When the popularity of black mourning jewelry exploded in the mid 1800s, jewelers used all kinds of materials (Whitby jet, French jet, vulcanite, enamel, etc) to create jewelry with the uniformly dark appearance that social custom dictated. During the first stages of mourning, any jewelry or adornment not only had to be dark in color, but also matte. Enter gutta percha, a cousin of rubber made from the resin extracted from tropical trees with all the right optical properties: dark color, low luster. These deep brownish-black earrings are made of molded gutta percha with engraved 18k gold fittings. Despite the popularity of gutta percha jewelry in the mid 19th century, pieces made from this material are somewhat rare owing to the fact that it was heavily used to make underwater telegraph cables and the supply was exhausted in the late Victorian period.
VICTORIAN (1837 - 1901)
The Western world was thoroughly transformed during Queen Victoria’s epically long reign. New technology, urbanization, and industrialization created a middle class flush with disposable income, and for the first time, jewelry was mass-produced to sell to everyone.
The Victorians were avid consumers and novelty-seekers, especially when it came to fashion, and numerous fads came and went throughout the 19th century. In jewelry, whatever fashion choices Queen V. made reverberated throughout the kingdom. The Romantic period reflected the queen’s legendary love for her husband, Albert. Jewelry from this period featured joyful designs like flowers, hearts, and birds, all which often had symbolic meaning. The queen’s betrothal ring was made in the shape of a snake, which stood for love, fidelity, and eternity. The exuberant tone shifted after Prince Albert passed away in 1861, marking the beginning of the Grand Period. Black jewelry became de rigeur as the Queen and her subjects entered “mourning,” which at the time represented not just an emotional state, as we conceive of it today, but a specific manner of conduct and dress. She wore the color black for the remainder of her life, and we see lots of black onyx, enamel, jet, and gutta percha in the jewelry from this time. Finally, during the late Victorian period, which transitioned along with a rapidly changing world into the “Aesthetic Movemement”, there was a return to organic and whimsical motifs: serpents, crescent moons, animals, and Japonaisserie designed for the more liberated “Gibson Girl”.
During the second half of the 19th century, America entered the global jewelry market, with Tiffany and Co. leading the way. Lapidaries continued to perfect their techniques, and the old European cut emerged toward the end of the Victorian period. The discovery of rich diamond mines in South Africa made the colorless stones more accessible than ever before.