The combination of palette-worked hair and sentimental symbolism is one that owes itself to the 18th century. While the use of a base of hairwork under a bezel and a gold wire cypher on top was typical of the 17th century, the 18th century and the introduction of the post 1765 Neoclassical movement often reversed this process, to have the symbolism as the primary canvas, with the hairwork on top.
By the early 19th century, this still carried through. While the Gothic Revival movement had started to take hold from c.1810, this wasn’t a sudden art movement that took over holistically through trans-continental societies. Society, be it English, French or American, had their own developing and independent identities, which would become closer aligned through mass transit and production, taken on from the Industrial Revolution, but the values which defined the culture still were the prevalent factors of their identity. Having a movement, such as the Gothic Revival take a culture back to 15th (and previous) century values, may have been intrinsic to one society whose king was seen as excessive, but to other cultures that had fought for independence, the meaning was more aligned to the aesthetic values of the Gothic Revival movement.
> Gothic Revival in Culture and Jewellery: Part 1, c.1740-c.1850
> Gothic Revival in Culture and Jewellery: Part 2, c.1850-c.1900
> Gothic Revival in Culture and Jewellery: Part 3, Breaking Perceptions
This is why a brooch such as this is an imprint one for its sentimental and symbolic meaning. Its pre-mid 19th century construction has all the signs of the 18th century development of style. The writing around the buckle motif, stating ‘KEEP THIS AS A SMALL TOKEN OF LOVE’ denotes the styles of the latter 18th century, but with the lesser grand statements of the 19th century. Love tokens were instilled in society as being tokens of affection which could be given in an interpersonal relationship from a standpoint that didn’t require the proprietaries of marriage. This is not to state that this brooch doesn’t have those values, but it is a ‘small token of love’ that doesn’t have the grandeur of a jewel which was given for marriage itself.
From this, we have to look at concurrent styles in jewels and the use of writing itself during this period. The French led the way in written tokens of affection during the early 19th century. While the style was one of 18th century development, such as the following pieces:
And the following, which also show the knot motif and the writing:
Here, we have the use of symbolism and writing in unison, which go beyond the allegorical depictions of the 18th century, which would have shown the scenario as the main sentiment, rather than the text. Note how this piece relegates “L’AMITIE” to the north of the piece, rather than having the symbols flank the sentiment itself:
With the shape, we see the use of the oval, turning into the rectangle style. This is a clear link to the style of the time, which was moving from the larger oval/round shapes into the smaller, rectangular shapes of the early 19th century.
But what can we see from the motifs themselves? We can see the acorn motif in seed pearls at the very centre of the knot motif of the hair. The combination of these show victory and eternity. The sentiment inside the buckle/belt motif only enhances its message, as the love is never ending.
As an object of use, the belt dates to the prehistoric, basically as necessity dictates the use of a way to either hold up any clothing below the waist or fasten objects to the waistline for ease of access. This could be as practical as holding up a pair of pants or as precious as holding a ceremonial/ ecclesiastical object for decoration. The device is a perfect marriage of form and function. And to accompany this, as long as humans have been mining metals, at least recorded to the Iron Age, the buckle has accompanied the belt to hold fast to the waist.
From a high level perspective, the belt and buckle split the body in two, creating a clear delineation through the waist from the northern and southern halves of the body, but also holding the body together through this middle separation through its interconnecting and tight nature. As we move on, you’ll see how this relates to its context with other symbols.
Essentially, the buckle/belt motif relates back to this unbreakable strength of upholding loyalty and in turn, memory forever. Its eternal loop is combined by its strength with which it holds up the virtue that it contains. When related back to the family as a unit, a loved one who is lost would ordinarily break down the family and cause untold grief and sadness, however, the presentation of this symbol from a loved one as representation of the person who has passed on only intensifies the eternal strength and love for the person, as well as the strength of the family to stay together. This symbol also relates to love tokens, for this eternal loving strength can obviously be applied to the living; it is a symbol that is all encompassing. So, while many rings and bracelets took on the shape of the buckle in the 19th century, they don’t necessarily denote mourning or death.
There is where we have to look at the symbol when it is combined with other symbols to discover its nature in relation to the piece. Look at this particular piece with the upside-down torch. Note how the buckle is not only a decorative border, but it is in fact wrapping itself around the life cut short and strengthening this with an eternal loop that forever holds tight. This is important, as the love and gravity of the symbol are enhanced by the buckle.
