Romantic Jewelry Through the Ages

Let’s try a little experiment. If I say “love and jewelry,” what image flashes into your mind? Considering the day and age, probably a diamond engagement ring or gold wedding band. But while these specific traditions are less than a hundred years old, people have been expressing their love through jewelry for, well, probably forever. And the kinds of jewelry they’ve used have been as varied, and as lovely, as love itself. So with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, here are a few examples of popular love tokens from throughout history.

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Fede rings, depicting clasped hands, are one of the oldest forms of jewelry, dating back to Roman times; Europeans revived the style in the twelfth century, and their period of greatest prevalence lasted through the eighteenth (which is when ours is from!); today, the related claddagh ring is more commonly seen. The name comes from the Italian phrase mani in fede, meaning hands clasped in faith, and they were held to represent love, friendship, or betrothal. This sweet example seems to show a man’s hand tenderly holding a woman’s, identified by her tiny bracelet.

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Giardinetti jewelry takes the shape of a bouquet, often in a vase (giardinetti is Italian for “little garden”). These rings and broaches, set with colorful gemstones or, like ours, with diamonds, were particularly popular during the Georgian era, and often traded by friends and lovers. Think of them as the jewelry equivalent of a bouquet of flowers!

Snakes have long been a popular jewelry motif, but not everyone realizes that they’re a symbol of love! Eternal love, to be precise. While dating to ancient times, serpent jewelry enjoyed a massive resurgence during the nineteenth century after a young Queen Victoria received a snake engagement ring from her beloved Prince Albert. These snake rings do indeed date to the Victorian era, and put a particularly romantic twist on the style (no pun intended) with their designs of two snakes intertwined.

Lockets have been gracing necklaces, and sometimes rings and brooches, for centuries; then as now, they’re treasured for their ability to hold images or small items evoking someone beloved to the wearer. Before the dawn of photography, they were most likely to contain a miniature painted portrait or, as famously depicted in Wuthering Heights, a lock of hair. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, some larger examples held daguerreotypes, an early form of photograph. With the advent of modern photography techniques around the turn of the century, however, the ability to take, reproduce, and resize pictures became accessible to the masses. As more and more people possessed photos of their loved ones, the locket reached even higher levels of popularity as the perfect way to keep them close.

Beautiful, durable, and intimate, it’s easy to see why people have used jewelry to say “I love you” for centuries, and in so many imaginative ways! We’re just grateful that, all these years later, these pieces keep a whole history of love alive. It’s clear that love and jewelry are, in themselves, a match made in heaven.

"Jewelry: The Body Transformed" at the Met

It’s a uniquely wonderful time to be a lover of antique and vintage jewelry in New York City, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum. The show “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” on view through February 24th,  is a wealth of treasures (pun intended): it showcases the museum’s incredible jewelry collection; it is exceedingly beautiful to look at; and it provides a comprehensive and insightful exploration of jewelry in context. For the Gray & Davis team, it was particularly exciting to learn more about how our own collection fits into the broader history of jewelry, and to glimpse the many connections between the pieces on display at the Met and our own.  

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Jewelry can speak to each other across an incredibly wide distance of space and time, as shown by the similarities between this gorgeous ancient Egyptian broad collar (c. 1353–1336 BCE) and our guilloche enamel and silver collar necklace (David Anderson, 1960). The broad collar lies close to the neck and fans out to frame the face, as does our necklace; the almond shape and bright colors of the faience beads that make up this particular collar are highly evocative of the necklace’s guilloche ovals. The broad collar, the quintessential ancient Egyptian piece of jewelry, had strong associations with royalty, divinity, and protection; looking at them side by side, it’s easy to see how these qualities might have inspired our necklace too.

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This fabulous snake necklace/belt (Elsa Peretti, 1973-4) has a lot in common with our gold and gemstone Victorian snake necklace (c. 1830-1850): both feature a central, stylized snake head that leads directly into a thick, tapering chain that recalls a snake’s body, giving the effect of the animal circling one’s neck. Both pieces are part of an important jewelry tradition: the snake or serpent motif has been around as long as humans have adorned themselves, and is found in cultures around the world.

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“The Body Transformed” also gave us an even deeper appreciation for jewelry’s incredible diversity. This moth pendant by the great French jeweler Lucien Gaillard was created c. 1900, roughly the same period as our butterfly earrings (c. 1890), and both depict winged insects, in keeping with the contemporary passion for naturalistic motifs. Nonetheless, they couldn’t be more different. The pendant is pure Art Nouveau, made at the height of the movement and featuring its characteristic enamel and semi-precious stones. The earrings, on the other hand, are a snapshot of the transition from the established Victorian into the nascent Edwardian style, combining the former period’s love of heavy gold dangling earrings with the pave diamonds popular during the latter.

After you visit “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” (and we highly recommend you do), we invite you to stop by Gray & Davis to check out the pieces featured in this post, and to see how many other incredible connections you can find! You may even be inspired to take a piece of jewelry history home yourself.  

Cartier Renderings

The life of any piece of jewelry begins with an idea. Before metal can be cast or stones can be set, a designer must sit down and create an image of what the final product will look like.

It’s not often we get the chance to come face to face with this phase of vintage jewelry production, which is why Gray & Davis is delighted to display, for a limited time, some Cartier hand sketches dating from 1930 to 1950. Created by house designer Edouard Blondeau, these beautiful gouache images of necklaces, rings, bracelets, broaches, and earrings are works of art in themselves.

