Evolution of the Jewelry Industry in America-Mid-19th Century

On to part 3 of this series, looking at the next 50 years of American history, we are now into the Jewelry Industry in the Mid-19th Century. There are a lot of changes going on and I’d like to highlight a few with two stories. Then look at some of the changes that occurred in the jewelry industry due to what was happening in the world.

Story #1: Farewell to two patriots

It is July 4, 1826 and the country is celebrating 50 years of freedom. John Adams, 90, a major player in the founding of the country and the second president to serve the country is on his deathbed. He served 1 term as president, he was into a more government approach to governing. Thomas Jefferson, a state’s rights advocated disagreed with President Adams policies and debated him fiercely on what he believed to be the better way to run the country. Jefferson was so passionate about the direction of the country that he ran for office in the next election, defeating Adams. Jefferson served 2 terms. This created a bitter rivalry that ended a few years after Jefferson left office. Adams took the initiative and reached out to renew their friendship.

As Adams time grew shorter he must have been thinking about his friendship with Jefferson and the role they played in the country because John Adams last words were, ‘Thomas Jefferson still survives’. Unfortunately, he was wrong 5 hours earlier at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, Jefferson, 82, passed away. The end to an amazing chapter in American history.

Story #2: The Lady makes an entrance

Imagine an evening in July around 1841 at Boston, a ball is being held at Faneuil Hall. This is a very important ball as it is in honor of a prince. The trend for ladies was to adorn themselves with flowers as an accessory. One woman enters the ball dressed in a black velvet gown and adorned with only diamonds. This entrance made quite an impression on the press who reported about it many of the local reports. They recounted the event but added in her description that she was an unmarried woman.

What was happening in this period?

  • Deaths of Jefferson and Adams 7/4/1826
  • Increased productivity in manufacturing
  • 1828-tariff on imported manufactured goods encourages American jewelers to import unmounted stones and design/set themselves
  • Queen Victoria takes throne 1837
  • Discovery of gold and silver (1859 more silver discovered in Nevada)
  • Death of Prince Albert 1861
  • American Civil War
  • Discovery in 1869 of diamond mines in S. Africa increase diamond supply, better diamond cutting methods

I think the best way to look at this period is to break it down into 2-time periods. The first 1825-1850, the death of Adams and Jefferson mark a change in the country as the old fades away and the new takes over. New fashions, new manufacturing facilities, more technology a few of the many changes driving the US economy. Some things don’t change as America still follows the British trends. Queen Victoria has taken the throne as a young woman, starting the trend of wearing flowers more fashion forward. Flowers like the ones at the beginning of my post were commonly worn at weddings, just as Victoria had done when she wed Prince Albert of Germany.

Then there is the second half, 1850-1875, the debate on government versus states’ rights is becoming more of a hot topic as well as the idea of slavery. The end of this period is marked by war and death. The civil war lasting about 4 years took a major toll on the country and trade. Prince Albert’s death also put the Queen in mourning so the outfits and accessories were very somber for this time.

How did these events affect jewelry trends?

  • Neo-classic designs more Greek focused
  • Floral jewels-romanticism
  • Mourning jewelry
  • Patents for better closures/sliders for necklaces
  • Enameling becomes popular
  • Increased demand in diamonds
  • New finishes for metal

As mentioned above mourning jewelry is still popular but with all the death there is some signs of being a bit more novel than just wearing the typical crosses or miniatures like I showed in the Federal Era post. Below is a picture of a mourning necklace made of French jet in the shape of stars. This was made around 1865-1875. French jet is a glass made so fine that it looks like genuine jet. Photos taken by me at Historic New England Eustis Estate, unless noted differently.

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

  • Diamonds
  • Colored Gems-opals, garnets, amethysts, turquoise
  • Hair
  • Pearls
  • Tortoiseshell jewelry
  • Cameos in glass and ceramics
  • Lava
  • Coral
  • Mosaic
  • Quartz
  • Scottish Pebble
  • Jet
  • Berlin Iron Jewelry
  • Ivory
  • Oriental
  • Swiss enameled jewelry
  • Irish Bogwood
  • Gold and silver discovery of gold in Black hills
  • Malachite and Lapis

This is a long list and what the real message here is that it was a much more prosperous time. Not all these styles and materials were found/ made in the US. At this time, more traveling was going on. Below are some mosaic buttons bought between 1855-1865 in Rome.

A closer look at these luxuries! Could you imagine your coat having that much detail?

Another item bought in Rome between 1840-1860.

This shell cameo was carved by the artist Constantin R. Franz, depicting the goddess Venus. At the exhibit where I took these photos mentioned in the details was the idea of how this piece could be used. Wearing the goddess of beauty was to send a subtle message to those around of the wearer’s powers of attraction.

More examples of jewelry at the time:

Carved Ivory bracelet made between 1840-1860 carved in Germany

Side view of bracelet

Bog Oak brooch, 1850-1880, Ireland

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

  • Portrait jewelry better with invention of camera
  • Jewelry stores become more established, Tiffany, Black Starr & Frost
  • Patents for better methods of delivering jewelry to masses: pearls, electroplating, manmade materials, closures
  • Increase in diamond demand
  • South & West jewelry industry starts to grow

Business is now picking up, even with the troubles that the Civil War would bring at the end of this period, jewelry was clearly an item on people’s list. To try and stand out from others in the industry, jewelry stores are now trying to build their brand. For Boston, a good example is the jewelry store Jones, Ball & Poor built in 1849. This was no ordinary store the architect was very talented and his design was to rival all existing jewelry stores at the time. The store had a wholesale and retail department. You entered from a different door depending on your interest, the ladies could enter from one door and not be disturbed by the wholesale business men.

