Mauboussin.

    The bird motif seems to be ebbing by the 1960s. However, what appear to be catalog pages from 1964 and 1967 feature several whimsical bird pieces that bear some resemblance to the lines of this hummingbird brooch sold recently by Christie's. Though none of these advertisements definitively place the hummingbird on Mauboussin's timeline, it is safe to estimate that it was created sometime between 1947 and 1967.

  • Introducing May Morris Jewelry

    Girdle, pins and pendant, 1906 silver and semi-precious stones Photo Credit: Pre Raphaelite Art Blog Girdle, pins and pendant, 1906
    silver and semi-precious stones
    Photo Credit: Pre Raphaelite Art Blog


    This lovely girdle pictured above was designed by Mary “May” Morris, daughter of William Morris (1834-1896).  Girdles served as belts worn across the midsection of a woman’s dress. Fashioned after the medieval renaissance style, this elegant ornament is made entirely of silver, hand crafted in the artisan style of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and set with freshwater pearls, chrysoprase (gemstone chalcedony), and garnets.

    May Morris founded and presided over the Women’s Guild of Arts for 28 years. Her contribution to the arts remained steady and strong throughout her life. In fact, her legacy and work live on in her bequest to the Victoria & Albert Museum and the collections housed at Kelmscott house under the care of the William Morris Society. You can see her contribution in person at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

    Miss Morris was an artist through and through. She dedicated her life to the advancement of women in the trades of craftsmen and artisans. She inspired her listeners to reach deeper to find the passion within them to create one-of-a-kind pieces with the attention to detail characteristic of medieval days.

    Though she is most famous for her embroidery, she was also a jewelry designer, an authoress, a lecturer, and an editor. She represents true royalty, standing strong and firm as an advocate for some of the finest art and jewelry practices of the late 19th century.

  • May Morris, Daughter of the Arts & Crafts Movement

    1909-May Morris May Morris, 1909
    Photo Credit: The Textile Blog


    Nursed at the breast of what can only be called a type of renaissance, May Morris (1862-1938) was a true daughter of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Her father, William Morris, was a prominent founder of the international design philosophy, which originated in England in the early 1860s. A talented and gifted embroiderer, May followed in her father’s footsteps as a reformer and an artist. Having studied textile arts at the South Kensington School of Design, she went on to serve as director of the embroidery department at her father’s company, Morris & Co.

    One primary thrust of the Arts & Crafts Movement was the formation of guilds. These guilds were the equivalent of our modern-day labor groups. Artisans of similar trade gathered together to ensure skilled and beautiful craftsmanship, as well as to provide protection for the trade and the craftsmen. These guilds presided over the production, quality inspection, and distribution of every piece made by their artisans. They also provided a platform for disseminating the socialist ideals of the movement and forming policies that would affect the governing bodies of their cities.

    Miss Morris, an artisan and founder of the Women's Guild of Arts, encouraged an attention to detail, which hearkened back to medieval days, with a distinctly socialist flavor. Her standards were exacting, but the passion with which she pursued her art made her a brilliant teacher.

    “If [the embroideress] pursues her craft with due care, and one might even say with enthusiasm, however, she will not only taste the keen pleasure which every one feels in creative work, however unpretending, but the product will be such as others will be careful to preserve: this in itself being an incentive to good work. For work done at the demand of fashion or caprice and that done inevitably, that is, for its own sake, are as widely dissimilar as can be: the first being discarded in a month or so as ridiculous and out of date, and the other remaining with us in all its dignity of beauty and fitness, to be guarded as long as may be against the unavoidable wear and tear of time.” ~May Morris (Decorative Needle Work, 1893)

  • Chicago Field Museum's Grainger Hall of Gems

    Image as Featured on Time Out Chicago Image as Featured on Time Out Chicago, 2009


    Nestled on the edge of Lake Michigan, Chicago's Field Museum is home to one of the most unique jewelry exhibits in the United States. Founded in 1893, the Grainger Hall of Gems has a history as fascinating as its displays. As the 1893 Chicago World's Fair wound to a close, several of the city's more prominent residents expressed a desire to convert the fair's extensive geological collection into a permanent display for the city of Chicago.

    Among them were Marshall Field (1834-1906), who purchased and donated rock and mineral specimens from Ward's Natural Science, and Harlow Higinbotham (1838-1919), who purchased and donated the fair's extensive Tiffany & Co. collection.

    The Chicago Columbia Museum opened its doors in 1894, and the Higinbotham Hall of Gems quickly became one of the institution's most popular attractions. Over the years, the Hall of Gems underwent several renovations, including one in 1987, at which time it was given a new name in honor of its sponsor, The Grainger Foundation.

    In 2009, the Hall was once again remodeled under the direction of Dr. Lance Grande, geology department curator. Dr. Grande's vision included brightening up the space to give it a more regal feel and refining the collection to emphasize the beauty of gemstones in all their forms.

    During the extensive enterprise, Dr. Grande scoured the museum's collections for exceptional gems to place on display. He also partnered with several jewelry designers to secure breathtaking settings for many of the museum's loose stones.

    Believing that "it is the aesthetics that form the strongest attraction to gems, ranging from their natural beauty as raw crystals to their artistic beauty as products of human artistry," Dr. Grande and his team have created an exhibition as stunning as any of the masterpieces on display.