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Then, as now, Cartier was one of the most famous and admired jewelry houses in the world, its work regularly worn by royalty and celebrities. The artisans it employed would have been at the top of their professions, as these illustrations certainly affirm. The designs are elegant and luxurious, full of ornate metalwork and precious stones. In many cases, they cleverly take inspiration from the natural world.

Even more than the content of these illustrations, however, it’s their form that makes them so rare. While plenty of designers still sketch out their ideas, a detailed rendering is just as likely to come from a computer program. And even when done by hand, contemporary sketches just don’t measure up to the intricacy and skill displayed here. The bright color, dimensionality, and impressionistic details of these drawings provide a sense of a finished piece’s substance and luster. Looking at them, it seems like the depicted jewelry leaps off the page.   

Platinum and diamond earring, c. 1935

Platinum and diamond earring, c. 1935

Turquoise, colored stone, and diamond necklace, c. 1945

Turquoise, colored stone, and diamond necklace, c. 1945

Gold and colored stone cuff bracelet, c. 1950

Gold and colored stone cuff bracelet, c. 1950

This is all the more special because it’s entirely possible that these images do represent the final form of these designs—all we know is that they were never incorporated into the official Cartier line. This leaves two possibilities. Each sketch may have been presented as a potential piece for a Cartier collection, and never put into production. Or, alternately, it may have been designed as a custom piece for a client, who may or may not have had it created. Records don’t indicate one way or the other.

Detail of watermark

Detail of watermark

We do know that these pieces were created in Cartier’s home city of Paris. These sketches, like all made at the house, bear a company watermark; the order of the cities listed therein changed according to where a sketch was made, with the origin as the first location listed.

Gray & Davis invites you to come visit these sketches in our West Village store—you may even be inspired to take one or two home yourself! And, the next time you look at a piece of jewelry, think about the process it took to get here—and, particularly if it’s an older piece, the additional beauty it might have generated on the way.

Jewels (Literally) Fit for a Queen

You don’t have to tell us that jewelry is important, but it’s rare to encounter pieces that are helped-start-a-revolution important. Last week, for that very reason, the Gray & Davis team joined the many New Yorkers flocking to the Sotheby’s showroom to see jewels once belonging to Marie Antoinette. Although the “Royal Jewels of the Bourbon Parma Family” auction is in Geneva on November 12th, Sotheby’s took the unusual step of sending the pieces on an extensive international viewing tour to give the public the once in a lifetime chance to get up close and personal with history. And, reader, it was pretty magical.

Some of the “Royal Jewels” on display at Sotheby’s New York showroom.

Some of the “Royal Jewels” on display at Sotheby’s New York showroom.

The extreme rarity of Marie Antoinette jewelry might seem a little paradoxical, considering her enduring association with opulence, and the fact that her profligate personal spending was a major factor in the lead up to the French Revolution. As extensive as her collection was, however, most of it was lost during the conflict, and much of what survived was broken up and cannot be traced.

What is perhaps the most famous single piece of jewelry associated with Marie Antoinette, and certainly the most consequential, not only no longer exists but was never actually in her possession: the titular piece from the notorious “Affair of the Necklace,” which cemented her bad reputation. Her husband’s predecessor, Louis XV, had originally commissioned it for his famous last mistress Madame du Barry; he died before its completion, Louis XVI ascended the throne, and new queen Marie Antoinette refused to buy the massive necklace (28,000 carats of diamonds!). But in 1785, it was procured in her name, without her knowledge, by con artists who promptly disappeared with the loot. When the jewelers contacted the confused queen for payment, the ruse was revealed. Many falsely blamed Marie Antoinette of trying to defraud the treasury and, even though the perpetrators were eventually tried and found guilty, the story aligned with the unpopular queen’s notorious excess and it stuck. Many historians point to this scandal as a turning point for the angry French populace on the road to anti-monarchical violence.

The Necklace, by Parisian jewelers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange.

The Necklace, by Parisian jewelers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange.

Despite the queen’s innocence in that particular case, of course, her overall reputation was most certainly earned. The queen loved luxury, gambling, and, most famously, fashion; she spent enormously, even as her people faced serious economic hardship. The jewelry showcased at Sotheby’s is incredibly impressive, and would have been incredibly expensive. Pearls, for example, were unfathomably rare and precious at the time; in the pre-culture era, qualities like size and similarity for matching could only be found, not created. The auction pieces include a necklace made with 331 pearls and pendant featuring a pearl so large it really must be seen to be believed.

And yet, financial judgment issues aside, Marie Antoinette wasn’t the historical villain she is sometimes made out to be. She was vivacious and free-spirited, sent to a foreign country at age fifteen to marry someone she’d never met, and only eighteen when she ascended the throne. The Sotheby’s jewels tell a story of a desperate woman trying to provision for her family’s future in a time of fear and instability. We only have them today because, as the Revolution was kicking into gear, the Queen packed them up and sent them through family to her native Austria, where her nephew was emperor and where the royal family planned to escape. While Marie Antoinette was instead imprisoned and ultimately executed in 1793, her daughter was eventually released and made her way to Vienna, where she was reunited with her mother’s jewels. She left them to relatives in the House of Parma, and they have remained in the family ever since. Now they’re about to change hands for the first time, and perhaps disappear again from public view. But, in the meantime, they’ve given us new proof of the iconic French queen’s extravagance, taste, and enduring icon status.

Marie Antoinette, painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Marie Antoinette, painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun