Evolution of the Jewelry Industry in America: Federal Era

Welcome back for part 2 on my series about the jewelry industry in America. We will look at the 4 periods leading up to the 20th century to give us a better idea of what to look for in trends that are happening now that will affect the jewelry industry. If you missed the first part here is a link to see how I plan on laying out the post and what other eras we will look at.

America: home of the free

The colonists are tired of taxes and English rule. Fighting for and winning independence started a trend of patriotism with Americans living in the Federal Era of 1775-1825. Taxes on imports lowered and a new wave of ideas swept over the citizens. Influenced by great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, there was a trend for Neo-classical taste. Everything from art to fashion reflected these tastes. A classic example of the trend in jewelry was a coral tiara worn by Mrs. John Quincy Adams. This painting is dated around 1816. Mrs. Adams wore this while living in London with her husband who was serving as United States Envoy Extraordinary (Minister to the Court of St. James). Photo courtesy of Dept. of State, Washington, DC.

Federal-Era-Jewelry-Industry-Mrs-John-Quincy-Adams

Wearing the coral tiara above, below is a close-up of her coral tiara and an alternate jet tiara. Photo courteous of the Smithsonian Institute.

Federal-Era-Jewelry-Industry-Mrs-John-Quincy-Adams-Coral-Jet-tiara-comb

What was happening in this period?

  • America free from British rule
  • Wars (ex: War of 1812)
  • Reduced taxes on foreign goods
  • No organized currency
  • Innovation in manufacturing

How did these events affect jewelry trends?

  • Manufacturing in America leads to more local choices vs acquiring abroad
  • Lots of color in gems, diamonds still not super popular; topaz, amethyst and aquamarine top choices
  • Neo-classic tastes preferred, Rome trending in England and carried over to US
  • Jewelry created for state occasions, and diplomatic gifts
  • Watches easier to acquire

With a new government came new jewelry. Medals were created with a patriotic theme to be given as gifts to allies or for those in societies that had served the country. This feeling of newness inspired jewelry and clothes to model the Greek and roman era.  Innovations in manufacturing the jewelry industry reaped the benefits of mass production. Cameos were one of several items that with mass production created a way for more people to afford the luxuries that were only afforded to the wealthy and titled.

There was a trend still for mourning jewelry. Below is a brooch I saw at the Historic New England Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts.

Federal-Era-Jewelry-Industry-Mourning-brooch-1793

This brooch was made in 1793. The person being remembered is Mehitable Livermore who passed away at age 29.  Her initials are given (M.L. on the urn) with the inscription on the stone, Not lost but gone before. A beautiful sentiment for a life not fully lived and a way to help those left behind find some comfort in their loss.

Not sure of what she died from but I did a little research and found she was married with five children at the time of her death at age 28. She lived in New Hampshire her whole life. The brooch is made of enamel, gold, ivory and hair. Hair jewelry was still popular as well.

What gemstones & materials were popular in jewelry at the time?

  • Pearls
  • Topaz, amethyst, aquamarine
  • Diamonds and paste
  • Amber, coral, carnelian (used in roman jewels)
  • Jet and shell
  • New materials (Wedgewood-imitation cameos, steel, iron, brass)
  • Gold and silver

You saw the coral and jet tiara of Mrs. Adams above but another warm colored stone was carnelian. I saw this picture at the Eustis Estate.

Federal-Era-Jewelry-Industry-Mrs-Harrison-Otis-portrait-1804

This is Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, painted in 1804 by Edward Greene Malbone in Boston. This Massachusetts native was said to be quite beautiful and a wonderful host.  The necklace of pearls and a carnelian cross is the perfect example of the on-trend jewelry at the time. The exhibit had the cross strung with carnelian beads due to the previous owner’s preference but this cross seen below is the one in the portrait.

Federal-Era-Jewelry-Industry-Mrs-Harrison-Otis-carnelian-cross-1804

What was the role of the jeweler and jewelry store at the time?

  • Specialization occurs especially with manufacturing
  • Failure more common in jewelry industry
  • Few people buying due to wars and limited resources
  • Less taxes on foreign, non-British goods means more variety beginning of the modern jewelry store
  • More jewelers as Goldsmiths get more experience and start advertising as jewelers
  • With increase in specialization, jewelers can provide to other stores and clients outside their local community

For the jewelry industry, there is this energy of new ideas, new opportunities and an easier path to enter the jewelry business. The business outlook was good with more goldsmiths calling themselves jewelers and specializing in their trade making jewelry of their own. There was still demand for jewelry from England but now other countries could be imported and stores were soon filled with a variety of jewels. Then in the beginning of the 19th century the cracks in the government’s system widened creating problems for the jewelry industry.

Had the country been a bit more stable the opportunity to start a business may have had higher barriers, that could have saved many new to the jewelry industry the pain of failure. Several things were working against the jewelry industry in America at the time. Looking back at the what was happening at the time, no organized currency was detrimental to any business, not just jewelry. The Second United States Bank was not an institution until 1817 and still needed work that had them reorganize the system in 1819. Loans were liberally offered but many trying to make it in the jewelry industry failed near 1812 when the war broke out and supplies and customers were hard to come by.

What saved those few businesses that survived? Being very organized with their money and merchandise. Even though the taxes were changed by the new government there were still taxes on foreign goods. The government was trying to encourage more jewelers to produce their own goods, for jewelers relying on imports for their sales this created too much cost and crippled their profits, that was if the store could receive these goods with the blockades that occurred with the war. The bright side was the failed business gave way to the more established ones and the industry was on its way to creating some of the most iconic stores we know today. Next in the series is the Mid-19th century; what it was like, how it affected the trends and where it was taking the jewelry industry. Looking forward to you returning soon for more Data in the Rough!

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