Let’s imagine entering this store on the retail side.  There were offices for bookkeepers and partners in a separate area and a workshop for engraving, repairing and setting stones downstairs. The store also had a bathing room to help in the health and appearance of the clerks. A safe is in the store and one is located downstairs. The downstairs safe was for clients who were going out of town and wanted a place to store their jewels and other valuables like silverware. As you walk in the store you see the ceilings and walls are painted with the interior in an Elizabethan style. You pass by cases and counters decorated in gold and white filled with jewelry that looked like it was a tale from Arabian Nights. You go up to the second floor to see a huge clock in the corner that has a golden American eagle winds out, in a pose that looks like it is guarding the clock. The store was also known for its watches and clocks. Can you imagine the treasures you’d find? Below are a few that I saw from that era and some from Skinner Auction House.

I wouldn’t forget the jewelry a brooch I saw in the Historic New England exhibit. A brooch from 1870.

 

The store has been renamed and has moved around Boston a few times. The current name is Shreve, Crump and Low.

So even though business is growing there are also divisions in the jewelry industry, specifically between jewelers and manufacturing jewelers.

I created a line graph from the Boston Almanac listings of the Jewelry and Jewelry Manufacturers. If you’d like to see the listings the link to the eBooks is here. Some were poorly copied so those were not counted. Also to note, some businesses have a listing in several spots. For example, there were some that were listed as both a Jewelry Manufacturer and in the Jewelry, Watches and Plate business. I included the double counting for this chart to illustrate my point. Some directories had a Watches category but I did not include them as I want to focus on jewelry.

Notice from 1842 until 1860 there are 3 categories Jewelry, Jewelry Manufacturing and Jewelry, Watches and Plate. Then we see that from 1865 on the category has dissolved into Jewelry, Watches and Plate.  I suspect that many of these businesses were wanting to branch out and expand their offerings.  At the start of 1842 the categories are all around the same amount but Jewelry, Watches, and Plate businesses really start to grow in numbers around 1867 and double in size to almost 120 listings in 1872. The growth in the Jewelry Manufacturing is nothing compared to this. So why the sudden change from lots of manufacturing to this new wave of jewelry businesses? Like many industries in America at the time there was one that focused on the craft not the machine. For the next installment and final post of this series we will look at the Arts & Crafts movement.

Opals: A Time When They Were Cursed

It’s October! A time for Fall Festivals, Daylight Savings Time, and October Birthdays! Oh and of course Halloween! Being in the New England area you cannot escape this holiday, not that I want to. Part of the fun of Halloween is the spooky stories. So I thought for this post I would look at the time opals were considered bad luck.  Opals are referenced in many cultures, aborigines believed opals were the ‘creator’s footprint that touched the earth at the base of a rainbow to bring harmony.’ Which is similar to an Arabic legend stating opals fall ‘from the heavens in flashes of lightning.’ Whatever way you describe them the flashes of color are undeniably breathtaking. It’s hard to think anyone could see these stones as bad luck.

dragon-opal

The bad luck started in 1829 after a popular novel written by Walter Scott, Anne of Geuerstein, made this reference to opals. The plot entailed, ‘Lady Hermione, who is falsely accused of being a demoness, and dies shortly after a drop of holy water accidentally falls on her opal and destroys its color.’ I see this as fiction and not to be interpreted literally but the public at the time viewed this story differently. The way the public interpreted the text, ‘to mean that this genius author was warning of the bad luck an opal can bring, so they stopped buying the beautiful gemstone.’ You read that correctly, the public stopped buying opals and the opal market plummeted 50% within a few months of the novel’s publication. The market stayed down almost 50 years.

What brought opals back in fashion? A celebrity endorsement, by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Prince Albert was fond of opals and had jewelry for his Queen made with several.

the_secret_of_englands_greatness
Painting of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Queen is wearing an opal tiara in this picture

One notable one was the Oriental Circlet a tiara made in 1853 by Garrard and designed by Albert. The Queen’s daughter-in-law had many of the opal jewelry switched out with rubies but I have photo shopped some opals in to recreate this tiara to its former beauty.

albert-opal-tiara

The tiara as it is now with rubies. From my research it seems Alexandra was a bit of a believer in the opal superstitions, or didn’t want to take any chances.

albert-ruby-tiara

Which do you like better the rubies or the opals?

Prince Albert’s love of opals was not enough to shake the curse, Queen Victoria who openly thought this superstition nonsense bought opal jewelry for her daughters as wedding gifts. This was a major sign of approval. Buying a wedding gift must be thoughtfully picked and there are plenty of superstitions associated with being married. This gesture made it clear if it was good enough for the Queen and her family then there was reason anyone else could give to counter that. This seemed to put opals back in fashion and have remained sought after gems ever since. Below is a pair of gemstone earrings owned by Queen Victoria that have some white opals included.

victoria_opal_earrings

Do you have any jewelry that you felt held a strange power or had occurrences that you couldn’t explain? Had you heard the superstition that opals were bad luck? Do you own any opals? I have seen plenty at the auctions and they aren’t cursed enough for them not to get a decent bid! Below are a few I’ve enjoyed viewing. Hope you enjoyed the article and come back for more treats from Data in the Rough!

opals-at-auction