IN DEPTH: A History of silver in jewellery design

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Delve into silver’s fluctuating history from fine to fashion and back.

Silver might have found itself considered fashion jewellery in recent years but it has its roots in royalty and fine jewellery design. Kathryn Bishop explores this precious metal’s interesting history.

In recent years silver has been the go-to metal for manufactured, low-cost jewellery. Affordable and easy to work with, brands have become accustomed to using silver in the most creative of ways. For some, the metal has been ideal for chunkier, bolder designs while others have opted for comparatively tiny, collectable charms. Mostly, silver has had a healthy demand and a healthy market to match.

But in the past two years the price of this precious metal has steadily increased in price, leaving the jewellery industry wondering just when it will slow, if at all. Recently matching the price of gold at a ratio of nearly 40:1 in terms of how many silver ounces it takes to buy an ounce of gold, analysts suggest that the gap could get as close as 15:1 in the next few years. Interestingly, however, the metal is perhaps due to return to being perceived as a truly covetable metal; a turn fitting to its history in Britain where it was traditionally the metal of choice for fine jewellery before gold and platinum took hold of the market.

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The standard of sterling silver dates back to the 13th century when King Edward I of England created a statute that required all silver items to have a purity standard of 92.5 percent – or 925 parts pure silver per thousand– with each item marked with a leopards head by members of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, today known as the Goldsmith’s Company. However, even as silver began to grow in use in jewellery design during the 19th century, the British government still didn’t require jewellers to use any form of hallmark on their work and as a result items which date back to the time are often devoid of any purity or makers’ marks.

During the 1800s, the majority of raw silver was used in the smithing of plates, cutlery and tableware. The demand for fine British silverwork that combined function with simple design was bolstered by the destruction of large quantities of French silver during the same period. As it was, the English took their silversmithing style with them to America, where items from the time can still be found, crafted in a style imitating the functionality and clean lines of British silver making. With such a growth in the regard for silverwork coming from the British Isles, it wasn’t long before the metal was used for handcrafted jewellery designs.

As Britain moved into the early Victorian period, fine silver jewellery became more popular. At the time, most pieces of jewellery were hand manufactured, with designs inspired by nature and plant life. Silver was the ideal precious metal for setting stones into because of its malleability and bright, white colour. At the time, many gemstones including round rose-cut diamonds were set in silver, while popular coloured gemstones included deeper shades of amethyst, golden topaz, garnet and shell cameos.

By the mid Victorian period, the industrial revolution was taking grip and as the years went by silver jewellery went from fine hand crafted designs to more manufactured pieces. With a nation obsessed by mechanical gadgets and invention, it was no surprise that handmade jewellery was soon surpassed by speedier manufacture, and by 1852 a method for cutting and stamping out silver settings was developed, allowing jewellery to me made inexpensively and deftly.

When King Albert died in 1861 Queen Victoria went into mourning, and is known for wearing only black until her death several years later. As a figurehead for the nation, Queen Victoria held a great influence over the public, and a new style of jewellery emerged – silver mourning jewellery, crafted using blackened oxidised silver, set with dark gemstones such as English jet and black onyx.

But even royalty still needed some sparkle during that time, and taking diamonds from one of her necklaces, Queen Victoria commissioned crown jeweller Garrard – which to this day still has a strong connection with the royal family – to create a small, simple silver crown of 10cms high.

During this time of mourning, the use of white diamonds was acceptable over bold, bright coloured gemstones traditionally found in royal crowns, and Queen Victoria was not shy with her design – the small crown was set with more than 1,180 diamonds.

Following on from mourning jewellery, designs with an air of sentimentality became popular and silver lockets increased in popularity, as did engraved or monogrammed jewellery, indicative of loved ones or those lost but not forgotten. Bracelets and bangles developed in style and by the late Victorian period silver charm bracelets emerged, bringing with them a more playful side to jewellery with stars, flowers, hearts and anchor shapes becoming popular choices of charm.

The British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century was a reaction against the industrial nature of then-contemporary jewellery making, pushing instead a tooled style of silver jewellery with Celtic designs and woven, flowing shapes inspired by Liberty of London prints and Glaswegian artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The turn of the century bought with it the earliest examples of Victorian solitaire diamond rings, with the precious stones set into silver. The late Victorian period marked the discovery and early mining of diamonds in South Africa, which boosted supply and demand in both Britain and America.

About 25 years later, Art Deco jewellery came to reign after a large-scale interruption to both the making and demand for fine jewellery during World War I. As a result, and with the nation desperate to have some fun, the jewellery reflected the feelings of the time, with colourful gems; women were known to pile on bangles for a statement look that went with their new found liberation in the ever-modernising Western society.

At the time, the jewellery market began to boom with fine jewellery houses including Tiffany & Co, Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Lalique and Boucheron opening up. Though the metal of choice had shifted to the more precious, but apparently easier to work with platinum, Art Deco silver jewellery was still being made, with the metal used for detailed millegrain and hand engraving.

When the pre-war bubble burst the English jewellery industry felt the impact from overseas, particularly from America where the Great depression took hold of the jewellery industry and there was a sudden demand for austerity and modesty in jewellery design after the glitzy jewels of the 1920s.

Like World War I, the Second World War meant that wearing precious metals wasn’t a necessity, nor were there many occasions at which fine jewellery was appropriate. Instead the nation buckled down to focus on the ethic of make do and mend, while precious metals were rationed.

Post-war jewellery design appears to diverge into two separate phenomena. On the one hand, new materials were being discovered and the advent of plastics such as Bakelite and Lucite saw precious metals such as silver become merely an element within a piece of jewellery, rather than its main feature. On the other side, fine jewellery design moved back into classic styling, with pearls and parures of jewellery growing in popularity. Jewellery became an item worn mostly for formal affairs or to show status and with this, silver became a less desirable option as yellow gold took centre stage.

A few decades later, the Hallmarking Act of 1973 made Britain a member of the Vienna Convention with all four of the UK’s assay offices adopting the same date and letter sequences to represent the purity of metals and the date marks. Silver hallmarking is, in the main, split between Britannia silver, used mostly for tableware of 999 parts, and sterling silver of 925 parts which is most common for use in jewellery.

In recent years, contemporary British designers such as Stephen Webster, Sarah Herriot and Ana de Costa have developed their designs to include striking silver designs which reflect tradition with gemstones and diamonds set into fine silver settings. Designers such as Goodman Morris have also developed their silver collections to include bold dress rings, earrings and bracelets set with colourful gemstones, resulting in luxe jewellery that is accessible in terms of price, and has a greater freedom of design.

In the past 20 years silver has been regarded as a cheap and plentiful metal, but its recent price rise means that silver is snatching back its precious metal label. No longer will shipments of manufactured silver arrive from overseas to be sold as cheaply as possible. Instead this is the time for fine British craftsmanship and beautiful, well-made silver jewellery to step back into the limelight. With gold prices as high as they are, silver is – as some have suggested – the new 9ct gold; a luxury metal that will need to be rebranded and remarketed to consumers. It might just mean that in a few years’ time the concept of a silver and diamond engagement ring won’t seem so unusual. After all, it is a British tradition.
 

 

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