It’s fairly well known that our Victorian ancestors lived in a rather repressed society, where even table legs were covered up for fear of causing offence. Men being men (and women being the romantic fools we are) all sorts of marvellous ways developed for the sending of secret messages of love, passion and naughtiness in Victorian jewellery.
Gemstones and jewellery has carried meaning over and above the intrinsic value of the piece or its actual beauty ever since man started wearing shine and sparkle. But the Victorians took it to new heights, it could be argued.
Quite simply, the Victorians loved symbolism, using images, flowers, gems and even their fans to send messages to those who understood how to read them. This wasn’t some kind of elaborate Secret Seven messaging service, the young Victorians needed a symbolic system to communicate thoughts and feelings in a world where the two sexes had almost no opportunity to speak in private, for fear of the girl losing her reputation and never making a marriage. And trust me, in those days, life for a single woman was not a happy one.
With strict rules and constant chaperonage, being unable to talk, never mind touch or kiss, Victorians designed a complex system of symbolic signals to express their emotions and desires.
Here’s a way men (of the wealthy variety) would express their devotion to the girl they wanted and one that I really, really wish we still used to today: the sentiment ring. The gentleman would have a ring made for his lady using gemstones that spelled out a message. To our uneducated eye, they often seem like a random collection of coloured gems in a bizarre order, but to a Victorian maiden…oh my! She would understand that each gemstone stood for a letter: rubies were Rs and amethysts for A, diamond for D, and so on. The sentiment ring was quite the love note!
This ring shown here is a perfect example of this form of communicating a sentiment: Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby and Diamond: REGARD. Or how about a ring that spells out ADORE, using Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby and Emerald? Want one? Me too.
You might argue that this isn’t actually symbolism, but rather skilled use of acrostics to send a message – very The Spy Who Loved Me, yes? You’d be right, in fact, but I don’t care, I love the whole idea of it!
If you want true symbolism in Victorian jewellery, how about this? In 1840, when the 20-year-old Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha proposed to Queen Victoria, he gave her an exquisite ring in the form of a snake, set with an emerald. The snake symbolised eternity and wisdom, and the emerald was her birthstone. This romantic statement – and theirs was a true romance – quite caught on, with snake rings and other pieces of jewellery becoming very fashionable.
Another romantic symbol was the swallow; engraved on lockets, fashioned into brooches or rings, the swallow was a powerful symbol, as these were known as the birds that mate for life. The same bird also represented a desire for your loved one to return home safely from distant lands. At a time when the British Empire ran round around the globe, men could leave their wives and family and be away for months and even years, making this message all the more poignant.
We’ve all heard of the lucky horseshoe and this was used a great deal, often with a three leaf clover, which symbolised hearth and home and all the womanly requirements of piety, submissiveness, fertility and virtue. It’s perhaps no surprise we’ve dropped that one. But why was the horseshoe considered a good thing to wear in jewellery form?
It represented a wish that the wearer would have success, harmony and many blessings in their life. The origination of this actually goes right back in time to when people believed in goblins and wicked sprites who would bring misfortune to the door, in oh so many ways – stopping cows from giving milk or hens from laying eggs, causing accidents or sickness or infertility. The ancients believed that the fairies and goblins that brought such bad luck were afraid of the iron weapons used by man, and so would hang an iron horseshoe over the door to ward off the naughty creatures. Over time, it became less a symbol of warding off bad luck as of attracting good luck.
Those romantic Victorians had so many ways of declaring their love for one another. Today, we still show our love and commitment though the buying of jewellery, but the symbolism of the stones we choose or the designs and shapes we opt for has been lost, which is, I think, a little sad.
If you love the idea of a little symbolism in your life, you can of course ask our brilliantly creative and clever goldsmith Christopher to design and make something just for you. Personal, wholly unique and with an eternal message of love…could anything be more perfect?