I’ve written quite a bit about eye miniatures and their use in mourning and sentimental jewellery. These are one of those cultural phenomena that seem to radiate with a personal sentiment not seen previously not seen in mainstream jewellery; they’re less formal than the heavy neo-classical pieces found from 1760 to their contemporary period, they come in various qualities from highly detailed to naive and above all else, they’re incredibly personal. For those who need to know a bit more, here’s some of an article I’ve written previously:
“Eye portraits are rare and highly sought after, but there is variation between them. In the portrait shown, the setting conforms to the portrait of the eye, but later examples show a tear-drop setting with a black enamel surround. Some also show a down-turned eye. These are not always to be considered mourning pieces, but certainly sentimental. The tear-drop setting with the black enamel surround is certainly a mourning piece and quite an odd point in the evolution of the style.
Eye portraits are considered to have their genesis in the late 18th Century when the Prince of Wales (to become George IV ) wanted to exchange a token of love with the Catholic widow (of Edward Weld who died 3 months into the marriage) Maria Fitzherbert . The court denounced the romance as unacceptable, though a court miniaturist developed the idea of painting the eye and the surrounding facial region as a way of keeping anonymity. The pair were married on December 15, 1785, but this was considered invalid by the Royal Marriages Act because it had not been approved by George III, but Fitzherbert’s Catholic persuasion would have tainted any chance of approval. Maria’s eye portrait was worn by George under his lapel in a locket as a memento of her love. This was the catalyst that began the popularity of lover’s eyes. From its inception, the very nature of wearing the eye is a personal one and a statement of love by the wearer. Not having marks of identification, the wearer and the piece are intrinsically linked, rather than a jewellery item which can exist without the necessity of the wearer.
Use of materials developed along with the size of the settings of eye miniatures, as pieces were surrounded by precious stones and became larger due to altering fashion. A good reference for the evolving trend of the shape of early 19th century jewellery can be seen in the Rings section, where settings and the shape of the mementos changed quite dramatically from 1790-1830.”
There have been a number of eye portrait forgeries due to their desirability and low production. Collectors should be cautious when purchasing a piece to ensure its authenticity.
And now with that, we can look at this piece. The first thing that must be discussed are the seed pearls forming the band of the bracelet. Mourning bracelets are often strung with either hair or pearls in their original state. Much of the time, only the clasps and hinges survive or have been restrung over the years. Judging by the colour, odd sizes and the predilection towards seed pearls during the first quarter 19th century, these look quite original on appearance. When discussing pieces like this, it’s best to not make absolute judgement based upon pictures, but make physical contact with the piece to be sure.
The setting of the eye itself is in the style common of c.1815-1830 (often the grooves would be filled with enamel, but not always), with the popular rectangular shape housing the eye itself highlighting its age in this bracket. Note the piece pictured for similarities.
As for the portrait itself, the eye is painted on ivory and moves to the upper levels of fine quality in the attention to detail and the brushwork. One of the aspects of the eye miniature is that they weren’t often painted to the neoclassical ideal, but come back to the nature of them being personally painted. Here, note the colour of the hair in the portrait (chestnut to red) and the fair colouring of the skin, detail has been taken into account to match the subject where possible.
Then there is the dedication on the reverse. This dedication feels awkwardly drawn into the reverse and due to the eye not facing upwards (often denoting post-mortem), one must consider if it were a later inscription to the piece. However, any detail here is supposition, so one must be careful when making such a judgement.
Overall, the bracelet is highly rare and incredibly sought after. These items weren’t in high production and lasted only a short time as a cultural phenomenon, hence their high cost and desirability.