Anyone familiar with the Georgian period will either think of the seedy underbelly of eighteenth-century London, or (more typically) the glittering ballrooms of the Regency ton. Certainly, the rise of Netflix’s Bridgerton has definitely brought the era to the attention of a wider audience! So it’s inevitable, really, that we should be drawn to the glorious fashions of the Georgians, and their fashion included as a major feature, jewellery!
Very much like today, jewellery was a way of expressing oneself. There were so many different styles and colours available during the period – from the simple and elegant, to the more ostentatious creations favoured by the upper echelon of society. The style and amount of jewellery, too, was dependent on the time of day. A typical daytime style for a woman was a necklace and cameo brooch, and a ring. Garnet tended to be the stone of choice. At night, these might be switched for something with a bit more ‘oomph’ such as a more heavily set necklace and earring set, multiple bracelets, and rings worn on each finger, with diamonds being the main stone of choice due its rarity and value. For men, shoe buckles were very popular, and jewelled buttons added an extra zing to any outfit.
The Georgians wore jewellery to make a statement that clearly highlighted their social standing; genuine gemstones, pure diamonds and freshwater pearls were typically owned by those much higher up the social ladder, and parure sets (a collection made up of a necklace, bracelet, earrings, brooch and head piece) were only seen by those who had a very fat pocketbook. The lower down the ladder you went, the lesser the quality and quantity.
Over the long Georgian period (1714-1830) different materials were used to create jewellery, and many were made overseas in countries such as Italy, France and Germany – true diamonds shared shelf space with smaller stoned diamonds that had foiled backs, as well as a large array of ‘paste’ pieces (a type of glass) which looked the part but without the hefty price tag of diamonds and pure gems. Other glass, too – Vauxhall and Opaline – was massively popular and looked stunning when combined with the beauty of paste, in any colour. Gold and silver began to make way for gilt metal, iron, marcasite and cut steel, and pinchbeck (a metal that looked like gold) did not tarnish, which made it a popular style in its own right.
Natural materials such as coral, agate, turquoise, ivory, and amber were also appreciated by the Georgians, and prized for their beauty. Even wood was used in some pieces! Cameos were typically made from shells and could be styled in various different ways, with astonishing detail – these were usually made in Italy, and designers favoured scenes from Greek myth, something that appealed massively to the Georgians, whose later fashions and architecture drew heavily on Grecian styling.
Jewellery was also a way of expressing emotion. Receiving a diamond ring became the replacement of receiving a bunch of flowers in the Georgian era and was the ultimate love token, but if a lady was given a piece of jewellery in the shape of a heart, they would consider themselves very lucky indeed. Other love tokens included a ‘lover’s eye’, a miniature portrait presented to one lover to another as a locket or a brooch. Death was also marked in a deeply personal way – the loss of a loved one was marked by wearing, perhaps, a lock of hair in a ring.
Unfortunately, as the years went by, jewellery was broken up and recycled into other pieces as the fashions changed. It is why – in many cases – very early Georgian pieces do not exist today.
Oddly, Georgian portraiture does not always depict women (and men) wearing jewellery, but clearly jewellery was readily available and widely worn. So, next time you find yourself walking through the halls of Chatsworth or any other eighteenth-century grand house, remember the ladies that lived there would have been dressed in regal splendour, a sparkling necklace round their necks and a ring (or four) glinting brightly on their fingers.