Queen Alexandra and all her Edwardian Jewels

April 5, 2012

Dazzle me, Darling!

The Edwardian Period officially lasted from 1901 and the coronation of King Edward VII and lasted until his death in 1910. However, the timeline for Edwardian fashion is debatable. I believe the Edwardian fashion era extends not only to the beginning of WWI in 1917, but also stretches back to the 1890s, when Alexandra became fashion’s royal guide and the wild, artistic abandon of the Gay Nineties lay the foundation for the Flappers movement 50 years later (Art Nouveau, traditionally associated with Edwardianism, began around 1890, too!).

After the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert,  in 1861, Victoria began to withdraw from the public life.  She had been a fashion icon for years, so her withdrawal left a large inspirational void. In 1863, Queen Victoria’s son, Edward, had married Alexandra of Denmark. Alexandra was beautiful, fashionable and charming: the perfect candidate for fashion’s next muse. Alexandra rocked the tight-laced corset and bustled train of the 1870s and 1880s, covering herself with lace and wearing plenty jewels, including glittering tiaras befitting of her royal status. This picture of her was taken in 1889:

Va-va-voom! Look at those curves– and those gems!  It wasn’t just fashion and the monarchy that was changing. Jewelry during the Edwardian era was much different than the Victorian jewelry before it. Victorian styling favored ornate, heavy designs with large stones and lots of goldwork. Turn of the century jewelry was much lighter, brighter, and happier as European and American cultures flourished. People wanted to have a good time: going to the opera, cheering at cheap theaters, visiting carnivals, traveling the world, and generally indulging in joyous frivolity. Jewelry reflected this optimistic attitude.  Platinum, which had originally been dismissed by Europeans as an inferior metal and was rarely used in jewelry before 1860, was growing in popularity as the skills and technology to work with this difficult metal developed. Platinum, it turns out, looks absolutely fantastic with diamonds and does not tarnish like silver.

It became the most fashionable metal to wear during the Edwardian era, topping even gold as the fashion favorite. Platinum is not as soft as gold and could be shaped into increasingly delicate filigree patterns that were more air than metal. Lace and bows, so popular on dresses, also became fashionable to wear as jewelry.

Edwardian fashion developed a long, languid silhouette– the early stages of what we call “flapper” fashion today. Long strands of pearls, glass beads, or delicate chains that hung to the waist became a staple in every lady’s wardrobe. Often a brooch or watch would be pinned off to the side and the long chain draped over it, accenting another favorite trend: asymmetry and idealized natural forms.

Popular Motifs and Materials in Edwardian Jewelry

I’ve already covered the most iconic motif and material of the Edwardian era– diamonds and platinum filigree– but there are plenty of other designs to tickle your fancy and brighten up your outfit!

Pearls and Gold

History’s favorite gem, pearls never go out of style! Gold was still widely used in the Edwardian world even as platinum exploded in popularity. Gold jewelry became lighter and lacier alongside its silvery competition and was still the most popular metal for long drop necklaces called lavaliers.

Flowers and Enamel

Edwardians loved flowers, especially pansies, roses, dahlias, and daisies. They wore them everywhere they could: tucked into their sashes, pinned to their necklines, spilling from their hats, and blooming on their brooches, bracelets, necklaces and earrings.

Enameling masters like the world-renowned House of Faberge revived the popularity of enameling on jewelry, especially realistic florals and miniatures. You’ll notice the back of this locket– one of the most common pieces of Edwardian jewelry– has a pattern of wavy lines engraved under the enamel background. This technique is called “guilloché” and became very popular again in the 1950s, so you can find inexpensive vintage pieces pretty easily!

Hearts and Turquoise

Hearts are another timeless motif. One of the most popular charms and brooch styles during the Edwardian period was a puffy heart paved with seed pearls, diamonds, garnets, or turquoise cabs. Turquoise was rapidly rising in popularity after remaining an obscure gemstone throughout much of the European world. Most Victorian turquoise was Persian in origin, preferred for it’s uniform blue color. Turquoise from the American Southwest gained popularity late in the era as train lines to New Mexico and Arizona introduced tourists to Native American jewelers, but such jewels were treated more like curiosities rather than fashionable accessories until the 1920s.

