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Wealth, Style and Sentiment

Throughout history, jewelry has been a means of personal adornment that expresses sentiment and displays wealth, status, and the latest fashion.

In colonial America, jewelry was initially limited to English imports or items that the colonists had brought with them. The most frequently used materials were gold, silver, iron, quartz, jet, tortoiseshell, and bone; amber and coral were prized as well because they were believed to possess therapeutic qualities. The wealthy favored gold signet rings, strings of pearls, decorative buttons and buckles, and "fancy pieces" set with colorful gemstones, particularly amethysts and garnets. Imitation diamonds, known as pastes, made of faceted glass and backed by metallic foil, were also popular as precious jewelry. Far cheaper than gemstones, they were commonly used in practical ornaments like buckles and buttons at risk of being lost. As the colonies developed, American-made jewelry slowly came to the forefront of the market, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, every major American city boasted its own jewelers and goldsmiths.

ABOVE LEFT  Bracelet, c.1845–1861, with tintypes of U.S. presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and scientists Benjamin Peirce, Louis Agassiz, Carl Friedrich Gauss, and A.D. Bache, with plaits of their hair on the reverse. The locket for the balding John Quincy Adams, however, contains the hair of Daniel Webster.
ABOVE RIGHT  Gold-framed cameo brooch, mid-nineteenth century.

Certain types of jewelry were primarily sentimental in purpose. Throughout the eighteenth century, mourning rings, which provided a tangible link to deceased loved ones, were commonly given to family and friends at funerals. They were usually inscribed with the person's name or initials, age, and date of death, and often incorporated symbols such as skeletons or coffin-shaped stones, or later, a lock of hair from the deceased. To serve this need, a new type of jeweler—the hairworker—emerged, who neatly plaited and wove hair specifically for mourning jewelry or for pieces exchanged as tokens of friendship and love. Around the time of the Revolution, it became fashionable to wear pendants or brooches incorporating hair and miniature portraits of loved ones over the heart. Hair jewelry itself, not necessarily associated with mourning or friendship, grew increasingly fashionable. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Godey's Lady's Book advertised a variety of elaborately braided and woven necklaces, bracelets, and earrings that could be ordered directly from the publisher.

ABOVE LEFT  Amber and gold bracelet from Sicily, c. 1880.
ABOVE RIGHT  Gold, opal, diamond and pearl pin made by Edward Everett Oaks, Boston or Wakefield, Mass., 1940s. Recent gift of Barbara Wriston.

During the federal period, Americans proud of their newly won independence found parallels between the lofty ideals of their new republic and those of the republic of ancient Rome. Thus patriotism reinforced the taste for classical-style motifs in architecture, decor, and costume that had already been prevalent in Europe for some time. Jewelry designs of the period reflected a new delicacy. Combinations of gold and pearls, particularly seed pearls, that complemented the light colors and fabrics of women's dresses, became popular. Although seed pearls fell out of favor in Europe, they continued to be worn by Americans, along with locally cultivated freshwater pearls, throughout the nineteenth century. Pearls were often accented by emeralds and sapphires. They were also matched with light-colored stones, particularly tourmaline, aquamarines, and amethysts, all of which were mined in Maine. Jewelry made of carnelian, coral, and jet, as well as cameos carved from shells, was also popular during this period. These materials had associations with both ancient Greece and Rome and had been newly popularized by Napoleon's wife, the Empress Josephine.

ABOVE LEFT Assorted gemstone jewelry. Gold ring with diamond surround, early nineteenth century, and heart-shaped paste brooch, late eighteenth century. Sapphire and pearl brooch and emerald and pearl earrings, late nineteenth century.
ABOVE RIGHT Hair and mourning jewelry, including a double-banded gold and enamel ring with coffin-shaped crystals memorializing Zephaniah and Hannah Leonard, who both died on April 23, 1766. Many bracelets and brooches bear the initials or names of loved ones; the brooch on the left reads, "Not lost but gone before," with the initials ML.

The discoveries of gold in California in 1849 and of silver in the western territories in the 1850s made these metals readily available in the United States. The nation's growing productivity and wealth allowed more Americans to afford gold and silver jewelry. Meanwhile, the science and technology of mining and gem cutting were improving, resulting in a variety of gemstones appearing on the market. During the middle of the century, a taste for colored stones developed, particularly opals, turquoise, rubies, and emeralds, the latter two preferred for engagement rings. Diamonds, previously used sparingly in jewelry and largely imitated by pastes, also received more attention. Jewelers like Charles L. Tiffany promoted diamonds for use in all types of jewelry. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had become the preferred stone for conveying not only love but wealth, and brides and society women sparkled from waist to tiara. In the twentieth century, technology made available new materials—plastics, rubber, and imitation gems—that launched a profusion of jewelry from high-style designs to items that might be worn a few times and then discarded. Historic New England's collection of jewelry, from which we have drawn this sampling, surveys most of the styles and materials worn in New England from the late seventeenth through the early twentieth century.

—Adrienne A. Sage

For those interested in learning more, we recommend Martha Gandy Fales, Jewelry in America, 1600–1900, a definitive study published in 1995 by Antique Collectors' Club. To order, visit our Museum Shop at or call (617) 227-3957, ext. 237.

Wealth, Style and Sentiment