A Treasure Trove: Enameled Jewels from 1550-1700

Some Other Color than “Gold”

This post was inspired by my project for HSF Challenge #7.

The Renaissance and Baroque periods were immensely ornate. Deep colors were indulged in and everyone rich enough to afford them was donning clothes made of a ransom’s worth of fine silks, velvets, pearls, and gemstones. Why should gold be left naked? Though we sometimes feel that enameling is tacky looking (thanks in part to terrible mass-produced Christmas pins), the enamel artisans of the late-16th and 17th century achieved a look that is anything but cheap!

Enameled Gold Pendant with Rock Crystals and Pearls, circa 1610-20

Enameled Gold Cross Pendant with Rubies, Diamonds, and Pearl, circa 1610-20

Enameled Gold Ornament with Pearls, circa 1600

Small enameled gold ornaments like this would be sewn directly onto clothing. Many were later converted to have brooch-backs made, especially in the 19th century when Renaissance Revival style swept through European fashion.

Enameled Gold Brooch (later conversion) with Diamond and Pearls, circa 1610

Enamel work was often mixed in with precious stones. Even if the front of a piece was paved with large table cut gems, the smallest tongue of gold that showed between the stones would be covered with enamel. Early jewels are covered in bold, primary colors like deep red, bright blue, emerald green, fiery yellow-orange. Most pieces before 1660 feature enamel work applied to sculpted, 3-dimentional pieces. Though the actual thickness of the metal may not have been great, the combination of careful sculpting and enamel gave the pieces depth and presence. Many of the larger pendants were made and worn in Spain. Spaniards adored bold lines and colors. Their enamel work was often some of the most intricate and dense.

Enameled Gold Pendant (front and back) with Emeralds, circa 1650

The back of pieces were often more elaborately enameled than the front of the piece. Since almost all stones were placed in closed-back settings, there was plenty of space for the enamel artist to display his skills. Jewelry was made to be admired both on and off the body, so being beautiful from all sides was essential. Because enamel is made of fused glass particles, the colors do not fade as readily as other paints and pigments, so a piece enameled over 500 years ago will have colors as brilliant as the day they were fired. Bright colors were, of course, very popular, but the all-time favorite color combo was the dynamic duo black and white.

Enameled Gold Monogram Pendant (front and back) with Lapis Lazuli and Paste stones, circa 1600-30

Enameled Gold Ring with Garnet, circa 1550-1600

Rings, though small, almost always had at least a touch of enamel on the shank. Many of the gold rings from between 1500 and 1700 once had colorful enameled designs on the band and were not as plain as they appear today (it’s kind of like the famous Grecian marbles which we always admire for their clean, white simplicity, but many were brightly painted). The enamel wore off after years of wear, often helping save the metal underneath from damage or erosion, especially on silver pieces.

Enameled Gold Ring with portraits of Anne of Austria and her son (King Louis XIV), circa 1625

Enameled Gold Frame around an Enameled Gold Holy Shroud Scene under Crystal, circa 1650

During the 17th century, small scenes stamped or sculpted of thin, enameled metal set behind panes of rock crystal or glass soared in popularity. Religious scenes, mementos mori, and symbols of love were popular themes. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, versions of these rock crystal jewels called Stuart Crystals made from woven locks of the king’s hair or his portrait became immensely popular among Royalists. Later monarchs were also honored in this manner, including Queen Mary and William III.

Rock Crystal Pendant commemorating the Death of William III, circa 1702

Enameled Gold Memento Mori Pendant, circa 1660

A popular motif since ancient times, the memento mori gained huge popularity as early Christian morality took hold of Europe. The focus on life after death was a big theme and the pivotal moment of death–the last moment to escape from the bonds of sin and hell–was an important event. The Latin “memento mori” roughly translates to “remember death.” Pendants, charms, and rings served as daily reminders of the fragility of life and the need to both live well and/or righteously. Due to their connections with death and the afterlife, memento mori motifs like the skull, skeleton, and crossbones also served as symbols of mourning.

Enameled Gold Mourning Ring surrounding a Lock of Hair, circa 1661

Enameled Silver Miniature Case, circa 1660

Enamel wasn’t just applied to gold. Silver gained popularity in the latter half of the 17th century as light blues and pinks came into fashion. A cheaper alternative to gold, silver was often used to make more utilitarian objects, such a chains and cases for sewing kits. The miniature case is an early incarnation of the locket. It is larger and deeper than a modern locket and would have held a portrait miniature, a popular aristocratic gift to send to friends, family, patrons, or lovers. Many of these cases reveal the trend towards more painterly decoration than enamel work of the earlier half of the century, which focused on accenting shapes rather than being the focal point of the design.

