Floral motifs in the late 18th century mark a change in symbolic and mourning practice. Even more than just for the sake of mourning, the very ideal of wearing a flower marked a change in how people presented love and sentimentality. A bouquet of flowers is a fleeting message, but jewellery which could capture a moment or a symbol, locks the message in time. This is why late 18th century jewellery and its influence of future generations make such a statement about people and their relationships.
It is a combination of symbol, industry and access to materials that allowed for a jewel, such as the one in the topic of this article, to be created. Materials and their prominence in wearing meant that they required cheaper variants, such as paste, or coloured foils with faceted glass/crystal set above, to replicate the gem which was being represented. When a society has this level of interest in a fashion, all levels of society need access to the affectation of style to represent themselves within society. Of course, this does not mean that lower classes could afford to present the illusion of ‘fashion’ in daily life, but the accessibility that came through the Industrial Revolution and mass production could afford for the rising middle class.
Popularity of gems stemmed from several different events. Following the Terror post 1789, French aristocratic jewels were broken up and sold across the European continent. Prices dropped and the prominence of gems in jewels flourished. Gold became more scarce during this time, so the level of craft in jewellery design and construction became higher, as the floral designs became popular, they could be achieved with gold wire and careful construction.
Natural interest in symbols was not an 18th century invention, however, but an ancient one. In this ring, we see the forget-me-nots entered into the public mind during the 15th century through fable. “Forget-me-not, O Lord!” is what a German knight shouted as he fell into a river. He and his lady were picking flowers by the side of the river at the time, no doubt enjoying the beautiful day around them, and yet as fate would have it, the knight’s armour dragged him down to the bottom as he fell in. Upon his cries to the Lord, he threw the blue posy of flowers to his loved one and promptly drowned. This little tale reportedly dates to around the 15th century, but no doubt had different permeations along the way, as romantic stories often do. Hence, the concept of remembrance, eternal love and faithfulness grow from this.
The symbolism of the forget-me-not is obviously implied within its name. It should also be noted that the flower grows quite ubiquitously in Europe, America and Asia. Its first use in English literature is reportedly from c.1532 and is otherwise named Myosotis (mouse’s ear). Interestingly enough is the rise of the flower’s popularity c.15-16th centuries. This is what we, as jewellery historians, need to understand. From this, we have the popularity of the posy ring and its use as a love token in jewellery. The posy (poesy, posie, posey) emerged at a time when modern society was developing through a shift back to the personal and emerging from the middle ages and its strict adherence to ecclesiastical living. Giving a ring with an inscription on the inside as a token of love was a profound statement, it showed that relationships were increasingly interpersonal and not decreed before god. It was between the couple. Hence, the forget-me-not was used as a decoration (often crude) in some of these rings to denote its message of love and remembrance.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the use of the forget-me-not didn’t change, however, it did blend in well with the Rococo and Baroque excess of design well enough that it could balance with other flowers and leaf motifs. By the time of the Neoclassical period, its use was relegated more towards being a footnote in memorial jewel depictions painted on ivory. During this time and the rise of hairwork weaves becoming mainstream and popular, the forget-me-not did become a symbol used to create floral depictions from hair.
The 19th century is when the forget-me-not truly found its place as a central motif. Many rings, bracelets, brooches and mourning/sentimental peripherals showcased the forget-me-not as a primary motif, often boldly displayed on enamel. Often, other symbols (buckle/belt/serpent/cross) would complement the forget-me-not, rather than it being a symbol used as a design flourish or in repartition. Where the flower was used in more decorative areas of jewellery was in the Rococo Revival period, especially the latter 19th century, and lasted into the 20th century with its reliance on its romantic roots. Its use in the 20th century became much softer; in the Edwardian period, the romantic movement adopted the symbol and applied it (often in enamel) to lockets and by the time of the First World War, its relation to the remembrance of soldiers (carried through by poetry) and into the Second World War was assured.
Evaluating a ring such as this requires a combination of different popular occurrences, particularly the appreciation of the giardinetti style, which means the ‘little garden’. Influence from Italy and France has impacted the style of Britain quite heavily since the early modern period, with many of the fashions resonating into popular jewellery and its motifs. In 1686, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to Huguenot goldsmiths and jewellers emigrating to Great Britain. This was when the previous allowance by Henry IV provided Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) significant rights. With this retraction, the Huguenots bought with them skills which enabled the London trade to compete with Paris. This led to greater patronage with the influx of greater designs and new elements of fashion appearing as popular in jewels. By the mid 18th century, much of the values that were carried to Britain were instilled within the new industry and led to such elements as the Rococo designs in jewellery from its continental influence.
As such, the Huguenot Cross is a splendid symbol to be seen in the Rococo period, with an open four-petal Lily of France, symbolising the Four Gospels, which have rounded corners signifying the Eight Beatitudes. Joined together by the fleur-de-lis, representing France, the combination of four fleur-de-lis signify the Twelve Apostles.
This goes back to the Protestant Reformation and changes the way this ring should be perceived. Without such a fundamental change in human identity through religion, the very symbols of this ring would not exist. Giardinetti rings were popular because they showed a direct relation to the garden and the gems that could accommodate this were colourful enough to bring the garden to life on the finger.
Two lovers entwined are on display within this ring, as the flowers are tied together within a bow and the outcome of this are the smaller flowers, presenting a relationship that offers futurity and a family. Displayed under this is the blue enamel, which was a popular and very common colour used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for mourning and sentimental jewels.
The use of blue enamel (used for royalty and suggesting that one was considered royalty) contains many mixed histories. Over time, many of the messages surrounding cobalt glass and blue enamel have been crossed, yet it fit very well into the Neoclassical paradigm post c.1765. The main reason for its use in heavier, symbolic terms is that the Neoclassical reliance on sentimental depictions and the allegories of love put the reliance on peripheral representations, rather than clear-cut statements of love and faith. Hence, blue enamel, considered royalty.
There’s Royal Blue and there’s Bleu de France. Bleu de France has been representing France and the French monarchy and the heraldry since c.12th century. This was adapted into jewels and you can see the obvious connection there with the message of royalty, especially considering the French influx into other cultures, as the French were considered the focus of style and fashion.
Royal Blue, is darker, with a hint of purple and red. This was thought to have been invented by millers in Frome, Somerset during a dress making competition for Queen Charlotte post 1761 (after she was queen). There’s the connection here in that her style would dictate a lot of the aristocracy would consider high fashion.
Diamonds and their representation are the central element that brings the focus of this ring to its conceit. It is a jewel that establishes wealth, but also love. Diamond mining is recorded to c.500BCE in India, with the most important areas being Borneo, Golconda and Indonesia being the second most prominent areas of diamond mining since the Dark Ages. In the 18th century, Brazil became the main focus of diamond mining, which led to European jewellers being the source of much diamond jewellery production. It was the mining of diamonds in Australia and South Africa in the 19th century that made diamonds accessible to everyone through a massive price drop in the 1890s and mining throughout Africa, from Sierra Leone, Zaire and Russia are still utilised today.
In jewellery of the 17th and 18th centuries, diamonds are often utilised for the most opulent pieces. Royalty and the aristocracy were the only set of society which could afford diamonds, compounded with the prices of gold and the artist who made the jewel, yet in the 18th century the use of diamonds in mourning jewels was much higher than had previously been seen.
In all, the shoulders of this ring show the same motifs of flowers and this brings into mind the holistic dedication to its design. A lot of love was put into its elements and a lot of history was put into its production. There’s not one simple explanation that can define a jewel, it has a personality of itself, before the craftsperson who created it even cast it.