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1775 - 1820

Classical Style for a New Nation: the Federal Period.

This cornelian cross pendant with topaz and pearls is worn by Mrs. Harrison Gray (Sally Foster) Otis in her miniature portrait by Edward Greene Malbone, 1804. The cornelian necklace shown here may have been worn interchangeably with the pearl necklace depicted in the portrait.
  • 1775 Battle of Concord and Lexington, April 19.
  • 1775-1783 American Revolution.
  • 1776 Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
  • 1776 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
  • 1781 Cornwallis surrenders to Washington and the allies at Yorktown, Virginia.
  • 1785 Edmund Cartwright invents the power loom.
  • 1787 United States Constitution framed, sent to Congress and states for ratification.
  • 1789 French Revolution begins- Bastille falls on July 14.
  • 1789 George Washington elected first president of the United States.
  • 1790 First national census finds 3,929,214 persons eligible to be counted.
  • 1791 Bill of Rights ratified.
  • 1793 Cotton gin invented by Eli Whitney.
  • 1796-1800 Napoleon’s First and Second Italian, and Egyptian Campaigns.
  • 1803 United States buys the Louisiana Territory from France. Lewis & Clark begin their exploration.
  • 1812-1814 War of 1812.
  • 1815 Napoleon is defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.
  • 1817 Work begins on Erie Canal, completed in 1825.
Earrings, probably Europe, c. 1815, gold, topaz, and seed pearls.

The new nation called for a different type of symbolism. From public spaces to furniture to jewelry, the citizens of the newly formed Republic adorned themselves and their surroundings with classical imagery inspired by the ancient world, including urns, swags, and sheaves of wheat. The American bald eagle, selected in 1782 as the symbol of the Great Seal of the United States, and the stars and stripes of the national flag, soon became popular design motifs. Rendered in gold, gemstones, and pearls and clasped to a bodice, these symbols allowed women and men to express their personal support of the new nation.

In addition to decorative motifs, American jewelry during the Federal period employed a new color palette. Enameled accents in shades of bright green and blue added a spark of color to gold lockets, watches, and chains. New gemstone hues complemented delicate gold-work, especially golden yellow topaz and deep purple amethyst. Porcelain Wedgwood plaques depicting classical and mythological figures were also set into brooches and other jewelry. The soft blue and white color scheme and decorative motifs of these plaques echoed the neoclassical interiors of Robert Adam, the celebrated English architect.


The drop earrings and gently draped strands of pearls popular from 1810-1820 are a softer look than the rigid pearl collars preferred in the mid-1700s.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Americans recovered from the privations of the Revolution and created many fortunes in the new free economy. This wealth meant that Americans could afford more expensive jewelry like diamonds. In the previous century, the majority of fancy diamond jewelry had been specially ordered from London. However, once the demand for diamonds increased local jewelers began to make their own diamond jewelry. Paste jewelry increased in popularity as well. Substantially less expensive than diamonds, well-made paste jewelry was a perfectly acceptable alternative. Even Abigail Adams, who normally refrained from wearing ostentatious jewels, owned several paste pieces appropriate to wear when she accompanied her husband to the French court. Paste shoe and knee buckles were perennially popular until laces and long pants became fashionable around the turn of the century. Fancy buckles were also set with cut steel beads, an even more affordable diamond alternative than pastes.

Pearls remained popular throughout the Revolution and into the nineteenth century. In addition to the ubiquitous single and multiple strand collars of the Colonial period, pearls were used in new ways that complemented the new shapes and decorative motifs. Gold and white became one of the most sought-after combinations. Tiny seed pearls rimmed the edges of brooches and rings or were set into delicately wrought gold-work. Pearls also harmonized perfectly with the new fashion for high-waist gowns in light colors and fabrics.

Mourning ring, English or American, 1782, gold, miniature painting on ivory, glass, hair.

Seed pearls were also a natural accompaniment to the new shapes of mourning and sentimental jewelry. Following the overarching trend of Neoclassicism, macabre imagery gave way to classical motifs. Mourning rings evolved from simple gold bands to small works of art incorporating painted miniatures. Classical images of mourning, especially funerary urns, willows, and weeping female figures were painted onto a small ivory plaque that was carefully fitted into a ring, brooch, or clasp. A single row of seed pearls frequently surrounded the miniature scene, symbolizing the tears of the mourners.

Miniature pendant of Robert Harcourt Twycross, London, England, 1791-1798. The painting is attributed to George Place and the setting is by Robert Harcourt Twycross.

Federal period miniatures, painted on ivory, took two distinct forms. Those that adorned mourning jewelry depicted traditional compositions of symbolic images, while portrait miniatures detailed, colorful likenesses of specific people. Portrait miniatures had been popular in Europe and the colonies since the early eighteenth century. In the Federal period, many of the new nation’s most renowned artists, including Charles Wilson Peale, turned their talents to miniature painting. Set into lockets and brooches, portrait miniatures were worn at the throat or close to the heart and became treasured mementos of love or friendship.

Invoice from David Townsend to Richard Codman (1762-1806) for repair of his watches.

Like miniatures, watches were another form of jewelry that gained widespread popularity during the Federal period. After the Revolution, watches became more accurate and their workings were thinner and less bulky. Popular for both men and women, watches were, for the first time, both a utilitarian object and a decorative piece of jewelry. While the mechanisms were frequently imported from England, European artisans, newly arrived to America, created and marketed the first watches made entirely in America. Watches grew to such heights of popularity that false watches were introduced at the end of the eighteenth century. Instead of watch works, the gold case of a false watch held a miniature or a loved one’s lock of hair.

Priscilla Taber Manchester wears a variety of popular Federal jewelry types. The large size and uniform roundness of the gold beads in her necklace illustrate her husband’s wealth and prominence. She also wears a simple diamond-shaped brooch and coordinating earrings, most likely set with the woven hair of her husband, Captain Isaac Manchester.

Although there are many examples of jeweled and elaborately worked Federal jewelry, the majority of American women in this period wore simple pieces constructed by local jewelers. In the early years of the nineteenth century, women of different backgrounds began to adorn themselves with plain necklaces comprised of polished gold beads. These bead necklaces and other unassuming gold jewelry, especially wedding bands and long watch chains were the bread and butter of an American goldsmith’s trade.

If American women desired more ornate jewels, there were many affordable organic materials that fit within the popular Federal color scheme. Coral, due its ascribed protective qualities, was traditionally formed into bead necklaces for children. In the 1790s, coral also became acceptable for adult women. The beads were often faceted and set individually into gold jewelry or worn as necklaces. Carnelian, its reddish orange hue perfectly suited to neoclassical fashions, was a popular hardstone that was easy to carve and polish. Imported from London and sold by American jewelers, carnelian was formed into many popular shapes of jewelry, from simple bead necklaces to elaborately carved seals and cameos.

1775 - 1820