Unboxing the past: Stuart Period Jewellery

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November

Gunpowder treason and plot

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot

The words we all know that mark that time of the year that celebrates Bonfire night, and we thought it apt to share some of the history behind such an occasion. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was the failed assassination attempt of King James I by a group of provincial English Catholics who aimed to blow up the House of Lords during the State opening of Parliament. This was at a time when Royal attitude towards Catholicism was more tolerant than it had been under Elizabeth I yet there was not peace between Catholics and Protestants. Once the King and his Parliament were dead, the plotters intended to install Princess Elizabeth Stuart on the English throne as a titular Catholic Queen.

The Stuart era of British History lasted for 111 years from 1603-1714 during the dynasty of the House of Stuart. This period ended with the death of Queen Anna and the ascension of King George I. This time in history was plagued with internal and religious upheaval leading to large-scale civil war and the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Population growth was at an all-time high and vast trade made Britain one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

England was ruled at the national level by royalty and nobility, and at the local level by the lesser nobility and the gentry. Together they comprised about 2% of the families, owned most of the good farmland, and controlled local government affairs. The aristocracy was growing steadily in numbers, wealth, and power. Jewellery was hugely important in this period, both as a means to display the aforementioned wealth but also as an investment.  Expert craftsmanship with motifs created from the work of ancient artisans became highly coveted.

It was also during this period that King James VI made the suppression of witchcraft a high priority in England and Scotland. This grew rise to the creation of amulets and talismans designed to protect from the corrupting influence of magic. Symbolism and superstitions impacted the choice of jewellery; certain rings were worn for their healing powers or magical protection properties whereas others were chosen to express ideals of friendship or love.

Stuart-era jewellery took the form of heavy gold chains for men and delicate filigree for women, multiple strand bracelets and pendants, which could be commonly worn to fasten a cloak. Earrings became popular in this era with men who would wear a single earring in their left ear.

Metals such as gold, silver and copper were found in abundance in Stuart-era jewellery with rough cut diamonds and emeralds present in jewellery construction. However, the cut of such jewels were far cry from the techniques used today since more advanced methods of cutting had yet to be discovered. Sapphires, rubies and topaz was also used in combination with corals, amber and turquoise. The lower classes had to content themselves with wooden beads, coloured glass and bone to beautify themselves as luxurious stones and fabrics were outlawed to the rest of the population.

Few examples of Stuart-era jewellery remain to this day, but the style has influenced the creation of replicas. In 1912, however, a hoard of 230 pieces dating from the early 1600s was located by workmen in the Cheapside area of London. The hoard demonstrated the international trade in luxury goods in the period and included gemstones from south America, Asia, and Europe. These recovered treasures can now be found on exhibit at the Museum of London with some items held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is said that the collection bears striking similarity to contemporary jewellery styles.

We hope this guide has provided a further insight to those looking at antique jewellery of Stuart-era Britain. Have a look through our previous blog posts for some more historical inspiration, and from all of us here at Susannah Lovis, stay safe, wrap up warm and enjoy the fireworks!

Comments are closed here.