Understanding the way a culture operates is seen within the designs and art of a jewel. Until investment in the work of individual artists during the early 20th century, early-modern jewels are primary examples of identity and how an individual wanted to present themselves within culture. Todays’ ring features the following dedication:
Gebohren den 22 Juli 1714 Gestorben den 1 Oct. 1783 (Born the 22 of July 1714, died the 1 of Oct. 1783)
The ring, c.1783, is a primary source for the Neoclassical influence on German culture. The navette shape was universal for the Neoclassical style, featuring a high north-to-south canvas that could accommodate interior designs and what these designs were differed from culture to culture. English designs were highly standardised by the late 1780s, often pre-designed and featured the willow, urn and weeping female. They were personalised or tailored for the person who commissioned the jewel, leading to mass production and a form of jewellery that permeated through society enough to be recognised. As written about extensively on Art of Mourning, the Protestant Reformation was the primary catalyst for detribalisation of religious values and with this comes the questioning of what happens after death. Representing death as an inevitability led to art and jewellery adapting to this new outlook, creating jewels that depicted death and decay.
By the time of the Neoclassical period, society had lived through around three hundred years of change and creation of new ideas, particularly during the Enlightenment, with a new connection back to classical Greco-Roman culture. These values hadn’t disappeared over time, it was their non-Christian values that came into dispute. As artists developed over the early-modern period, classical symbols discovered dual meanings; classical and Christian in context. Yet, the Neoclassical period saw a ring such as this be relevant and immediately identifiable as a mourning jewel in culture, regardless of its culture. It is valid in England, France, Austria and Hungary, regardless of empire, as long as those countries have Protestant values.
17th century German jewels followed the same continuity as the change in politics and religion. Cultures adapt their fashion to the publicly acceptable symbols and styles which are identifiable. This is why mourning and sentimental fashion was an industry; it was simple to recognise someone who was in mourning based on what they wore. There’s no difference in this today, as a ring on the third finger of the left hand can still denote marriage.
The key driver of the style of the ring which is the subject of today’s article in the Protestant Reformation. The ‘Western Schism’ or ‘Great Schism’ from 1378 to 1418 effectively split the Catholic Church, with numerous people vying to claim the true papacy. The end of the Avignon Papacy came on January 17th, 1377, where Gregory XI returned it to Rome. A year later, Gregory died, causing a Roman riot to ascertain that a Roman was going to be pope. Pope Urban VI, born in Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archibishop of Bari was elected, causing destabilisation due to what was considered outbursts of temper and a reformist. Robert of Geneva (Pope Clement VII) was elected as a rival pope on September 20th 1378 and established a court in Avignon. While there had been challengers to the papacy before, this was a schism by the leadership of the Church and a true break down of their process.
Culturally, the Protestant movement created wide discourse and challenge which could allow thought surrounding the individual. Traditional concepts had been destabilised since Martin Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 at Wittenburg. The challenge to ecclesiastical thinking and its establishment of the Protestant Reformation had effectively enhanced the artistic value of European jewels through the Huguenot emigration and the goldsmith knowledge that they bought with them from the continent into England. In Germany, the Lutheran Church became the official religion of several German states after 1530, leading to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).
“This is an unusually specific memento-mori ring: the bezel is in the form of a coffin containing a skeleton; the shoulders are formed of skeletons and the back of the hoop of clasped hands. The ring belongs to the group of coffin jewels that contain minutely detailed skeletons and date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Designs for the external decoration of the coffins in Moresque style can be found in mid sixteenth century German pattern books, notably among the large number of jeweller’s and silversmith’s patterns engraved by Virgil Solis of Nuremberg in the 1560s. The combination of the symbols of love and death was not uncommon at this period…(Pl. 208).” – Text from Ward, Cherry et al, ‘The Ring from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century,’ London 1981, pl.206.