    Visitors to the museum enjoy a holistic immersion into the world of gemstones. Each display tells a gemstone's complete story. A specimen of the gemstone in its raw form stands beside stunning loose faceted stones, which form a brilliant juxtaposition to finished jewelry pieces in the form of rings, brooches, necklaces, and more.

    By presenting over 700 specimens across every stage of a gemstone's transformation, Dr. Grande has effectively combined "natural beauty with the beauty of human artistry" {cited}, allowing viewers to "explore the natural history as well as the craftsmanship that is required to turn minerals into masterpieces" {cited}.

    Museum goers enjoy the privilege of feasting their eyes upon 600 gemstone specimens and 150 exclusive jeweled wonders, some dating back to the ancient Aztecs, others designed by some of today's top jewelry designers. If you're planning to be in the Chicago area, be sure and carve out some time to soak in the glittering beauty of the Grainger Hall of Gems.

  • The Greek Key Motif in Art Deco Jewelry Design

    Copyright 2013 EraGem Jewelry Copyright 2013 EraGem Jewelry


    The setting of this Art Deco engagement ring is a study in contrasts. When viewed from the side, the intricate filigree decadent images from the previous Edwardian Period. However, when viewed from above, the brilliant Old Euro cut diamond is surrounded by a geometric engraving which elicits scenes from Ancient Greece or Rome.

    Called the 'Greek Key' pattern by modern-day designers, this angular carving is an example of one of several characteristic motifs (e.g. Chevron, Spiral Scroll, and Concentric Circles) of Art Deco jewelry. A cursory glance at the historical record might lead one to believe that these styles find their origins in classical Greek form. However, a more thorough study indicates that, while the Greeks may have introduced these devices to the Western world in previous centuries, they were not the primary influences for their use in the Art Deco movement.

    William Henry Goodyear, writing in 1893, calls the Greek Key design the 'Meander' and purports that it evolved, not from the meandering rivers of Turkey and Greece from which it derives its name, but from the prominent symbol of Ancient Egypt, the lotus flower. His arguments are compelling in their suggestion that the Greeks adopted all of these patterns from their study of Egyptian artifacts and tombs, many of which feature the Meander pattern. Among Goodyear's most compelling evidence is the presence of this key-like motif in the 13th-Dynasty tomb of Meri-ka-ra at Siout {The Grammar of the Lotus, 1893, p. 96}.

    More recent sources may provide evidence that champions of the Art Deco movement would have bypassed the Greeks altogether, drawing directly from Egyptian artifacts for inspiration. Nancy Solomon suggests that classicism was out, while decadence combined with a renewed hope in the wonders of technology were in. She cites as evidence the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 and the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, from which Art Deco would eventually derive its name.

    While the Exposition "captured the spirit of the times, amalgamating individual freedom of expression with a machine aesthetic," the archaeological breakthrough "whetted the public's appetite for the exotic" and also "influenced the organizers of the exposition" {Architecture, 2008, p. 43}.

    Inspired by the sights of this grand exhibition, as well as the sleek lines of airplanes, automobiles, and trains of the 1920s, the architects of the day went on to design their buildings in like fashion, with symmetrical curves connected by geometric lines. Later, it was these at once sensuous and rigid buildings which inspired stunning Art Deco jewelry like this engagement ring with its, shall we say, Meandering motif.

  • A Detailed Account of Three Victorian Jewelry Eras

    Emil Brack, Planning the Grand Tour Photo Source: Time to Eat the Dogs Emil Brack, Planning the Grand Tour
    Photo Source: Time to Eat the Dogs


    As mentioned in a previous post, Victorian Jewelry spans three distinctive eras. During the early period (1837-1861), Victorian jewelry reflected the sentimental nature of the times with mementoes, love tokens, and souvenirs from foreign travel. Italian cameos were brought back to Britain from Italy and Greece as souvenirs from the "Grand Tours" of the upper classes. Victoria’s love for all things Scottish popularized many Highlander influences in jewelry and fashion, particularly brooches with a grouse foot set in gold or silver and tartan clothing. These trends lasted well into the 1860s, a time when culture and travel were extremely important to British culture.

    In 1861, the death of Prince Albert launched Victoria’s mourning period, and the beginning of mid-Victorian jewelry (1861-1885). From that day until the day of her death, Victoria wore only black clothing and mourning jewelry. The light and airy romantic designs of the early period dramatically transformed into the heavier, bolder, and brighter designs of this later time. Upon the death of the prince, the practice of wearing day jewelry and night jewelry became in vogue.

    It was considered improper to wear glittery jewelry during the day, so daytime jewelry became smaller and more subtle, following a classical trend with stones such as agates, shells, amethyst, and jasper. Colorless faceted gems, such as diamonds, were strictly reserved for nighttime wear. As the period progressed, the use of colored stones declined even further, which had a huge impact on the jewelry industry and almost caused the failure of many designers of that time.

    Victorian jewelry from the final period of Victoria’s reign, the Aesthetic Period (1885-1901), drew influence from the introduction of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This led to a demand for animal motifs in jewelry. Fashions again changed, becoming a celebration of the greater liberation of women. Softer colors and designs became popular, reflecting the greater emphasis on feminine concerns. Of course, new discoveries and new trade lines opened up during this era, and the jewelry and fashion of the day reflects these discoveries. During this period in particular, silver, diamonds, and sapphires grew in availability and popularity.

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