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1730 - 1775

A New World of Simplicity and Sentiment: The Colonial Period.

Mrs. Nathaniel (Sally Sayward) Barrell wears a double strand pearl necklace with a blue silk sacque gown for her 1761 portrait by Joseph Blackburn.<br />
  • 1728 First American steel made in Hartford, Connecticut.
  • 1731 Benjamin Franklin founds, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first public library in North America.
  • 1738 First systematic excavations at Herculaneum, discovered in 1709.
  • 1748 First excavations at Pompeii.
  • 1754-1763 French and Indian War. Treaty of Paris gives England Canada and the French territories east of the Mississippi.
  • 1760 George III becomes King of England. Colonial population reaches 1.6 million.
  • 1762 Thomas Chippendale publishes The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director.
  • 1765 Britain establishes The Stamp Act, repealed one year later in response to Colonial boycotts.
  • 1770 Boston Massacre, March 5th.
  • 1773 Boston Tea Party. The British close the port of Boston in retaliation.
  • 1774 First Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia.


Double coffin mourning ring, English or American, 1766, gold, enamel, paste.<br />

In the eighteenth century, wealthy American colonists were well aware of the fashions set in France and England. Strong ties remained between the New World and the Old, but an ocean lay between sophisticated colonists and the newest designs. The rigors of life in the colonies also demanded moderation. A high mortality rate meant that colonists felt a strong pull to memorial symbols, and a tradition of social and religious conservatism led to sobriety in American costume. However, as the century progressed colonists began to indulge in a wider range of jewelry forms made of more expensive materials and elaborate designs.

The traditional practice of giving and receiving sentimental jewelry, notably memorial and love tokens, was embraced by the men and women of the American colonies. The custom of distributing gold mourning rings originated in Europe, where it first gained popularity after the execution of Charles I in England in 1649. Most American mourning rings of this period were a variation on the engraved gold band.

Symbols that now seem macabre to the modern eye, including coffins, skulls, and crossbones enameled with black or white, were frequently incorporated into mourning rings. These served as a constant reminder of the wearer’s mortality, while the circular band suggested eternity. Scrollwork designs influenced by Rococo motifs were also popular decoration for mourning rings, and were highlighted with enamel or colored stones. Bands were inscribed with personal information of the deceased, usually the name accompanied by the dates of birth and death.

Mourning or funeral rings were made to distribute at the funeral to friends and relatives; the quantity depended on the prominence of the individual. While wealthier colonists commissioned their rings from London jewelers, they were also produced by American goldsmiths. Early goldsmiths and jewelry makers utilized trade cards to establish their business and advertise the variety of their products. The high demand for memorial jewelry was the foundation of the American jewelry industry.

Heart brooch, probably England, 1770-1800, paste and silver.<br />

The heart was also a popular motif in sentimental jewelry in the eighteenth century. Heart pendants, thickly engraved with floral motifs, were used for mourning, while heart-in-hand rings demonstrated love and affection. In this design, two narrow bands, each embellished with a hand, slide together to form a ring where the hands are clasped. Often, a third hoop with a small heart was added between the two bands, which allowed the heart to nestle inside the two hands. The heart-in-hand ring descended from Roman betrothal and engagement rings, which featured a pair of clasped hands. Bands engraved with posy or mottos were also sentimental tokens of affection, love, or friendship. The wedding ring itself was frequently a simple gold band, inscribed with the couple’s names or initials.

Cipher cuff links, English or American, 1760-1800, gold, quartz.<br />

Colonial women also adorned themselves with a variety of simple, understated jewelry that was influenced by the prevailing European styles. Pearls were a staple in many forms, particularly in necklaces and drop earrings. Single or multiple-strand pearl necklaces, emphasized the deep necklines of the popular sacque gowns of the mid-18th century. Rather than a clasp or hook, the necklace was fastened by means of a silk ribbon that tied in a bow at the back of the neck. Women desired to be beautiful from the back as well as the front, and the full bow served to highlight the reverse of the gown, often embellished with a pleat or an elegant fall of patterned fabric. While popular, natural pearls were a rare luxury. Women who were painted wearing the gems often did not own them. Following the fashion illustrated in English prints, artists including John Singleton Copley provided strands of pearls and other popular jewels for their sitters. The overwhelming popularity of pearls also led to the development of the first simulated pearl beads of glass, called French pearls. 

