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Unbearably Fine: Jewellery In The Georgian Period

By Ali Scott, author of A Man of Good Fortune

Every jewel tells a story. Some speak of devotion—an engagement ring between two lovers; a cherished heirloom passed down through the generations; a keepsake of a departed loved one. Other jewels tell a darker tale—of theft, of corruption; of greed and scandal. Georgian jewellery was no exception. A variety of factors meant that jewellery became more widely available, and therefore the role it played within Georgian society became more prominent.

During the Georgian era, expensive items such as jewellery were no longer confined to the wealthy elite. Aspiring middle classes were able to take a greater interest in jewellery, driving demand for new styles and techniques. Advancements in diamond faceting and the exploration of diamond mines in Brazil and India meant that diamonds became hugely sought after. Candle production also greatly improved, and a whole new domain of evening entertainment opened up. Candlelit soirées meant that the notion of an evening set of jewellery worn primarily to sparkle in the candlelight became popular. Yet the period was not only about ostentatious displays of wealth. The Georgian era also coincided with societal reform. Revolution was in the air and every part of cultured life was up for debate and redesign. Jewellery, with its status, desirability and craftmanship, was a means of expressing oneself at a time of great change.

Georgian jewellery is particularly interesting as the era is characterised by several key, and arguably opposing, styles. At the beginning of the 18th century, ornate jewellery was fashionable. Motifs such as feathers, bows and giardinetti (garden) motifs were particularly favoured. By the end of the century, simpler designs such as arrows, quivers, and intaglio (engraved gems) were widely used. Jewellery influenced by classical themes also became hugely popular thanks to visits to archaeological sites such as Pompeii.

It is interesting to wonder what style Elizabeth Bennet would favour—would she be drawn to delicate cameo brooches, made from engraved coral or shell; or would her eyes be drawn to the sparkling, ornate diamonds, their scintillating lustre so bright in the candlelight. Perhaps she would prefer to eschew any item deemed fashionable; it is hard to imagine Elizabeth Bennet happily wearing anything that made her look remotely similar to Caroline Bingley.

The advent of war brought about more change. Techniques such as cannetille, a close relative of filagree, were created in response to the scarcity of gold. Inspired by embroidery, cannetille used fine golden wires to create intricate designs. Large items of jewellery could be made using a relatively small amount of the precious metal. Sentimental and mourning jewellery also grew in popularity. In 2008, a locket believed to contain strands of Jane Austen’s hair was put up for auction. The ‘in memoriam’ locket uses strands of hair to depict a weeping willow next to a grave attributed to Austen. Although experts were unable to prove that the hair was Austen’s, it is known that her sister Cassandra cut several locks of Jane’s hair before her beloved sister’s coffin was closed. Despite its unverified provenance, the locket reached £4,800 at auction.

Eye miniatures were also exchanged. In Britain, these were often between lovers—sometimes with a trompe-l’oeil (a painting technique that gives a three-dimensional effect) or diamond to give the impression of a tear. Such miniatures were of a relatively short-lived phase, yet belonged to a wider trend of concealing a message or sentiment within jewellery.

A Hidden Declaration

Acrostic jewellery became popular during the 18th century. The concept was simple: gem stones were set into rings, brooches and bracelets and their initial letters spelling out a word or name. REGARD and DEAREST were especially popular in England. It is easy to imagine Darcy one day presenting such a ring to his ‘dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.’ Personalisation was also desirable—a woman could have the name of her lover created in precious stones on a ring, brooch, locket or even on the buckle of a belt.

Political statements were also made using acrostic jewellery. Towards the end of the Georgian era, a number of rings were set with stones in the following sequence: ruby, emerald, pearl, emerald, amethyst and lapis lazuli. Their message was REPEAL, in reference to the restrictive Corn Laws. Jewellery, therefore, was a declaration as well as an ornament. However, there were times during the Georgian period when jewels did not simply tell a story—they were the story.

