Eighteenth-Century Jewelry

Editorial Staff Art

By JOHN HAYWARD; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, April 1955.

Most aspects of eighteenth-century arts and crafts have been the subject of detailed and exhaustive research in the course of the past fifty years. The jewelry of the period, however, has been somewhat neglected in favor of Renaissance jewelry (so called, though much of it dates from the first half of the seventeenth century), the very name of which has romantic appeal.


Jewelry set with rose-cut paste brilliants: (left) gold and silver turban ornament, Turkish, c. 1730; and one of a pair of silver pendants, French, eighteenth century. Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. 

Renaissance jewelry is clearly the creation of the goldsmith, the worker in precious metals. Precious stones, though they may be imposing in both size and quality, are introduced to add splendor to a composition which would be complete without them: they may decorate the costume of a figure, or enrich the body of a monster but they cannot be said to determine the character of the Renaissance jewel. In the eighteenth century the gems became significant, and the precious metal provided a more or less inconspicuous setting. In this insistence on the importance of the stones eighteenth-century jewelery resembles modern.

The lady in this portrait by Alexander Roslin (1718-1793) wears a Sévigné bow at her throat and a pair of earrings of matching design. A brooch with pendant of rococo design adorns her cap. Probably painted about 1750.Mortimer Brandt Gallery.

Predominence of the diamond, new emphasis on faceting, and popularity of floral designs are the three main features of eighteenth-century jewelry. Never have diamonds been used in more profusion; this was due to the coincidence of increased supplies from Golconda and brilliant cut-a technique which brought out the quality of the diamond far more effectively than the seventeenth-century rose cut. The use of floral motifs increased at this time in all the decorative arts.

Brooch and pair of girandole earrings, silver set with brilliant-cut chrysoberyls; Portuguese, third quarter of the 1700’s. The heavy design suggests the early part of the century, but the introduction of naturalistic flowers indicates a later date probably 1760’s. Variations of this design were popular from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century.Illustrations are from the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

In spite of the popularity of brilliant-cut jewelry in the eighteenth century, very little survives; in fact, except for pieces in some of the former royal collections, one now sees more eighteenth-century jewelry set with rose-cut diamonds that with brilliant-cut. Jewelry fashions changed frequently during the nineteenth century, and the finer stones were reset; only the old-fashioned rose-cut diamonds, which were not considered worth resetting, escaped alteration.

Water-color design for girandole earrings and a corsage ornament; Italian, mid-eighteenth century. The earrings are basically seventeenth century in design, though the small flowers and asymmetrical scrollwork show they are of a later date. 

During the second half of the seventeenth century, jewelry forms had become standardized. The normal parure consisted of a necklace, a Sévigné bow, and a pair of girandole earrings. The Sévigné was an openwork bow from which hung one or more pendants, usually ending in a cross. The tern is derived from the authoress of the famous letters (1626-1698), but why the Marquise’s name was taken for this particular form is not clear; it does not appear in eighteenth-century pattern books. The girandole was somewhat similar, consisting of a central stone, usually round, from which hung three pear-shaped drops-often pearls. Both these designs have an air of solemnity well suited to the magnificence of the French court, and it was not until well into the eighteenth century that less formal designs began to replace them. However, a lighter effect was achieved earlier by reducing size of the collet (the circle or flange in which the stone is set) and by omitting the enamel enrichment which had been a feature of Louis XIV jewels.

Corsage ornament of naturalistic flowers; enameled gold set with brilliant-cut diamonds; mid-eighteenth century. Formerly in the treasury of the Virgin of the Pillar at Saragossa. The style is international and appears in French, Italian, and English designs as well as Spanish. 

Diamonds were usually set in silver during the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, as the color of gold was thought to detract from the effect of the precious stones. The general trend was to suppress the setting as far as possible, but there were exceptions. For instance, the jewelers of Spain and Portugal, who were particularly skilled in goldworking, produced jewels-like the brooch shown, which appears to date from the early 1700’s-in which diamonds and emeralds were enclosed in gold settings of elaborate but most delicate foliage. The Iberian goldsmiths did not follow the fashion of setting diamonds in silver but continued to use gold, at least for the less important stones.