Paste shoe buckles in original case, probably Birmingham, England, 1775-1790, silver, paste, steel.<br />

A similar elegant effect was also achieved by a ruff of lace, such as a vandyke collar, or a simple black silk ribbon tied around the neck. In the 1770s, women began to favor narrower ribbons which were used to suspend a drop. Memorial heart pendants or a small jeweled ornament could be worn in this manner. Ribbons were also tied around both wrists in the latter part of the century, frequently topped by a jeweled slide or memorial cipher. Diamonds, pastes, and colored stones such as amethysts or garnets were used for more formal jewelry, including brooches in the shape of hearts. These were pinned to the center of the bodice. The largest of this style, stomachers, were created in several interlocking segments which could be worn together or individually. In 1770, Martha Washington purchased a full parure of silver jewelry set with pastes, including necklace, stomacher, earrings, and aigrette. This type of jewelry, especially in full parures, was uncommon in the colonies, partly due to the infrequency of formal occasions.

Paste buckles in a variety of forms were worn by both men and women after 1750. Men of distinction also carried pocket-watches, and the fashion for dangling watch fobs began in America around 1740. When the watch was slipped into the pocket, a ribbon fob was left to hang outside the pocket with a carved seal or cluster of seals dangling. Detailed and ornamented coat buttons in gold were another popular luxury enjoyed by colonial gentlemen.


Colonial goldsmiths trained in the traditional European style. A young apprentice trained for several years in a master goldsmith’s workshop, typically located in a large room on the ground floor of the master’s house, a small adjacent building, or in rented rooms in a nearby building. Records indicate that Samuel Edward’s shop on Hanover Street in Boston followed the prevailing standards for a goldsmith’s workshop. His shop consisted of two large first floor rooms, each approximately sixteen feet wide by twenty feet long. One of the two rooms, likely with large windows to provide natural light, served as the workshop and the second space was the retail shop. A small outbuilding provided additional workspace and a warehouse was used for storage space. In addition to these large, bustling businesses, single artisans also toiled in small home workshops.

New Englanders supported many silver and goldsmith workshops, which produced a wide range of forms including small items of personal adornment like this silver stock buckle made by Daniel Rogers of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Stock buckles were worn by men in the 18th century to secure a style of neck scarf called a stock.

Once a goldsmith procured his premises, he stocked it with the necessary tools and equipment. His hand tools, the most important part of his workshop, were carefully purchased or were given to him during his apprenticeship. As a journeyman specialized, he added to his personal collection of tools. A traditional set of jeweler’s tools included files, punches, dapping blocks, scales, drills, and various engravers and burnishers. Saltpeter and borax were also essential, as well as a large stock of precious metals and stones. In addition to hand tools and chemicals, a master needed various anvils and a large wooden counter with individual workspaces. Each workspace was defined by a leather apron, called a jeweler’s skin, which was attached to the underside of the table. The apron was tied to the worker’s waist to catch any valuable silver or gold filings, which were carefully collected and later refined.

The furnishing and organization of a traditional jeweler’s workshop continued in a similar form throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With the introduction of mechanization in the jewelry industry, the goldsmith’s trade was revolutionized. While many large jewelry firms continued to house extensive workshops for commissions and unique jewels, the factories of Providence, Rhode Island, and Attleboro, Massachusetts, were capable of manufacturing hundreds of the same style. Mass-production allowed all women to afford beautiful, well-made jewelry for the first time.

1730 - 1775