The Moresque style derives from the term “Moorish” in English, and is applied to art styles of the 16th and 17th centuries, seen in jewels with the elaborate patterns which take on a floral nature. While its appearance was essentially derived from Islamic ornament, its history goes back to the Roman grotesque decorative style, which had also developed in illuminated manuscripts through the Middle Ages. Human and animal forms become geometric or appear as foliage decoration, or as described in 1611 by Randle Cotgrave as: “a rude or anticke painting, or carving, wherin the feet and tayles of beasts… are intermingled with, or made to resemble, a kind of wild leaves…” (A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues).
Using this knowledge of stylistic influence from an Islamic perspective, as well as the changes to Christian values of the Church and how that affected identity in mourning, the memento mori ring and its peripheral designs become clear. This isn’t a ring built around the judgement of God, but one based around fashion and the desecration of the body. Death was an inevitability, so why not use the values of living and dying in art? It’s as much of a statement for the wearer as it was for the deceased.
The turn of the 18th century saw the development of Rococo, a design style that followed on from Baroque. It was c.1730 in Paris that the style originated, with an asymmetrical style which utilised flowers, feather and foliage. This style lasted to the 1780s and can be seen throughout Art of Mourning. It is a style which has an essence that continues to today, depending on how styles such as Nouveau can be considered original from their usage of nature in design. Rococo jewellery as a common design is prevalentent throughout this time (1730-1780), however the finer pieces are quite rare.
Thomas Flach was one of the designers who pushed the Rococo style forward in jewellery. This plate, from a series, in 1736 shows the progressive nature of his designs. Of note is the integration of the gems with the metalwork; the designs are interwoven. As the German mourning ring from this period shows, the shoulders and band are detailed with the Rococo inlay and filled with black enamel; the statement of mourning and death. The combination of fashion and death into such a ring is only permissible in a culture that allows these things to be combined. Death and beauty in a jewel become part of popular fashion, as this was quite close to the normal style of design in rings that were created through Protestant cultures.
Access to gems was another reason why the style was so popular, as a new source of diamonds was found in Brazil c.1720 (Brazil was then a Portuguese colony), after the Indian mines were exhausted c.1700. This dropped the price of diamonds in Europe, leading to a high quantity of elaborately embellished diamond jewellery. Diamonds were prevalent enough to be used as white stones, set on coloured foil, which worked well with romantic naturalism to create jewellery that resembled flowers and bows. Notably, the Giardinetti rings, meaning ‘little garden’, commonly displayed the flowers and vase in gems.
Between 1740 and 1806, there was a rivalry between the Austrian Habsburg Monarch and the Kingdom Prussia for dominance of Germany. The Napoleonic Wars were the element that ended this rivalry, as the German Confederation was founded in 1814 following the fall of Napoleon via the Congress of Vienna. This was a confederation of 39 sovereign states. Over this period, the 1783 ring of this article was created; reflecting an established confederation with various ideals, religious attitudes and fashion. This is arguably why identifying holistic German jewels can be difficult. What was common in the north is different to the south during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the only jewels that are easy to identify are the Berlin Iron pieces, which have clarity around their meaning. They were created for a war effort and this had an entire population rallying for the cause of defeating a common enemy over various periods.
What is important during the post 1760 period is the Neoclassical movement. Historical discovery in Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1711 led to even further cultural connection to the classical world, with further excavations resuming in 1738, igniting the passion and interest in artists, thinkers and antiquarians and spurring forward a new perspective of the individual and identity within the Western religious paradigm. From the Neoclassical period of art and fashion, jewels evolved to depict the individual and move away from the identity of death. The 19th century tried to pull this back to its traditional roots, but this created a schism between personal and fundamental thought.
Without the Neoclassical movement, this very ring could not exist, as every part of its design would be uncommon and not fit contemporary mourning context. German Neoclassical jewels are quite highly symbolic and allegorical, whereas English jewels were quite standardised in their ‘willow’, ‘weeping female’, ‘urn’ paradigm. German pieces depict castles, mausoleums, characters in contemporary dress and the heavy use of three-dimensional constructions.
