The Tortoise and the Horn

Gleaning the styles of the day from Victorian portraiture and photography, it seems like the order of the day was swirling rolls and curls laboriously piled atop the head in any number of different ways! When sitting for these images, women would have worn their most flattering styles, adorned with their most fabulous accessories, giving us a window into the world of antique hair styling. Here, we take a quick look back at two of our favorite Victorian accouterments: hair combs and antique barrettes.  

 Victorian tortoiseshell and hand-engraved 14K gold hair combs, made c. mid-late 19th century.

Victorian tortoiseshell and hand-engraved 14K gold hair combs, made c. mid-late 19th century.

 Hand carved Victorian tortoiseshell comb, made c. mid-late 19th century.

Hand carved Victorian tortoiseshell comb, made c. mid-late 19th century.

Some of the loveliest and most popular material we find them in are tortoiseshell and horn. The ‘Tortoise’ name is misleading, as these pieces were actually made from sea turtle shells, a source of material beauty since ancient times. Imported tortoiseshell could fetch high prices, so horn was painted to achieve a similar mottled effect. Both were popular until toward the end of the 19th century, when Art Nouveau jewelers began favoring lighter colors.

 Art Nouveau horn barrette c.1880 - the rose cut diamond-set 10K gold frontspiece is delicately riveted to the horn. The horn would most likely have been bleached with hydrogen peroxide to achieve the pale yellow hue.

Art Nouveau horn barrette c.1880 - the rose cut diamond-set 10K gold frontspiece is delicately riveted to the horn. The horn would most likely have been bleached with hydrogen peroxide to achieve the pale yellow hue.

Barrettes, an evolution of the hairpin, were developed in the mid to late-19th century to help hold hair in place. They were decorated so that they did not have to be hidden within the hairstyle, a combination of form and function that we still appreciate today!

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Across the 19th century, the tortoiseshell hair comb remained a hairdressing staple to both hold hair in place and provide support as styles oscillated between opulent and austere. While the decorative comb has waned in popularity since, the beauty of tortoiseshell endures today in any item inspired by its coloration.

The Secrets That Antique Jewelry Keep

We’re always pleased when jewelry reveals some of it secrets through hallmarks, maker’s marks and engraved details. However, some jewelry are meant to keep secrets; artisans have built compartments to protect the wearer’s valuables and tokens of significance, and encase them in some seriously fabulous materials.

 19th Century Etruscan Revival coach covers, from the Gray & Davis archives.

19th Century Etruscan Revival coach covers, from the Gray & Davis archives.

 Coach cover with the old mine cut diamond earring it encased, from the Gray & Davis archives.

Coach cover with the old mine cut diamond earring it encased, from the Gray & Davis archives.

Fashionable and functional in the 19th century, “Coach covers” are attachable orbs that cloaked valuable earrings to protect the wearer in transit (we assume from villainous highwaymen). Once the wearer arrived at her destination, she could remove the covers and let her diamonds out.

 A 15K gold brooch pendant with its original pin and catch made c. 1860.

A 15K gold brooch pendant with its original pin and catch made c. 1860.

 The brooch pendant's secret locket compartment, now fitted with a piece of brocade. 

The brooch pendant's secret locket compartment, now fitted with a piece of brocade. 

Jewelry that incorporated a loved one’s hair became popular in the seventeenth century and remained in fashion until the end of the nineteenth century. Pieces could be given as both a sentimental gesture (Queen Victoria gave hair jewelry throughout her life) or included as part of mourning jewelry to further personalize the token of remembrance. Jewelry with a glass plate built in, as well as some daintier antique lockets, most likely held beautifully woven hair; period jewelers were skilled at braiding and working it into compartments of brooches, pendants and rings.

 A 15K rosy gold locket ring with a buckle design and hand engraving, made c.1830.

A 15K rosy gold locket ring with a buckle design and hand engraving, made c.1830.

 Buckle ring hides woven hair around the band's center.

Buckle ring hides woven hair around the band's center.

Small ring compartments may have held other secrets besides hair. Rings crafted with a small lidded compartment for herbs, or something more sinister, are mentioned in ancient texts. Famous locket ring wearers included Elizabeth I and members of the powerful Borgia family. The ring’s use in fictional and real life drama buoyed their popularity in the 16th through 19th centuries.

 Victorian 15K gold and banded agate men's intaglio ring with locket compartment.

Victorian 15K gold and banded agate men's intaglio ring with locket compartment.

Larger locket pendants became fashionable c. 1860-1880, coinciding with increasing availability of portrait photography – for the first time, images could be created and mounted into jewelry that didn’t require the skill of a miniature portrait painter. Today, with the help of image resizing, we can put pictures into those small jewelry compartments so they may once again hold treasured mementos.

 French 18K gold Georgian locket with carved Garnet and scalloped edge of rose cut diamonds, c.1800. Rock crystal locket backing.

French 18K gold Georgian locket with carved Garnet and scalloped edge of rose cut diamonds, c.1800. Rock crystal locket backing.

 Early 20th Century 14K gold locket watch fob with black enamel and a spider design set with an old mine cut diamond.

