Many of us inherit a gold watch, a ring or a broach from cherished ancestors. Often pieces that are highly crafted with precious stones will be passed down from one generation to another. Some are kept and worn into another generation, but many are re-set to form new memories. Gem stones may be reshaped to fit new settings in an engagement ring or styled into earrings to match a current style. I inherited a few pieces and did the same, choosing to make minor alterations in order to wear them comfortably. What I did not realize was my alteration choices are a part of jewelry making and the inheritance of jewelry's presence and influence throughout time.
Hair ornament, made by Philippe Wolfers, 1905-7, Belgium. Museum no. M.11-1962. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
I came across an interesting article from the Victorian and Albert Museum (V&A) on the history of jewelry (Western Culture) while doing some research on the authenticity and value of a Victorian silver stamp holder I inherited (see below). A print version of the article with images of the beautiful examples of changes in jewelry making through time can be found here. According to the article, alterations are symbolic of changes in the craft and art of jewelry making across history because of advances in technology, changes in value toward worth, and tastes in fashion. Who knew that simply because the color of fabrics turned from dark, heavy material to light pastel embroidered garments that the kinds of jewelry worn would also require alteration.The bold color of gold and larger stones for instance could no longer reflect off lighter colors. Another influence came during the Arts & Crafts Movement (1880 - 1920) when artists making jewelry rebelled against the use of industrialization and began using the preferred cabochon uncut natural stones to make handcrafted masterpieces. The art of enameling to paint extraordinary life like floral pieces, as seen in the orchid hair adornment, is simply astonishing.
A Victorian silver stamp holder I inherited, once a vessel for precious letter stamps has become a necklace. My grandfather's tie pins are now worn together as pins on a sweater. Another Victorian piece, a ring with three diamonds became a charm on a necklace. Once upon a time, a single gem was worn as an individual piece and often worn exclusively on a daily basis. In my search I wanted to find out why some jewelry pieces that are signed have particular markings and the value differs from those with no signature. In the above picture there are two Italian pieces that my father bought in Italy on his way by passenger ship from America to India in the early 1950's. They were "worldly" gifts to bring back to my grandmother who had virtually no jewelry having survived the Great Depression. They are an etched black gold pin and a gold filigree framed cameo and are not as valued as the simple round pin of a hand painted robin on a snowy branch. The reason, the Italian pieces are not signed and were crafted using industrial tools rather than exclusively made by hand.
I thought I had a real "Antiques Roadshow" treasure with my inherited Victorian stamp holder and would soon be a feature on the popular PBS television show. Inside the lid I found coded markings and what looked like an artist stamp (B.P.D.C). A symbol of an anchor, a left facing lion and a lower case "e" all stamped under the artist marking. Could the stamp holder be priceless?! Thinking that this was a one of a kind, hand crafted piece and new to jewelry history I did not realize that the codes were simply a commercial barcode for Boots Pure Drug Company. A popular department store trinket. The English Silver Maker's Marks reference the geographic location the item was manufactured and sold in Birmingham, England in 1904. Alas, the old silver coins kept inside the envelop shaped holder were from a once popular Victorian charm bracelet and are virtually worthless because of the large holes punched into them. A popular bracelet trend of it's time showing the style of wearing something resembling antiquity while looking bohemian. No fortune gained from my inherited jewels other than a lot of fun discovering their history and knowing they are beautiful and priceless to me.