Watercolor design for a necklace; Italian, mid-eighteenth century. This combination of architectural and floral details has a charm and flippancy characteristic of the rococo, though the three drops are a carry-over from the baroque. The setting is unusually elaborate for the period.

As the century progressed, floral motifs played a greater part and at the same time there was a tendency toward less symmetrical design. The rococo had a relatively brief period of fashion in jewelry: it was not until the second quarter of the eighteenth century that jewelers’ pattern books began to include asymmetrical designs, and by the 1760’s fashion was already turning back to symmetry. Even in the characteristically rococo pattern books, such as those published in England by Thomas Flach and Sebastian Dinglinger in 1736 and 1751 respectively, we find that many of the designs are still symmetrical and that the spirit of the rococo is expressed mainly by the naturalistic treatment of the flowers which form the basis of so many.

Flower spray, brilliant cut diamonds set in silver; second half of the late 1700’s. Small diamond sprays of this type were so universally fashionable that it is impossible to determine their country of origin; they were worn separately or built up into large ornaments and stomachers. S.J. Phillips

It is in the flower sprays that influence of this style is most evident; in other respects, the eighteenth century jewelers were distinctly conservative and remained faithful to a style which had its roots in the seventeenth-century. The finest of the flower sprays were intended to be worn as corsage ornaments and were often of considerable proportions, but they went out of fashion during the late 1700’s and few have survived. Of two examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum, both owe their preservation to exceptional circumstances. One was presented to the famous shrine of the Virgin of the Pillar at Saragossa, whence it was sold in the nineteenth century. The other (not illustrated) was until the 1920’s preserved with the Russian crown jewels. Smaller sprays composed of brilliant-cut diamonds continued to be fashionable during 1800’s, and very few of the examples to be found are of earlier date.

About the end of the eighteenth century a new form of setting was introduced, and most jewels which remained in use were reset. Previously stones had been set in collets which were closed at the back; the new technique employed an open or clear setting, so that the stone was visible from the back. As a result the practice of “foiling”-that is, providing inferior stones with a background of colored metal foil which reflected the light and so strengthened the effect-had to be abandoned. This technical development is of great importance for the jewelry collector, since it provides on means of distinguishing between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pieces. An exception is peasant jewelry, which continued to be produced with closed collets until well into the nineteenth century.

Fine jewelry has usually be the perquisite of wealthy city dwellers. As a result its styles have been international rather than local, and changes of fashion in once country have spread rapidly over Europe. Determining the country of origin of a given piece is often difficult, if no evidence of provenance is available. However, certain sources of information do exist. The first of these are the jewelers’ pattern books published in Vienna, Augsburg, Paris, and-to a lesser degree-in Amsterdam and London. Though these are first-hand evidence, they are not so useful as might be expected because they tend to copy each other. A second source is the water-color designs prepared by jewelers for actual pieces they were commissioned to make. A number of Italian drawings of this type survive, but there are not enough to give a clear picture of jewelry fashions in all European countries. Certain types can, however, be associated with Spain and Portugal. Emeralds were imported in quantity into these countries and most jewels composed of emeralds in a pierced setting can be attributed to them. On the other hand, Spanish jewelers were distinctly conservative-jewels in which an asymmetrical rococo tendency is evident are more likely to be of French or German origin. English eighteenth-century jewelry followed the lead of Paris and is difficult to identify. The presence of an English hallmark does not necessarily imply English manufacture: foreign jewelry imported into England during the nineteenth century was sometimes marked at Goldsmiths’ Hall to indicate the quality of its metal.

Spanish or Portuguese brooch of gold set with rose-cut diamonds; beginning of the eighteenth century

The illustrations accompanying this note do not represent the most important creations of eighteenth-century jewelers. The more splendid jewels, such as the great stomachers covering the corsage from waist to top of bodice with diamond sprays, have been broken up. However, even the comparatively modest examples shown here display qualities of dignity, grace, and lightness not unworthy of the supreme moment in the history of the applied arts in which they were created.