When the buckle is worn as a complete motif, as it becomes the ring in this case, think of how it is worn. This buckle is tight around the finger, the sentiment of love becomes part of the body, in effect, creating that bond of eternal love around the very person. The person becomes the symbol.
Late 19th century rings are wonderful showcases for the depiction of the buckle – be it mourning or sentimental token.
Different constructions involving hinged buckles that open to reveal hair or enclosed hair with letters of a person’s name or dedication sentiment would be placed in panels over the hair itself, all creating the belt/buckle motif.
It should be noted that you can find the belt/buckle motif on rings as secondary symbols in enamel, not just making the band itself. As it was a multi-purpose symbol, you can also find them in silver and other materials quite commonly from the latter 19th century into the 20th. For many sentimental jewels, the garter as a symbol does infringe upon the buckle symbol from time to time, in those particular cases, it becomes a symbol of chastity and virtue.
Moving back into the idea of the belt/buckle in context with other symbols, this particular piece shows the buckle with the ‘In Memory Of’ sentiment. This once again reflects the eternal strength of memory and in this case, the dedication itself becomes the symbol, which has become enhanced by the belt/buckle. This is quite common from the mid 19th century on, the rise of the belt/buckle had become part of the cultural lexicon.
Found as a charm on fob chains and bracelets, the acorn is often seen an ancillary motif in jewellery, balancing other symbols or complimenting a mourning sentiment, but more rarely being the prominent, singular motif used for a piece.
Knots in jewellery and their particular focus as a symbol of eternity and love rare ancient concepts that span both the East and West. We’re blessed with how prolific they are in mourning and sentimental items for the very nature of their symbolism, but their appearance in different permutations in cultures is ubiquitous and strangely correlating with concurrent meanings.
Why would this be so? Well, let’s take a look at the knot itself. The symbol itself is woven in on itself, enough to consider that two individuals are tying together to establish an interwoven union where two become one in the symbol. Next, there is the understanding of the knot becoming tighter as the two ends become further apart. Once again, distance only makes two people closer through its very nature. The knot also loops around on itself and travels in an eternal twist, for the love between the couple is forever undying. Put all these together and you have a rather special and beautiful symbol, one that encompasses much of the basis of what sentimental jewels are created for.
There are quite a few variations on the knot, one of the more popular being the Celtic knot, which is dated to around 450 CE, which is often referred to as the ‘mystic knot’ or the ‘endless knot’. In this, there is the allusion to birth and rebirth. The expression ‘tying the knot’ is thought to be where the couple had their hands bound in an endless knot as part of the wedding ritual, however, there are several other explanations for this related to the wedding ceremony itself. One of the more enticing explanations from E., M. A. Radford’s The Encyclopedia of Superstitions is that:
“In the seventeenth century, one or two of the bride-favours were always blue. These were knots of coloured ribbons loosely stitched on to the wedding gown, which were plucked off by the guests at the wedding feast, and worn as luck-bringers in the young men’s hats.”
However, we’re here for jewellery, so where can you find the knot and what would you expect?
For Neoclassical pieces, you can’t go much further than the depiction above that explicitly uses the knot as a primary symbol and sentiment. Look for the knot to appear in many Neoclassical mourning and sentimental depictions, either as an overt statement or relegated to a symbol being held by a central figure or as a flourish depicted in the art. Often, this can be as subtle as a knot painted onto a plinth or tomb.
In hairwork, the knot is quite often displayed with the hairwork of a couple being interwoven and the symbol itself is implied without appearing as the primary focus of the symbolism itself. This is quite common from around the 1780s to the late 19th century in bracelet clasps, brooches, rings and other forms of peripheral jewellery that would house a hair memento.
Then there is the knot as a primary focus, which is very typical in rings and necklaces. The knot is most often seen with the Celtic influences, but many second-half 19th century rings retained a knot motif, often seen as a twist, in various styles and materials. Knots in necklaces were also popular from the 1860s onwards, with the necklace itself twisting into a knot around the chest. Chains were also tied into the concept of the knot, used in bracelets, necklaces, links in fob chains and other items as well.
The early 19th century was a remarkable time of human independence and the interpersonal nature of relationships being represented in fashion and design. These messages crossed continents through transit and the war movement, which required many people being drafted for service. The volatile nature of politics during this time only sharpened the meaning of sentimental tokens, as loved ones going away insisted on jewels being given to a loved one for remembrance.