Enameled Gold Miniature Case, circa 1650-1660

Enameled Gold Bow Pendant with Ruby and Pearl drop, circa 1630-1660

Enameled Gold Badge, circa 1650-75

Enameled Gold Pendant with Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds, and Diamonds, circa 1680-1700

By the 1680s, enameling styles had changed. The major difference between earlier pieces (those from before 1660) and later pieces (those after 1660) is that the way the enameling is applied slowly began to change as tastes in fashion changed. Stones and enamel were no longer melded together so freely, though the style remained relatively common in Spain and Germany. France was rapidly rising in power, bringing with it lighter, more romantic tastes in color and texture. By the mid 18th century, almost all decorative enamel work is smooth and is painted on relatively flat, 2-dimentional surfaces rather than the highly sculpted surfaces of the centuries before.

Enameled Watch and Case, circa 1686-1700

All of the pieces featured in this article are from the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can find many, many more beautiful examples of enamel from different eras by using the handy advanced search option to narrow your search by year, technique, material, or object type.

(Note to American researchers: Use “jewellery” instead of “jewelry” as a search keyword. The former is the British spelling of the word and the V&A, being British, does not recognize the American spelling as well)

For more examples of Renaissance enameled jewels, you can also check out the Jewel Book of the Duchess Anna of Bavaria.

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The Red Beads of the Renaissance (and Later)

Coral Necklaces from 1400-1700

I love the coral necklaces I find in Renaissance portraits of women. There is something much more amiable and  sophisticated about a simple string of coral beads in contrast to the elaborate parures of gold, jewels, and pearls that the upper classes were bathed in. Jewelry was expensive during the Renaissance, since it was made of precious gems by craftsmen and not in a factory in China. When you received a piece of jewelry, you often kept it throughout your life. Some of the red beaded necklaces in these portraits could very well be coral beads that were given to the woman as a child and then re-strung as she got older. Bright red coral was also considered a symbol of youth, since it was so closely associated with vibrancy and health.

Coral has always been a popular gem, and is peculiar because unlike gemstones, coral is a “living gem.” Instead of being formed in the earth, it grows beneath the ocean, so it’s constantly renewing itself (so long as we don’t allow modern pollution and harvesting to destroy it). This special quality gave the stone a reputation as a preserver of life, a protector, and a healer. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, coral was an especially popular gem to give to children as a protective charm, either as beads or carved amulets, a tradition that still lives on today.

Coral was also used for teething, since it is hard, but yielding. Comparatively speaking, coral is soft gemstone. It won’t chip like stone or splinter like wood, making it a popular material in antique baby rattles and teething pendants.

A small strand of coral beads is the perfect necklace for a middle class Renaissance woman and is an especially nice touch to a child’s costume as well! I had a strand of coral beads, but I’ve been kicking myself because I can’t find them anywhere now. Dyed coral is easy to find and relatively inexpensive, so I might have to make myself a new string!

With Rings on Her Fingers

Rocking Renaissance Bling

I thought I’d give the Renaissance tradition of wearing as many of my rings as I could a try (Okay, so not all of them are SCA appropriate, but they look darn spiffy). Count ’em: 1..2..3..4..5! Nothing says overindulgence like squeezing 5 rings onto four fingers. Notice how I snuck in that fifth gem on my second knuckle. Wearing rings like this dates back to Roman times and spilled over well into the Renaissance. Wearable wealth was extremely important in a world with modern banking methods. Having a gold ring meant you had a handy bargaining chip to get you out of tough times (Wedding rings weren’t just a pledge of fidelity, but financial insurance as well). The fact that your insurance policy doubled as a flashy fashion statement was a bonus.

I’ve included a few examples of how Renaissance ladies and gentlemen wore their rings below. You’ll notice that there are a variety of rings worn in a variety of ways, including double rings, thumb rings, rings on necklaces, and special gloves with slits to show off the jewels beneath. Each image links to the full version of the portrait, so get clicking!









For more information about rings (and everything else) from the Middle Ages through the Elizabethan era, you can visit the amazing archive at the Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture website (this link leads to straight to more Renaissance rings). This website is sublime and if you haven’t visited it and clicked on every single link inside, you are missing out!

The rings I have aren’t all perfectly historically accurate at first glance, but most are pretty Renaissance in spirit (except for the ruby paste one, which is a Victorian piece I almost never go without!). Here are a few existent examples of the amazing array of ring designs created between 1475 and 1600:

There is such a wide variety of styles to choose from, I sometimes get dizzy! My favorite part of Renaissance Faire season (besides an excuse to buy a new bodice) is getting to empty out my jewelry drawers and wear everything at once! :)

Little Miss Medieval: Baubles and Gems

Little Miss Medieval

Part I: Baubles and Gems

Let’s talk about jewelry! Specifically, medieval jewelry from about the 5th Century AD (400) to about the 15th Century (1400)– a wide swathe of 1000 years that offers plenty of fun gems to hunt for or make! Since the Middle Ages saw the rebirth of skilled crafts, jewelry began to regain popularity and began to be ever more elaborate as the Renaissance drew near. Jewelry in the Middle Ages was a definite sign of wealth and nobility, so don’t plan on pairing your grey peasant kirtle with a giant gold cross unless you’re costuming for sheer enjoyment rather than accuracy.

