Evolution of the Jewelry Industry in America: Colonial Era

A lot of talk has been made about the future of retail. I cannot walk down a street or look out a window on my commute without being reminded of the shift in consumer spending. Store closing and out of business signs seem to be popping up in Boston and online. Type in ‘store closing’ and see what that search brings you the words: panic, scramble and apocalypse were in the three stories at the top of my list. Much of the retail ‘apocalypse’ talk has been pointing to the apparel part of the industry. The question I ask seeing these stories is what does this mean for the jewelry industry?

To be able to better understand the future it helps to understand the past. A very overused saying but still insightful. For the rest of the month I want to focus on the jewelry industry in America. This will be a return to my book bling series by focusing on one book: Jewelry in America (1600-1900) by Martha Gandy Fales. It is divided into 4-time periods:

[1] Colonial (1600-1775)
[2] Federal (1775-1825)
[3] Mid-19th Century (1825-1875)
[4] Late 19th Century (1875-1900)

This book is more than just pictures of antique jewelry Ms. Fales looks at trends of the country and how the jewelers and jewelry stores evolved. That is how we will learn and be better prepared for the future by recognizing how trends in the country affect trends in the jewelry and the industry.

Confucius states it best, ‘Study the past if you would define the future’. Why use a quote by a Chinese scholar that lived long before the time America was founded? Because the beginning of this story starts in another country, long before America became a country of their own…

In the beginning
History tells of the Pilgrims that came over from England to worship without persecution, but traveling to a new world was typically for trade or war over resources. In 1608 John Smith was with a crew to look for new resources. Settling in what is now Virginia, Captain Smith thought practically about creating an environment for survival not treasure hunting. Reading Fales stories about Smith reminded me of the 1995 Disney movie Pocahontas. So much of that movie was inaccurate but some of the plot was following history, the villain and leader of the crew, Governor Ratcliffe, is in a mad fever to find lots of gold, but the men have no real experience with it, they are hunters and builders not goldsmiths. But that doesn’t stop Governor Ratcliffe from having the crew devote their time to digging.

Disney Pocahontas scene: Governor Ratcliffe has crew dig for gold

Well in real life goldsmiths were sent over with Smith’s crew due to the false hope of their being large amounts of gold found. In fact, the crew included two goldsmiths, two refiners and a jeweler, none of which could practice their craft in the new world. What happened when there are no materials and few customers? The jeweler returned home to England.

Realistically, the crew needed to hunt and settle the land (build shelter, etc) to survive. Like Smith was doing in the movie as he surveyed the land.

Disney Pocahontas scene: John Smith explores new world

Had to sneak of photo Disney’s John Smith in!

Once more colonists settle trade picked up but the role of the jeweler was much different than it is today.

What was happening in this period?
• People were settling in America
• English influence
• Low morality rate

I mention the top two points in my story above but to touch on the last point, with this new land came disease and poor conditions of living that lead to deaths at an early age than we have now. Death was a major part of colonial life a fact that the people embraced and accepted as best they could.

How did these events affect jewelry trends?
As people came to America and started a new life they bought some jewelry with them but the trend in this era was simple jewelry. Colonists did not have a major need for extravagant jewels when they are doing daily chores. Also, many of these colonists had religious influence that did not put a lot of value on jewelry.

With the English being the ones who lead the start of the colonies in America, England held a major influence over the jewelry brought into the country. Colonists had their jewels brought from England and imported jewelry for buying. Jewelry was also still primarily for nobility and the rich. In addition, the trend until the late 17th century was that men wore far more jewels than women. Signet rings, buckles, buttons, etc. all sparkled on men with a high status.

With a low morality rate, memorial jewelry was a major trend. Lockets, rings, cameos, anything to mark the remembrance for those that had passed.

What gemstones were popular at the time?

Cannot fit all the jewelry I’d like to in this post but a great example of garnet jewelry from the time with a famous owner. This necklace was owned by Martha Washington, America’s First, First Lady. Order from London (no surprise there) by her husband George in 1759. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Virginia.

What was the role of the jeweler and jewelry store at the time?
Neither really existed at the time. There were not dedicated jewelers or jewelry stores. Silversmiths/goldsmiths doubled as jewelers and sold some wares in their shops. Not much was made with limited materials, skills and customers. Those that could afford the good jewelry bought from England, the most trusted source of jewelry at the time. England also had higher taxes on imports from other countries so English jewelry was what was most commonly sold.

I personally loved reading about a famous American patriot, silversmith and budding jeweler. Paul Revere was a Bostonian that has several silver pieces in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston as well as a ring I got to see on a trip there last winter.

There were a lot of years in this period but not too much happening in the world of jewelry in America. Next, I will look at the Federal Era and America’s freedom from England and how that made great changes for the jeweler and the stores! Sign up for emails and return for more Data in the Rough!

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