Ruling for 63 years and seven months, Queen Victoria ushered in an era of constant change, putting her own unique stamp on every facet of her kingdom, from politics to industry to society to fashion.
An Era Begins
Alexandrina Victoria was born May 24, 1819, daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn and granddaughter of King George III. Her uncle, William IV, ascended the throne in 1820. Upon his death in 1837, Victoria inherited the throne, a post which she retained until her death in January of 1901.
A World View
The times were rapidly changing. The Victorian era saw the arrival of modern conveniences such as the automobile, indoor plumbing, and electricity. Innovation and industrialization were driving changes across the globe. Photography would be a game-changer. Goods were being mass-produced, giving the burgeoning middle class an opportunity to own items they’d never have dreamed possible.
The young queen was a popular figure whose portrait could be seen everywhere – in the press, on ribbons and medallions – and in jewelry that featured her image.
Victoria’s taste for fashion was embraced and imitated by young ladies throughout the land. Jewelry was especially near and dear to her heart. As a child, she received many gifts in the form of jewelry and accessories. Although they reflected the fashions of the time and were not particularly distinctive, she held onto them for their sentimental value.
As a young queen, Victoria adorned herself with a vast array of jewelry. These included the Crown Jewels and those treasures worn by her predecessors, which she restyled to suit her own taste. A diadem, one of her favorite pieces, was adapted from a sunray necklace worn by Queen Adelaide. A circlet made from Queen Charlotte’s diamond earrings was another choice jewel. To her First Council, she donned a serpent bracelet to symbolize her desire to emulate “the wisdom of the serpent.”
On February 10, 1840, a 21-year-old Victoria married Prince Albert, a first cousin on her mother’s side. It was love at first sight for Victoria, who, in her diary, waxed poetic about Albert’s good looks and charming countenance.
On her wedding day, Victoria chose a simple wreath of orange blossoms as her headdress. Her bridal jewelry included a “Turkish” diamond necklace and earring suite, the Order of the Garter, and a gift from the groom-to-be -- a sapphire and diamond brooch.
Each of Victoria’s train bearers received a brooch, designed by Albert, that depicted an eagle, awash in turquoise stones, with a ruby eye and claws that gripped pearls. A medallet bridal portrait in enamel was created as a souvenir for six dozen friends, and the men received golden pencils with enamel medallets.
Albert, who fancied himself a jewelry designer, often gifted Victoria with jewels of his imagination. A present that started as a gold and porcelain brooch with an orange blossom motif was joined by earrings and wreath that incorporated the orange blossom theme. Orange blossoms became a seminal symbol in royal weddings and were perhaps the most copied of all of the jewelry owned by the Queen.
A Wealth of Jewels
Vast quantities of jewels were created for Victoria to wear to royal functions, and the creation of new jewelry pieces heralded each of the births of her nine children. Other occasions that warranted gifts of jewelry were birthdays, anniversaries, marriages, and the births of family members.
Victoria and Albert bought Balmoral Estate in the Scottish Highlands in 1848, where they built a family home. Enchanted with Scottish style, Victoria began to collect the fashion jewelry produced there, including flexible bracelets with enameling in family tartan colors, brooches, and pins. Some were crafted in gold, but most were set in silver and housed such colorful stones as carnelian, bloodstone, jasper, moss agate, and smoky golden quartz (from Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains).
Of all the jewels which Victoria wore over the years, her favorite pieces were the ones with sentimental value. A heart-shaped locket that held a piece of Prince Albert’s hair; a miniature portrait of Albert; and the sapphire and diamond brooch Albert gave her before they wed were among them.
Albert’s interest in jewelry design continued throughout their marriage, with the creation of other pieces such as a sapphire and diamond diadem. Albert enjoyed arranging suites of diamonds into parures for the Queen, even having the Koh-i-Noor diamond recut.
The Great Exhibition
Albert sponsored the Great Exhibition of Industry of All Nations, held in London in 1851. This Exhibition sparked the rage for International Exhibitions. As well as displaying the newest machines and inventions, jewelry and watch exhibits were popular attractions that drew audiences from around the world. More than 6 million visitors saw the 280-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond along with the gem that would come to be known as the Hope Diamond. Chatelaines and brooches, earrings, crosses, necklaces, and quatrefoils were also available for viewing, in jewelry that reflected the Gothic revival of medieval design, architectural themes in enamel and nature motifs.
The various designs exhibited here reflected the Victorians’ penchant for all things romantic. As to the royal couple, they each purchased a keyless timepiece at the Exhibition, bringing fame to the firm of Patek & Co.
On December 14, 1861, Prince Albert succumbed to typhoid fever, an event that plunged Victoria into mourning, and a state in which she would remain for the rest of her life. The royal jewelers were swamped, trying to keep up with orders for mourning jewelry; lockets that held photo miniatures; stick pins bearing the Prince’s likeness; and hair remembrances were created for the Queen to give to relatives and friends.
Eventually, jewelry worked its way back into the Queen’s wardrobe, at least at public appearances. Victoria had a small imperial crown made up that would fit on top of her widow’s cap. It can be viewed in many of the later portraits of the Queen. The crown became so closely associated with Victoria it was placed on her coffin.
For her 1887 Golden Jubilee, Victoria donned diamonds, including a large collet necklace from which the Lahore diamond suspended, as well as diamond earrings, badges, and cameos. Souvenir brooches, pendants, and medals were created in massive quantities to mark her Golden Jubilee.
The reign of Queen Victoria came to an end with her death on January 22, 1901.