It’s actually really easy to find new or vintage pieces to use with your cloak or gown! Favorite medieval jewelry motifs include saints, crosses, and circles decorated with enamel, mosaics, carving, and rough or cabochon gems (gemstone cuts beyond the flat table cut had not yet been developed, so rhinestones and sparkly diamonds are out). These are universally popular even today.

I combed through the V&A Museum archives and found some amazing period pieces and paired them up with similar vintage and handmade items you can buy for yourself.

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Pendants

Own it!

Pendants in the Middle Ages were worn by men and women and often featured saints or gemstones that were believed to offer the wearer protection. Charms were popular with everyone, nobility to peasant, and were made from bone, wood, iron, silver, ivory, stone, and gold.

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Pins, Brooches, and Badges

Own it!

This is the most versatile piece of jewelry ever! Hold up your cloak, disguise a stain, close a seam, add a chain for a necklace, tame a piece of drooping trim–the list goes on and on! The most popular pin style is the ring brooch. They often had words engraved on them, but plain circles or wire twists are perfect for everyday use. Originally, brooches did not have the pin in the back, but rather in the front, center. Older cloak and kilt pins were a circle held in place with a separate pin. The later Middle Ages and Renaissance saw the transition from these fibula brooches to pin-backs.

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Reliquary Crosses and Crucifixes

Own it!

Crosses and Crucifixes are some of the most popular pieces of Medieval jewelry, especially if they contained a relic, like a piece of the True Cross or a lock of saint hair.

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Rings

Own it!

Simple gold bands to giant chunks of precious gems, rings varied as much in the Middle Ages as they do today. It’s really easy to find medieval-style rings in sterling silver, thanks to the traditional crafts revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Those regal vintage rings are awesome! Look for cabochon stones in the smooth/rubbed bezel or claw settings.

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Medieval jewelry is surprisingly modern looking. With a good eye, I’ll bet you can find plenty of yard sale treasures to add some sparkle to your Baroness costume!

The Maupassant Game: Is it Real or Paste?

Can you tell the difference?

A game inspired by Guy de Maupassant‘s story The Necklace

The Necklace” tells the story of Madame Mathilde Loisel who always dreamed of living an aristocratic life surrounded by fine food, beautifully decorated rooms, and wonderful jewels. However, she is married to a low paid clerk who tries his best to make her happy. Through extensive begging, he is able to get Mathilde an invitation to a high society party and gives her his savings to buy a fancy evening dress. Mathilde is still not happy since she has no jewels to wear with her new gown. She borrows a diamond necklace from her friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier, but after attending the party, Mathilde discovers that she has lost the borrowed necklace!

To avoid her friend’s wrath, Mathilde and her husband borrow money from loan sharks to buy a diamond necklace that looks just like the one that was lost. It takes them ten years of hard labor to come up with the 36,000 francs necessary to pay off the debt. Soon after the loans have been paid, Mathilde sees Madame Jeanne Forestier and confesses that she lost and subsequently replaced the diamond necklace all those years ago. Mme. Forestier, deeply moved, tells Mathilde that the necklace she had borrowed was made of paste, not real diamonds, and that it was worth, at most, 500 francs!

When you see the word “paste” near the word “jewelry,” you can bet that it’s probably not the gluey sticky stuff you use to make paper mache. Paste is actually glass that has been cut and colored to resemble gemstones. We call modern pastes rhinestones, but historical paste stones weren’t mass produced like today’s. Historical paste was often hand-cut by a jeweler, just like their gemstone counterparts. It’s often difficult to tell a real stone from a paste one. Mathilde found this out the hard way!

Are you smarter than Mathilde? I’ve compiled a collection of amazing antique pieces from a variety of eras to test your skills and paired them up in similar styles. One of each pair is has real gemstones and one is paste…maybe. ;)

Will you make Mathilde’s 36,000 franc mistake?

Guess which of these jewels are real or paste!

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Round 1: Earrings!

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Round 2: Parures (Sets)

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Round 3: Necklaces

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Round 4: Pendants!

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Round 5: Rings

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Round 6: Pins

Stumped? Confident? Smug? Frazzled?

Every picture is linked to its description page, so you can check your answers! Just click on each image to find out which ones are natural stones and which are paste.