Jewellery has always held deep personal and symbolic meaning; whether you give or receive a piece as a gift, carefully select a new treasure for yourself or inherit a family heirloom. The precious metals and expert craftsmanship often mean that our jewellery outlives us and continues to write in the pages of history books for generations after our time, with many of its secrets lost to time; however some pieces of jewellery can give us an insight into their meaning and past lives through their carefully selected materials or symbols.
No other era is more prolific in symbolic jewellery than the Victorians. Masters of saying a lot with very little the Victorians loved to tell society everything without ever muttering a word, and jewellery was the perfect way to do this. From jewellery you could be informed if someone was courting, taken, grieving or open to love, a very useful tool in 1800s Britain. Here we are going to explore some of the most common Victorian symbols found in jewellery and their meaning.
The Ivy Leaf
Often seen in Victorian and Edwardian pieces, the ivy leaf symbolises everlasting love, immortality, and fidelity; and, once you understand the ivy plant it is easy to see why. A strong plant that grows towards heaven, ivy forms almost inseparable bonds with the structure it chooses to cling to, both helping the other grow and reach the divine: a perfect metaphor for strong marriage.
Often seen etched into wedding bands or lockets, ivy leaf pieces were common as wedding gifts or even as gifts amongst close friends who wished to show their devotion to the other, and today we see some beautifully detailed examples, like this hand carved malachite piece below.
Snake rings were very in vogue in the 1800s thanks to the Queen Victoria famously receiving an ouroboros ring as an engagement ring from Prince Albert. Traditionally the snake has a religious meaning synonymous with the devil, however the ouroboros is an ancient symbol with a very different meaning. Traditionally shown as a snake eating its own tail, the ouroboros symbolises infinity and fertility. Once the Queen popularised the snake ring it wasn’t long before everyone wanted one and they remain popular today.
Another popular motif in Victorian jewellery were buckle rings. Buckle rings were unisex in design and ranged from heavy, wide, bands to dainty wedding rings. The buckle was a strong symbol of protection and an everlasting bond, often used in wedding bands for both men and women. The creation of such a strong unit from two pieces once again heralded as the perfect symbol for marriage and friendship.
Forget me not
Forget-me-not’s tie into another genre of symbolism Victorians loved to gift: flowers. Indeed in the 1830s there was a large movement of ‘say it with flowers’, not unalike Tiffany’s famous slogan ‘a diamond is forever’, that promoted the symbolism of flowers into pop culture.
If you received a forget-me-not as a gift it was a promise that you would be kept in the thoughts of the gifted and loved eternally. In Victorian jewellery forget-me-nots were symbolised in several ways, either with their distinctive five petal shape or, more popularly, with their unique pale blue colour. Forget-me-nots were often used in memorial pieces as well as gifts between sweethearts, the wearer promising to never let go of the memory of the departed.