L'Affaire du Collier de la Reine

A self-proclaimed countess steals a priceless necklace by posing as the queen of France. A clandestine night-time rendezvous between a desperate cardinal and a prostitute in the gardens of Versailles. It sounds too unbelievable to be true. Yet, incredibly, it happened. During the 1780s, a jewel theft—the Diamond Necklace Affair—struck the very heart of French nobility. Its central figure was the so-called Countess de la Motte.

A descendant of King Henry II’s illegitimate son, Jeanne de Valois-St-Rémy grew up in poverty. Despite her dubious claims to nobility, Jeanne and her gendarme husband, Nicolas, adopted the title of Count and Countess de la Motte as they attempted to ingratiate themselves into the French court. Jeanne had a lover too, a pimp and forger named Rétaux de la Villette, and, together, all three plotted one of the most audacious jewel thefts in French history.

Set with over six hundred diamonds, a 2,800-carat necklace had been commissioned by King Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry. The King died before it could be presented to her. Desperate for a buyer, the jewellers, Boehmer et Bassenge, approached the new queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Uncharacteristically, she refused to buy the necklace.

Around the same time, Jeanne embarked on an affair with the Cardinal de Rohan. She soon learnt of his desperation to gain favour with the new queen. Although Jeanne had never actually met Marie Antoinette, she used forged letters to convince Rohan that she was on intimate terms with her. Rohan fell straight into Jeanne’s trap. In August 1784, Jeanne orchestrated an infamous midnight rendezvous in the Queen’s Grove at Versailles. The meeting was supposed to be between the cardinal and the queen but it was, in fact, Nicole d’Olivia, a prostitute with an uncanny resemblance to Marie Antoinette. Convinced that he was secretly helping Marie Antoinette buy the necklace, Rohan eagerly organised the sale.

Delighted that they had a buyer, the jewellers then presented the necklace to Rohan, who gave it to Jeanne believing that she would pass it onto the queen. Jeanne, along with her accomplices, promptly disappeared with the jewels. The theft came to light with the jewellers approached the true queen asking for their payment. When he learnt of the theft, King Louis XVI summoned Rohan to Versailles and had him arrested. A trial ensued, and Jeanne de la Motte and her conspirators were found guilty. Jeanne was condemned to Salpêtrière, a notorious woman’s prison from which she would later escape disguised as a boy. As for the necklace at the heart of the scandal – it is lost forever; the thieves smashed it apart and sold the dismantled diamonds to unsuspecting jewellers.

Jane Austen’s Jewellery

The stories that surround the jewels in Jane Austen’s life were less sensational. Three items of her jewellery are on display at the Jane Austen House. The first is a bracelet made from turquoise, ivory and gold-coloured glass beads. The second item is a simple nine-carat gold ring with an oval turquoise stone. Experts have dated Austen’s ring from around 1760-80.

Recently, the ring was as the centre of a controversy when, in 2012, it was bought in an auction by the American singer Kelly Clarkson. Such was the outcry that Jane’s ring might be taken from the United Kingdom that the culture secretary placed an export ban on it. A campaign was launched to help the Jane Austen House Museum purchase the ring, and donations soon matched the amount Clarkson had paid. A deal was struck, and the ring is now on display at Chawton House.

The final item of jewellery attributed to Austen is a pair of topaz crosses. Set in gold, they were a gift to Jane and her sister Cassandra from their younger brother Charles. The necklaces were of a very good quality and delighted Austen. She describes her feelings to her sister, adopting a jokingly stern tone: ‘[Charles] must be well scolded…I shall write again... to thank and reproach him. We shall be unbearably fine.’ Such presents were expensive and the necklaces are a lasting testament to the affection between Austen and her younger brother.


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Oct 12, 2022

So interesting, Ali! I have read some of this before, e.g., jewellery depicting eyes and Jane Austen's personal jewellery, but I had no idea about other parts of it. Thanks! I do love learning new things.

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