In most countries, paintings are about the only source of information we have about jewelry worn many hundreds of years ago. In England, an enormous hoard of jewelry was dug up from under a basement in 1912. The jewelry dates to the Tudor era – 400 years ago and tells us a lot about jewelry from that time.
In the 1600’s, the Goldsmith’s Company dictated the rules and regulations of the jewelry industry with rights to police and punish errant members of the trade. Jewelers were supposed to work in a particular area called Cheapside. Gold had to conform to a specific level of purity – 22k. In practice, many jewelers moved away from the orbit of the Goldsmith’s eagle eye, fraudulently making wares of a lower standard and finding richer markets. Some were caught and fined or even jailed, but there remained a huge amount of dishonest shenanigans afoot in the jewelry industry of those times.
The English jewelry industry was benefitted by the immigration of European jewelers and gemstone cutters from Europe, many fleeing religious persecution in the Netherlands and France. Infusing greater technical skills and imagination into the local industry, they often kept a little outside the law of the Goldsmith’s Company.
While English jewelry at the time was very solid and beautifully made, it was the appearance of two Italians, during the 2nd half of the 19th century that really rocketed English jewelry to the forefront of world fashions. Castellani was largely responsible for the Classic Revival – a harkening back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Giuliano looked back to the Renaissance. These Neo Revival movements took the world by storm.
One of England’s native jewelry manufacturers was the first woman to become famous as a jeweler in her own right. Mrs. Charlotte Newman began working for John Brogden, but after he died in the 1860’s she went out on her own. To the end, she signed her work Mrs. N – subservient to her husband’s name despite her own glittering accomplishments.
While not exclusively English, cannetille work is largely associated with England during the 1820’s. This was the tail end of the Georgian era, when gold was in short supply and it was necessary to make a little go a long way. Cannetille work – spiraling filigree and granulation requires tremendous manual labor, time and effort. The result is very beautiful, but not repeatable in our age of machine cost cutting methods.
It was in Great Britain that the Arts and Crafts Movement really took off during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The original philosophy aimed to make wonderful, handcrafted jewels available to the masses. In fact, hand-crafted jewels by their nature and cost, became available only to the very rich. Copies and mass-produced or partially hand-made replicas of this style did succeed and today, we eagerly look for the work of the Birmingham manufacturers like Murrle Bennett & Co.
While the hallmarking laws in England were very strict regarding silver, they did not apply to items under a very small weight and for that reason, most jewelry made in the UK up to the beginning of the 20th century was not hallmarked.
We do have one clear identifying feature for some British jewelry. The gold standard commonly used for jewelry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was either 15ct or 9ct. These standards were only used in the UK, so when you find a piece marked as such, you know where it came from.
The term ‘understated elegance’ is one that comes to mind when we think about English jewelry. Jewelers who took pride in the highest standards of workmanship without being too flashy and blingy. English jewelry equates with ‘top quality’. This is jewelry that is timeless. It was worn hundreds of years ago and through the generations of women who enjoyed it to you. It will continue to be fashionable for hundreds of years to come.