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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REGARD: Hidden Love Notes made of Gemstones

Check out this amazing ring from about 1820!

Isn’t it stunning? It’s absolutely the most perfect ring and I must own it now because I have the perfect dress that….Wait a minute….How come this ring has all pink stones and then a random emerald stuck on the bottom? Did one of the pink stones get lost along the way?

“Pish-posh!” – Skeptical Nell

Do you remember passing love notes in class during grade school? It was so fun to watch the note travel hand-under desk to the far side of the room and watch your sweetheart’s face blush when they finally got your origami “I Luv U!”  When you grew up, those little notes became lengthier letters, boxes of chocolates, or jewelry. The most intimate of love tokens is probably the ring. Modern culture puts a lot of weight on engagement rings, going for the biggest or the most diamonds we can squeeze between onto our 4th finger. Originally, diamonds symbolized eternity and the strength of love’s bond because it was so clear and almost unbreakable. Today’s diamonds mostly mean money money money! We’ve lost the brilliant system of symbolism that we cherished in grade school: the excitement of little pink hearts, true love’s first kiss, and the secret notes no one else was supposed to see. The Victorians loved symbolism. Crosses, anchors, flowers, birds, and acronyms were all the rage and each object had an important message. The Victorians needed a symbolic system to communicate more intimate emotions in their world of strict etiquette.

Today, if a man wants to go on a date with a woman, he just asks her outright. Victorian gentlemen, however, were expected to court a woman using a complex system of rules: calling on her father and mother first, then visiting again in the presence of the whole family, leaving calling cards, sending letters, attending dinners or dances, and finally requesting the family’s permission to spend a few minutes talking to the girl in the family parlor with a chaperone. All this trouble was to ensure that the lady remain pure before marriage since adultery (pre-marital sex) could destroy the lives of whole families. Being unable to touch or kiss in public without scruple, Victorians utilized symbolic language to intimately express their most heartfelt desires. Some of these traditions live on today in simplified forms, like the dozen roses. This Valentine’s Day tradition stemmed from bouquets that contained messages literally made of flowers. Since each flower meant something different, sending a mixed bouquet would be like sending an entire letter!

One of the most beautiful ways a man could express his love is a sentiment ring. These amazing pieces of jewelry look ordinary to an uninformed eye. Their just a line or circle of gemstones chosen at random, sometimes repeating for no reason whatsoever! Why are there two rubies, but only one amethyst? Why didn’t the jeweler put the rubies on the ends? Why does this wedding band have turquoise on it? If you were a Victorian lady and you opened a box to find one of these, you would be the happiest girl in the world! You’d know that each gemstone stood for a letter: those rubies were Rs and an amethyst stood in for A and that little turquoise cabochon was a definite T. Your beau had sent you a lavish gemstone love note!

This ring, for example, has one of the most common phrases in acronym jewelry: REGARD. The word forms part of the phrase “with my REGARDs” or “I highly REGARD you,” meaning that your lover holds you very close to his heart. Can you find the word hidden in this ring? It’s not written out or carved inside the band; it’s in the jewels themselves! The pink stone on the left is a natural (R)uby followed by an (E)merald, (G)arnet, (A)methyst, another (R)uby, and on the far right, a (D)iamond. Using this system, you could spell out many other words like:

This little ring proclaims its giver’s sentiments with an (A)methyst, (D)iamond, (O)pal, (R)uby, and (E)merald. Like a little love note your can wear, this ring wraps around your finger as a reminder that “I ADORE you!” It also lets all those other potential beaus out there that the wearer already has a special someone, spelled out clear as day in costly gemstones. Sometimes the gems aren’t set in a line like a printed word. These rings are a little harder to “read” and are even more intimate than other sentimental jewelry. Let’s see if you can make out the message in this amazing Georgian ring:

If you cheated and checked out the link, good for you! All the rings here are linked to their full descriptions so you can learn more about them. In this ring,  the message is disguised by scattering the stones instead of lining them up: (D)iamond, (E)merald, (A)methyst, (R)uby, (E)merald, (S)apphire, and (T)opaz. This message is especially sweet because you can regard someone, you may even adore someone, but calling them DEAREST lets them know that they are your one and only!

Here’s another modern re-make of the DEAREST ring:

In this ring, a tiny turquoise cabochon has replaced golden topaz as the T, a perfectly suitable substitute since turquoise began to gain popularity around 1880 and continued to be favored throughout the early 20th century. It’s a wonderful example of how the stones used in the acronym can be changed to suit budgets or tastes. T is the most often varied stone, ranging from topaz and turquoise to various tourmalines. A really poor gent with a big heart might go for a regard ring made of paste set in rolled gold. The virtue of paste stones is that glass could be clearly colored to easily denote one stone from the other for a bold proclamation. Early sentiment rings that used natural stones were often much more subtle and hard to read, like the exceptionally fine version of the hands holding a blossom:

Since all the stones in this ring are old, natural gems, the colors are comparatively subdued, making it a challenge to decipher the sentiment on the spot. This ring is also a tad tricky! Here’s a clue: whereas most acrostic flowers place the first letter in the center, this ring places it at the end: (D)iamond. The (E)merald is readily identifiable, but those four pink stones might trip you up. They are, in fact, two (R)ubies, a (G)arnet, and a lovely (A)methyst. So it’s not just a ring with mismatched stones, but a fantastic Georgian REGARD ring!

Sentiments didn’t appear exclusively on rings, but could appear on pendants, lockets, brooches, and stick pins. Some pieces keep the message in orderly, straight lines or wheels so the sentiment is easy to read. This Victorian rock crystal pendant has gold overly and the word REGARD caught up in the scrolls:

Other pieces mix the stones up into a puzzle, like this art nouveau stick pin:

When you put the stones in order– (D)iamond, (E)merald, (A)methyst, (R)uby, (E)merald, (S)apphire, and a pink (T)ourmaline– they spell out the sentiment.

Victorians were masters of hidden messages! These jeweled masterpieces are so much more special than most plain diamond rings. When you’re wearing one, it playfully reminds you– in their own words– that someone truly cares about you!

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For an alphabetical list of popular gemstones, click here. It contains all letters except: N, U, V, W, X, and Y. There are minerals for every letter (list here), but some of these are rare or unsuitable for jewelry.