Victorian Earring Styles
When we speak of the Victorian era we are talking of a period spanning over 60 years. Queen Victoria reigned as the head of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth from 1837 to 1901, and she was the leading trendsetter for women's fashion of her time. The Victorian earring styles naturally underwent many changes during such a long reign.
Victoria became queen of the United Kingdom less than one month after her 18th birthday. Being so young, she became a symbol of fresh new romanticism in Royalty, and ladies from the gentry to the commoner alike looked to their Queen for style inspiration.
The Romantic Period (1837–1861) The early years of Victoria's reign, until Prince Albert's death in 1861, were considered the Romantic Period. Young and eligible, Victoria was presented with a procession of potential suitors and the public hung on tenterhooks for news of a Royal marriage, which came when Victoria finally married Albert in February 1840. Jewellery of the Romantic Period was sentimental and symbolic. Tiny charms adorned chains and brooches, and lovers' hair was romantically woven into rings and worn in lockets. The industrial revolution saw new techniques that led to jewellery being mass produced with machinery, with gold plating popular amongst the less wealthy, and rare 18 karat gold being the metal of choice for those who could afford it.
Symbolism popular in Victorian Romantic Period jewellery includes:
Hands, eyes, faces and hearts...
Clasped hands, entwined or holding something, like the heart in a Claddagh ring, were popular, as were symbols of love like the heart, or the eye to behold and trap beauty. Cameos were carved into the likeness of loved ones or ancient goddesses.
Anchors, arrows, bows and buckles...
Symbols of things to hunt, trap or secure ones' love.
Vines, fruit, birds, insects and leaves...
Nature and fruit was symbolic of a "fruitful" marriage, with hopes of many children. It also spoke of Spring and fresh new beginnings.
Words spelled out in gemstones, using the first letter of each stone, were a romantic way of keeping a secret message from an admirer close. See our article on acrostic jewellery to learn more.
Prince Albert presented Victoria with an engagement ring in the shape of a coiled snake with an emerald set in its head. The snake, especially when depicted swallowing its tail, became a popular symbol of infinity and everlasting love.
The Victorian era was a time of great archaeological discovery, and jewellery that replicated the styles of Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians was exciting and novel.
Did you know: The wearing of LIVE insects, inspired by Egyptian discoveries, became surprisingly popular during the early Victorian era. Live beetles would have gems glued to their carapaces and were then attached to tiny golden chain 'leashes' secured to the clothing by a pin. The little beetles were free to wander around the reach allowed by their chains, allowing their gems to catch and reflect the glittering candle light.
Visit our Victorian Era Earrings Pinterest board to see some genuine Victorian earring styles.
Earrings of the Victorian Romantic Period
Queen Victoria started a fashion for wearing the hair looped about the ears, and bonnets were still considered proper attire when venturing outside, so earrings were often hidden from view. Those wealthy enough to afford fine jewellery would generally save their precious gems to be worn at balls and elaborate dinners where hair could be swept up and headwear forgone. To be sure their earrings would be seen on these occasions, the earrings would be long and elaborate.
In the early Victorian era, piercings were still considered acceptable, so most earrings were drops of the "hook" style. Clusters of tiny garnets were fashioned to look like bunches of grapes or pomegranate seeds and elaborate glittering chandelier earrings were all the fashionable rage for glamorous gala events.
"Girandoles", (pronounced Jee-ran-dolls) named after a many-branched candelabra, are chandelier style earrings featuring three suspended gemstones in a row, with the centre stone hanging lower. You can recreate the Victorian Romantic Period 'Girandole' style with these gorgeous clip-on earrings from Alyssum Jewellery.
The Grand Mourning Period (1861-1880)
Prince Albert's death in 1861 coincided with the start of the American Civil War, both events combining to bring an end to the light-hearted whimsy of the Romantic Period. Victoria had loved Albert deeply and his sudden death hit her hard. She never got over the loss and spent much of the remainder of her reign in reclusive mourning. Traditional mourning in Victorian times required the mourner to wear black, and that extended to jewellery too.
In following the mourning fashions of Queen Victoria, jewellery with black gemstones, black enamelling, and antiqued silver became the fashion must-haves. Black gemstones in the form of jet (fossilised coal), French jet (black glass) and onyx, and deeply coloured gemstones of dark garnet, amethyst and agate were the jewels of choice in mourning jewellery.
Styles during the Grand Period were heavy and somber. Earrings were frequently large and/or long, and it was during this period that post earrings with screw backs made their first appearance to replace the ear hooks.
The Aesthetic Period (1880-1901)
Although Queen Victoria continued to mourn her Albert until her death in 1901, the public tired of the sombreness and sought a return to the symbolism and themes of the Romantic Period. Gemstones became lighter and brighter, and the discovery of diamond deposits in Africa in the 1860s and 1870s, coupled with the introduction of brighter electric lighting, saw a rise in the popularity of glittering diamond jewellery for evening wear. Jewellery styles were on the cusp of the "Arts and Crafts Movement", a predecessor of the Art Nouveau styling typified by nature and floral scenes and inspired by folklore tales and Japanese art.
The public no longer looked to their ageing queen for style, but instead turned to her young daughter-in-law, Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, and stars of the stage. The jewellery focus shifted to elaborate collar style necklaces and brooches, and earrings became smaller and daintier, or were even forgone altogether.
Piercings were becoming less popular - it being considered somewhat barbaric to go poking holes in oneself - and in 1894 the first earrings for non-pierced ears were developed. The simple screw back earrings were light and dainty, often constructed of gold filigree and small pearls or gemstones. and either stud in style or small pendants. Earrings for pierced ears continued to be worn, but the wearers were in the minority and clip earrings in their various forms remained the most popular choice until piercings once again saw a resurgence in the 1970s. Thank goodness there are still some places - like us! - who stock clip-ons for those who can't wear post earrings!
What to look for when buying antique Victorian earrings
Any genuine Victorian earrings are going to be at least 117 years old at the time of writing this article, and possibly up to 181 years old. That's a lot of living they've done! Even with the best of care they will have experienced wear and tear, and possibly undergone a few repairs and alterations. Because gold was scarce prior to the American gold rush, and during the American Civil War, most gold earrings will have been alloyed and crafted using filigree techniques to save on gold usage. Filigree hooks may have bent out of shape or been broken, and with changing styles swinging from hook, to post, to screw back, paddle back, and back to post, the original fastening may have been replaced and amended several times. The Victorian period was also a time of advancing techniques in artificial gemstone production, so be sure that if gemstones are advertised as genuine that you have that verified by an independent professional before spending big bucks. What matters most is the style of the earrings and how much you love them. If you're buying from a reputable source and love the look and history of the earrings, then follow your heart and your instincts and live true to the romanticism of the Victorian era. And if genuine Victorian earrings are out of your budget, there are plenty of beautiful clip-on earrings in a Victorian style right here!
Next week: "December's Birthstones – Turquoise and Zircon" Find out what your December birthstones mean for you.