Romanticized Bohemian Style and Garnets

The bohemian movement as we know it began in the late 19th century with the alternative lifestyles of the era’s blooming artistic and intellectual population. The name began as a term for Romani Gypsies and was made famous by the association with the roaringly popular opera La Bohème beginning in 1896. More traditional Edwardians may have initially frowned on the non-traditional lifestyles of the bohemians, but the culture’s ornate fashion was infinitely mysterious and fascinated the general public.  The perfect gemstones for this trend are aptly named “Bohemian Garnets,” mined in what we now call the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia). These seductive, wine-colored garnets were often rose-cut and set in the popular pavé style, covering the surface so that the back metal was nearly invisible.

Animals and Insects

Animals are always popular motifs, but their use in jewelry changes during the Edwardian period. Realism with stylized accents replaced the old fashion for more stereotypical animal designs. Dogs, always popular in jewelry, are joined by cats and birds as popular motifs (it’s so rare to find cats in jewelry before 1890 because they were still shaking off their negative reputation). The bird became the most popular animal to depict because of it’s graceful beauty, but also because it was adopted by feminist writers as a symbol of Women’s Suffrage.

Insects had been popular since the 18th century. A craze for natural specimen collecting began around 1800 and became a world-wide hobby for Victorians. By 1900, the trend for collecting butterflies from the jungles and beetles from the Egyptian desert for display was beginning to wane, but insects blossomed as a fashion statement. Spindly spiders, jewel scarabs, delicate butterflies, and elegant wasps (they called tight corsets wasp waists for a reason!) were huge favorites.

Feathers and Haircombs/Tiaras

Alexandra of Denmark’s signature tiaras soon became a favorite piece of jewelry for America’s royalty– wealthy industrialists– to copy. Many of these tiaras, including this one, were fitted with clips or rings in the back to hold an abundance of feathers, especially peacock feathers (Here’s another tiara from the period that still has its feathers). Birds were the quintessential Edwardian motif, so it makes sense that feathers would be popular, too. Just look at their hats!

Circles, Diamonds, and Arts and Crafts

The Edwardian era was the heyday of the circle. Art Nouveau designs were based entirely on the curve as the perfect creation of nature, shunning straight lines as the construct of man. However, by the time of the Titanic in 1912, Art Nouveau was beginning to give way to the Arts and Crafts. The naturalistic, flowing forms of the 1900s were beginning to shift towards geometric designs and stylized lines that would soon morph into snazzy Art Deco. The Arts and Crafts style is the bridge between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. It still emphasized being handmade with care and skill, but unlike Art Nouveau, it embraced straight, architectural lines.

All these gems and jewels are definitely upper-class, but machines made mass-produced jewelry of similar style but of inexpensive materials available to the public. Sterling silver or pot metal plated with rhodium was used in place of platinum and gold electroplating and gilding was done over brass to give the glow of gold without the high cost. Many of these pieces are still inexpensive today, perfect for those of us who want museum pieces but don’t have $2,000 dollars to spend on this beautiful brooch:

But (here comes the shameless self-promotion) I have a gilded  Edwardian enamel pin that I wore in a production of The Miracle Worker listed on Etsy for 98% less:

There is plenty of Edwardian or Edwardian revival jewelry available on Etsy, Ebay, at flea markets, consignment shops, or even in your mom’s jewelry box! One of my jewelry standbys is a long string of interesting beads. I usually just go to the bead shop, find a 32 inch strand of beads and wear them straight out of the store– after paying, of course! : )

This is the companion article to Costuming on a Budget: Edwardian Edition

I’m really looking forward to seeing all the costumes people will be sporting this spring! between the anniversary of the Titanic, vintage wedding season, Civil War reenactments, and Renaissance fair, there’s plenty of history to get excited about this season. If you go to an event this spring and have a blog entry about it, feel free to post it in the comments. I’d love to see what everyone’s been working on!

One Response to “Queen Alexandra and all her Edwardian Jewels”

  1. this was a splendid post! i’m just fascinated with that era too, so reading about the jewelry produced then was a delight!

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