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Understanding Jewellery of the 18th Century

The decorative arts reached an extremely high level in terms of quality and elegance during the 18th Century. Jewellery was by no means an exception. It was the French who led the way with a number of influential Parisian jewellery makers setting new world standards.

Jewellery of the day was made for two distinct occasions: that which was worn with informal clothing during the day and the more ornamental jewellery which was worn with formal attire at evening functions. The emphasis at the time was on the gemstones rather than the settings themselves. It was at about this time that the art of stone faceting had improved significantly thereby showing off the utmost beauty of diamonds and coloured gemstones.

Having mastered the cutting techniques required to increase the level of sparkle, the jewellers of the 18th century also set about improving the vibrant colours of the coloured jewels themselves. This they did by introducing high quality ‘foiling’ techniques and by tinting diamonds and other gemstones. Such was the level of their craftsmanship that many Parisian jewellers were drawn to work for foreign firms in Spain, Germany, Denmark and elsewhere thereby making their influence truly international in scope.

The popularity of insect and butterfly designs from the previous century were brought up to date and improved upon and asymmetrical designs were adopted for the very first time. Beautiful floral designs and more intricate ribbon work became a popular feature of this period. Some of the designs resembled furnishing ideas of the time – curtain motifs and upholstery trimmings can be seen as a feature in much of the jewellery. Memorial jewellery also became a popular feature of daytime jewellery. Brooches, rings and pendants often contained the plaited hair of loved ones and was featured in pieces of jewellery with black enamel and white seed pearls. Personal inscriptions were often carefully engraved with loving messages. It was during this period that the concept of the ‘dearest’ or ‘regard’ jewellery evolved. Pendants, rings or brooches were made using precious stones whose first letter spelt out a secret message to a loved one. For example “D E A R E S T” became the imbedded message in a ring which was set with Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, Tourmaline … in that specific order!

Even the more affordable items of ‘costume’ jewellery in the 18th century were graced with the same flair and elegance as their more expensive counterparts. Garnets, for example, were foiled to resemble bright red rubies and precious metal substitutes were introduced like ‘pinchbeck’ – a gilt metal resembling gold – that was invented by a London watchmaker. In Switzerland laws were made to restrict ‘excesses in extravagance’ and so the use of diamonds in jewellery became illegal for a period. In 1760 marcasite and cut steel became a popular substitute. Birmingham’s renowned industrialist, Matthew Boulton, specialised in the use of these materials in earrings, pendants, brooches, rings, buckles dress combs etc.

In my next article I will take a look at jewellery during the Victorian period – that is from 1837 through to the end of the Century. By this time there had been a complete change in both fashion and mood!

Source by Paul G Wright

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