The mausoleum in this ring is its primary design. It resonates the classical sentimentality of what its basis is, completely taking over the canvas of the ring in three-dimensional ivory. At its heart burns the eternal flame, with the dedication underneath: “zum andenken gewidmet”, (“dedicated to the memory of”). It is a literal and proud jewel that has its classical elements highly detailed, indeed, the use of sepia to shade the ivory and communicate depth through the curvature of the mausoleum is beyond the typical mourning jewel that one would find of the 1780/90 period. Hair is glued along the sides of the mausoleum and on the steps. Around the bezel, the ring reads: Gebohren den 22 Juli 1714 Gestorben den 1 Oct. 1783 (Born the 22 of July 1714, died the 1 of Oct. 1783).
As previously mentioned, the Berlin Ironwork movement is one of the most identifiable unified German jewellery movements. It wasn’t completely relegated to Germany, but its very name of being ‘Berlin Iron’ is immediately identifiable for modern collectors and historians. Giving something precious for an important cause is considered one of the most respectful ways to show honour and fidelity towards a Crown or government. It shows solidarity and unity within a community, regardless of its age. Jewellery is a privilege for the wealthy, with various metals and symbols being elements of identity within a society, this is why the phenomenon of Berlin ironwork is so important for the solidarity of Prussia and for the status of the wearer.
Berlin iron was founded in the Gleiwitz Foundry in Silesia, a mineral rich area within the borders of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic in the c.1790s. It was further produced and developed in two areas. Count Stolberg’s Foundry and taken up by the Royal Berlin Iron Foundry (c.1804) both developed the technique, firstly carving/moulding shapes in wax, pressing these into fine sand and filling the impressions with molten iron. These pieces were left alone to cool down, then finished by hand and black lacquer was applied. Niello work was a common decoration, with ‘fine silver wire set into engraved lines in the iron.’ Examples have also been produced that are set with gold or medallions (notably Jasper) and cameo portraits.
French production is suggested to have begun c.1806, when Napoleon marched on Berlin and took the casting moulds, but why was the act of giving gold for iron so important to Prussia? During the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia had exhausted much of its revenue in the war effort. As the Prussian War of Liberation (1812-14) commenced, men offered their services and women offered their jewels to the Royal Treasury in an act of patriotism. Ladies that did received iron jewels with the motto “Ich gab geld um Eisen” (“I gave gold for iron).
Stylistically, the iron jewels imitated many of the popular and classical styles of the time. Scrollwork, classical medallions, cameos, and foliage were typical and popular. Neoclassical design has much influence on Berlin ironwork, as these were the popular styles of the late 18th and early 19th century, but the ironwork adapted to the upcoming Gothic Revival styles, which suited the stark, dominant style of the iron itself. As time drew on, ironwork had spread to Paris, Bohemia and Austria, though it had become far less popular than it had been. Demand peaked in the 1830s, when Berlin alone had 27 foundries and manufacture spread to France and Austria. Ironwork jewellery was also displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and continued into the 20th century through the same act of giving gold for iron in the war effort. More will be written about this later in the article.
“Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the designer of this piece, had an enormous influence on the success of cast-iron jewellery in Prussia. This iron cross was meant to evoke the insignia of a medieval German order. It could be awarded to anyone who distinguished themselves in battle, regardless of social status. This was a revolutionary approach to the award of honours and was consistent with the hope for a more egalitarian regime under Frederick William III (1770–1840).”
The great designers of Berlin ironwork are Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who introduced the Gothic Revival style to Berlin iron and worked in the Berlin foundries, with other signed pieces being by Lehmann, Hossauer, Devaranne and Geiss. Identity of iron jewellery towards the Gothic Revival style cannot be understated. This jewellery lends itself to the intricate, large and dominant style of the Gothic Revival, which mourning jewels particularly adapted. Berlin iron was also worn for the purposes of mourning, but not exclusively. Notably, Queen Luisa of Prussia’s death was commemorated by iron crosses.
As the 19th century moved on, there was more political destabilisation in Germany and more stabilisation in England. While the values of the Napoleonic period influenced the Neoclassical period greatly, access to affordable materials became difficult during wartime and the focus upon rapidly changing style from the monarch-down was much more static.
The 1783 ring is at the peak of its craft and culture; taking into context much of what could be achieved in a society with many conflicting values. Its mausoleum and eternal flame still burn brightly today as a memory for a person and a moment in history.