Stray Jewels with Susan Rumfitt: Gold Rush
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Last updated Sep 10, 2021

Stray Jewels is a monthly column written by BBC Antiques Roadshow jewellery specialist, Susan Rumfitt. Susan started her career working for Christie’s auctioneers in Glasgow before establishing her own jewellery department, The Gallery in Harrogate. In 2006, she joined the Antiques Roadshow and has since built up an extensive knowledge of and passion for fine jewellery. This month, Susan explores the importance of gold jewellery. 

As we celebrate all the gold medals achieved by our talented sports men and women at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the importance of gold jewellery in the 19th century.

We are used to both white and yellow gold being used in jewellery today, but for the majority of the 19th century it was yellow gold that was popular in jewellery manufacture. Although you will find hallmarks on Victorian jewellery, many pieces are not hallmarked from this period, as the British hallmarking act didn’t come into law until 1973. During the Victorian period 18 carat gold was used for the finest pieces of gold, but by 1854, 9, 12 and 15 carat gold were introduced, making jewellery more accessible and affordable.

An early 19th century Cannetille work and Amethyst Pendant

Very early in the 19th century gold had often just been used as a backing for precious gemstones and to add strength to a setting. By the second decade we see the introduction of cannetille work. This decoration was made up of tiny gold granules and very fine curled wires, inspired by ancient Greece. For many this style was too intricate and easily damaged so by the 1840’s we see the introduction of more solid jewellery that is decorated with repousse work – designs were raised in relief by hammering the gold from the back of the piece, often further embellished with textured detail.

Further embellishment of gold pieces was introduced during the reign of Queen Victoria. To reflect an early period of peace and prosperity in her reign, jewellery became an important way of showing off wealth. As both Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were keen on fashion and jewellery, the industry boomed and designers were free to express their artistic talent.

Early 19th century fine gold and gem set necklace, circa 1840 (left); Victorian gold snake and heart brooch, circa 1880 (right)

By the 1850’s there was a huge interest in revival styles. One designer that was particularly important was the Italian Fortunato Pio Castellani. He brought the old Greek process of granulation back into fashion again and reproduced ancient pieces of jewellery. As a result gold jewellery in the Etruscan style was in abundance.

Victorian Gold, Peridot and Garnet Bracelet, circa 1880

Women’s roles and attitudes developed throughout the Victorian period and we see their position in society become more important by the 1860’s. This was reflected in very bold gold jewellery. Lockets, earrings and brooches took on a very large and angular look, reflecting power. Bangles often came in pairs – one worn on each wrist and other bracelets piled on the arm. Victorian magazine, The World of Fashion, stated that ‘Bracelets are now considered indispensable’ and went onto describe that it was fashionable to wear at least five bracelets all at once including ‘a bracelet of gold network fastened with a simple narrow ribbon’.

Today, Victorian jewellery is often seen as over the top in design and too fussy. As a result, with the ever fluctuating price of gold, it is often tempting for people to ‘scrap’ their Victorian jewellery, particularly when the gold price is high. However, the demand for good quality, unusual Victorian jewellery is high amongst collectors. So, if you are thinking of selling, make sure you have a jewellery specialist value your jewellery for its true worth… and not just its weight in gold!


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