Wealth Adornment Art: A Study of Jewellery in 17th-19th Century England by Amanda Herries – Thursday 4th April 2024

Former curator of the Museum of London specialising in the decorative arts, Amanda Herries started her lecture by showing us stark examples of how jewellery can be worn for adornment. A tribeswoman wearing many necklaces from her shoulders to her chin, representing wealth and status. A man’s face covered with lacy tattoos and heavy metal piercing — both changing their original persona.

Britain from 1550 onwards was, in Amanda’s view, the most colourful time for all manner of creative art. So what was the role of jewellery? Frivolous! A fashion statement. To complete an outfit.  A desire to look good. To wear family heirlooms. For sentimental value. For spiritual and religious significance. Jewellery fashioned with skulls and skeletons to remember loved ones who had died called Memento Mori.  To show off social status and wealth, as with her example of the middle class Cobham family painting showing  5 children and three adults all wearing heavy brocade some pinned with gold sycamore leaves, gold chains and various gem stones

London had many skilled and talented gem cutters who came from all over Europe.   Diverse and sophisticated craftsmen influenced by persecuted Christian and Jewish minorities. The “Cheapside Hoard” of  1640, discovered in 1912, consisted of 450 pieces of beautifully cut gemstones: emeralds: rubies, amethysts,  garnets, intricate gold chains, some were nine feet long.

Fashion in clothes and hairstyles influenced the wearing of jewellery. In 1603 the Countess of Southampton was painted in her undergarments surrounded by all her jewels she would be wearing that day, letting us know that she can afford all that we see.  Diamond encrusted ruff, gems to be attached to the outer dress, jewels falling out of her jewellery box. In 1611 the ruff went from the chin exposing the neck and chest ready for displaying jewellery again.

Change comes in 1640-1650, where everything becomes more subdued, pearls and chains are worn, silver and paste gems give a less opulent effect. During the Stuart era  dresses are low cut, loose and feminine, decorated with silver, hand blown glass beads and pearls. The Girandole earrings, three dangly pear shaped gems suspended from a bow motif, were worn at this time and remained popular for a hundred years.

Fashion changes again around 1710 as seen in Hogarth’s painting of Mary Edwards wearing a plain damask gown with lots of jewels and frills, the feminine look is back.  Diamonds are from Brazil, cut better and shiny.

Finally the influence of the French Revolution with the Neo Classical look, shows off the body with very little jewellery – just dangly earrings and flatter necklaces for the evenings.

This brings us up to the Victorian era, a talk for another time…


Jean Colvin