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1850 - 1890

The More Jewels, the Merrier.

The invention of photography in the mid-19th century allowed New Englanders to sit for inexpensive formal portraits. During the Civil War these portraits were typically solemn in mood. The women in this multi-generational family portrait taken in Lynn, Massachusetts, hold serious expressions, wear small, conservative pieces of jewelry, and hold a U.S. war map probably in tribute to a male relative serving in the military.
  • 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London.
  • 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry opens trade routes with Japan.
  • 1853-1856 Crimean War.
  • 1856 Grammar of Ornament published by Owen Jones.
  • 1856 Pasteurization invented by Louis Pasteur.
  • 1859 Comstock Lode discovered in Virginia, Nevada dramatically increases silver supply.
  • 1861 Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, dies.
  • 1861-1865 United States Civil War.
  • 1862 Alexander Parkes invents the first man-made plastic.
  • 1865 Lincoln shot by Booth April 14, dies next day.
  • 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
  • 1869 Transcontinental railroad completed.
  • 1869 John Wesley Hyatt invents celluloid.
  • 1872 The Metropolitan Museum of Art opens in New York.
  • 1874 Impressionist Salon in Paris organized by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, and others.
  • 1875 Gold discovered in the Sioux holy grounds, the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • 1876 Internal combustion engine invented by Nicolaus August Otto.
  • 1876 Thomas Edison's invents the incandescent bulb.
  • 1876 Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone.
  • 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
  • 1887 Queen Victoria celebrates her Golden Jubilee and officially comes out of mourning.
  • 1888 George Eastman's camera.
  • 1888 C.R. Ashbee founds Guild of Handicraft in London.

Archaeological jewelry of the 1860s and 1870s was worn in matched parures, singly, or matched with other popular period styles.

The 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London had far-reaching effects on all areas of the decorative arts, including American jewelry. American artisans displayed their pieces at the exhibition, firmly establishing a place for American art in Europe. They were also exposed to the newest trends, particularly design reform and what would become the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement

Artists who embraced design reform often looked to the past for inspiration. Classical Greece and Rome had influenced artists at various times, particularly the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In America, classical imagery remained popular well into the nineteenth century as it was an important way for the young republic to define itself. In 1876, Americans celebrated the nation’s Centennial, renewing the popularity for colonial and Federal styles. Classical inspired jewelry perfectly captured the patriotic spirit of the times.

Mary Wheelwright Codman chose to wear a micromosaic brooch depicting ancient ruins for her 1845 portrait by Daniel Huntington.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the fad for classical forms in jewelry was centered as much on technique as design. Archeological finds unearthed in Italy introduced goldsmiths to a variety of new techniques, such as granulation and micromosaic, which were perfected and popularized by the Italian artisan Fortunato and his son Alessandro Castellani. American women who read the fashion periodicals soon became infatuated with classical jewelry, prompting local jewelers to stock these popular designs or have them created by jobbers. American classical jewelry, created in gold, featured symmetrical shapes that echoed antique forms, such as amphora drops and bullas.

Micromosaic brooch of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, probably Rome, Italy, c. 1850.

In the tradition of the Grand Tour, Americans who had the opportunity to travel to Europe in the mid-nineteenth century often documented their trip with souvenir jewelry. In an era before postcards and widespread photography, regional jewelry was a relatively inexpensive and easily transportable memento of a voyage across the Atlantic. American tourists collected examples of traditional European jewelry to document stops on their once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Jewelry made of dark materials like this molded vulcanite bracelet, 1860-1880, was considered appropriate to wear while in mourning.

Following her ascension in 1837, the young Queen Victoria captured the imagination of all English women. Aside from politics, Queen Victoria influenced fashion throughout her entire reign. In 1848, she purchased an estate in Balmoral, Scotland, launching a fad for Scottish “pebble” jewelry made of a variety of agates and hardstones that was soon embraced by fashionable American women.

One of Victoria’s most important contributions to fashion was a direct result of the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. The mourning rituals surrounding clothing were strict, specifically dictating how a woman should dress for up to several years after the death of a loved one. With the death of the Prince, the entire nation followed their Queen into mourning, making black jewelry an essential part of fashion in both England and America. Following this trend, jet, onyx, and other organic materials in dark colors were used extensively for American jewelry throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. The breakout of Civil War in 1861 also meant that more and more American families would be plunged into mourning during the decade. As opposed to the delicate gold mourning rings of the eighteenth century, large carved pieces were popular during this period.

Hair brooch, United States, 1864.

Hair jewelry reached its height of popularity in the mid nineteenth century. Earlier pieces utilized hair as a secondary material, usually set under glass, whereas later pieces were formed almost entirely of hair. The delicate curls and plaits of the Federal period gave way to intricately woven chains, drops, or symbolic shapes. Frequently, one sent a loved one’s hair to a jeweler or professional hair weaver who offered a variety of popular shapes such as loveknots, acorns, and bows. Women could also create their own hair jewelry following the instructions in popular hairwork manuals.


The earliest advertisements for large urban jewelers were simple blocks of descriptive text. Shreve, Crump, and Low’s, founded in the late 18th century, employed the patriotic bald eagle to capitalize on both its history and the nation’s 1876 Centennial.

As jewelry became an integral part of fashion, American retail jewelers grew larger and gained prominence, frequently gathering in specific areas of the city, such as Washington Street in Boston. Following in the goldsmith tradition, some jewelers maintained workshops on their premises, while others had jewelry made for them by manufacturing jewelers, called jobbers. Many jobbing firms were located in Providence, Rhode Island, which was rapidly becoming the American center for jewelry production. 

An unused 1870s bill for hair jewelry from A. Blocklinger 493 Washington Street, Boston, MA.
1850 - 1890