Early 20th Century 14K gold locket watch fob with black enamel and a spider design set with an old mine cut diamond.

 Victorian 18K rose gold watch chain is hung with a shield-shaped locket containing a hinged disk of rock crystal. French Import mark c. 1838 - 1864. 

Victorian 18K rose gold watch chain is hung with a shield-shaped locket containing a hinged disk of rock crystal. French Import mark c. 1838 - 1864. 

Jewelry Through the Ages @ the V&A

A visit to the jewelry collection at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum should be on the bucket list of any antique and vintage jewelry lover. The 3,000+ piece collection is a veritable trip back in time, offering the opportunity to see jewelry history from 1500BC to today, and the designs and trends that influenced our favorite pieces from the Georgian, Victorian, and Art Deco periods.

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The museum’s collection is a testament to both craftsmanship and care. Most pieces are in excellent condition and several were donated from what must have been spectacular personal collections. It’s easy to be entranced as you learn about the evolution of design and gemstone cutting, and the expansion of materials available to craftsmen through the ages – as shown by the pieces themselves.

Curators did not scrimp on the details: each case provides information on notable historical and cultural events that steered trends, such as why iron jewelry was created during the Napoleonic Wars, and brief biographies of influential craftsmen and designers. For those who crave item specifics, each case has a binder with a complete listing for each piece.

 Etruscan gold rosette made in Tuscany c. 500-400 BC. 

Etruscan gold rosette made in Tuscany c. 500-400 BC. 

 Gold earrings made by Castellani's student Carlo Giuliano c. 1865.

Gold earrings made by Castellani's student Carlo Giuliano c. 1865.

To first see original Etruscan gold granulated wire work c.300 BC, and Castellani’s 19th century Etruscan Revival cannatile jewelry later on, is a real treat. Other collection highlights include incredibly detailed ancient gold chains, the Canning Jewel (a merman brooch with a large natural pearl torso), Art Nouveau enamel designed by René Lalique, and floral diamond tiaras with moving parts (en tremblant) for extra sparkle.

 The Canning Jewel, most likely of European origin c. 1800-1865, with enameled gold, natural pearls, table cut diamonds and Indian rubies.

The Canning Jewel, most likely of European origin c. 1800-1865, with enameled gold, natural pearls, table cut diamonds and Indian rubies.

 Lalique enamel, opal and horn bodice ornament c. 1903

Lalique enamel, opal and horn bodice ornament c. 1903

 Western European diamond tiara c. 1835

Western European diamond tiara c. 1835

Smaller exhibits are organized around different themes, bringing the jewelry’s symbolism and personal significance to life. “Cradle to the Grave” highlights materials and designs believed to be integral to different stages of life: from shell fertility amulets to protective figa pendants to jet and onyx mourning jewelry.

For those wanting to test their gemstone knowledge, a 154 piece collection donated to the museum in 1869 by Rev. Chauncy Hare Townshend displays a range of precious and semiprecious stones mounted in gorgeous rings. The swirling, colorful display of sapphires, tourmalines, garnets and more is a spectacular reminder that certain gemstones can surprise you in their range of naturally occurring colors.

 The Townshend gemstone collection was supplemented by a donation from A. H. Church in 1913. Church also compiled the first catalog of the museum's collection.

The Townshend gemstone collection was supplemented by a donation from A. H. Church in 1913. Church also compiled the first catalog of the museum's collection.

It’s also worth it to watch the intermittent video demonstrations, showing how artisans craft items such as enamel jewelry and pocket watch casings. Sadly, museum staff strictly enforce a no photography policy, so while you can’t take any pictures of your favorite pieces, an afternoon learning about them in this temple to personal adornment is a truly wondrous experience.

Black on Black

When an occasion arises where one must appear mysterious & intriguing (and we all have these moments), there's nothing quite like the elegant blackness of jet and onyx jewels to get the point across:

 Antique onyx intaglio set in yellow gold ring, featuring a miniature scene of Poseidon. 

Antique onyx intaglio set in yellow gold ring, featuring a miniature scene of Poseidon. 

 Extra-long Victorian drop earrings of carved jet with saw-tooth gold caps.

Extra-long Victorian drop earrings of carved jet with saw-tooth gold caps.

 Art Deco earrings of polished onyx with platinum & diamond embellishment.

Art Deco earrings of polished onyx with platinum & diamond embellishment.

 Victorian collar of carved jet beads. 

Victorian collar of carved jet beads. 

A Victorian Gate Bracelet

Gate bracelets--link bracelets with a heart-shaped padlock closure--were a popular gift around the turn of the twentieth century. 

 English gate bracelet in 9k yellow gold, c. 1900. Currently available at Gray & Davis. 

English gate bracelet in 9k yellow gold, c. 1900. Currently available at Gray & Davis. 

Traditionally, a gentleman would place the bracelet on the wrist of his paramour and lock the clasp with a matching key, thus ensuring that he was the only one able to open the "gate" to his lady love's heart. 

The clasp on our gate bracelet functions quite well without it's key, so whoever wears it is able to to open and close their heart's gate according to their own free will.