Georgian Jewelry Indicated More Than Wealth

LONDON — While the focus will be on the language of clothing at the exhibition “Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians” in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, the jewelry of the era also speaks volumes.

“As with clothing, jewelry could be used to convey messages about the wearer’s power and influence,” Anna Reynolds, deputy surveyor of the King’s Pictures and this show’s curator, said in an email. “Jewels might be used to indicate dynastic connections — a bride might mark her marriage by appearing at court in the heirloom jewels of her new family — or loaned to friends to demonstrate shifting allegiances.”

The exhibition, scheduled April 21 through Oct. 8, traces the time from the accession of George I in 1714 to the death of George IV in 1830, detailing the fashions of the day, from the fine gowns and jewels worn at court to the utilitarian aprons worn by workers.

“For the Georgian elite, important jewelry was a form of portable wealth, passed from one generation to the next,” Ms. Reynolds wrote. There are few examples from the 18th century in the Royal Collection, the extensive holdings held in trust for the nation by King Charles III, but among a handful of highlights in the exhibition is a ring that belonged to Queen Charlotte. It features a miniature portrait of her husband, George III, visible beneath a large portrait-cut diamond, surrounded by smaller diamonds.

“It’s such a personal item,” the curator wrote. “It was given to the queen on her wedding day, and she wore it on the little finger of her right hand. She was also given a diamond ‘keeper ring,’ intended to keep her wedding ring from slipping off.”

The keeper ring was engraved with 8 September 1761, the wedding date. “It was recorded by Charlotte Papendiek, assistant keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte, that the queen refused to wear any other rings on that finger, even though that was the fashion,” Ms. Reynolds said later by phone.

That sentimentality is a hallmark of Georgian jewelry.

John Benjamin, a jewelry historian who frequently appears on the BBC’s “Antiques Roadshow,” said by email that “Georgian jewels often exhibit a crucial characteristic which may be lacking in Victorian and later jewelry. Intimacy.”

He cited examples he had seen, including “a simple gold memorial ring containing a lock of hair and bearing the name of the deceased; a heart-shaped gold brooch set with half pearls and a pretty foiled gemstone such as pink topaz; or a heart-shaped gold padlock studded with assorted gems, the first letter of each gem’s name going on to form a sentimental message such as ‘Regard’ or ‘Dearest.’”

Jewels of the era “provided the perfect vehicle for conveying heartfelt adoration, sentiment and undying love,” he wrote.

Such a love token may be seen in the exhibition in a portrait of Queen Charlotte by the artist Johan Joseph Zoffany. The queen is shown wearing pearl bracelets: One clasp holds a diamond-encircled miniature of her husband painted on ivory by Jeremiah Meyer. The other clasp, not visible in the painting, contained the king’s hair and cipher, Ms. Reynolds said.

Another sentimental piece is a silver gilt, enamel, diamond, pearl and ivory charm bracelet featuring nine dangling lockets — six holding strands of hair and one, a miniature of a left eye, thought to be that of one of Queen Charlotte’s granddaughters.

Because the cost of gemstones far outstripped the cost of settings, another trend of the period was the repurposing of garments and gems, a practice that resonates with today’s push for sustainability and fervor for secondhand shopping.

It also helps to explain why few Georgian pieces are still in their original form and are therefore difficult to link to their original maker. “Textiles and jewels were expensive and were constantly recycled,” Ms. Reynolds wrote.

That is how several buttons from a dress coat belonging to George III became the foundation of a necklace of pearl, gold and enamel, to be shown in the exhibition. Other buttons from the same garment helped to form “a bracelet, three brooches and a pair of earrings — probably at the request of Queen Adelaide, the wife of William IV,” Ms. Reynolds wrote.

The exhibition also uses paintings to show how Georgians adorned themselves. They include a full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte, painted by Thomas Gainsborough in candlelight, which normally hangs in Windsor Castle. She is shown wearing a multistrand pearl choker and multistrand pearl bracelets on each wrist.

Ms. Reynolds said such period portraits tended to show the types of jewelry more commonly worn during the day rather than the more elaborate pieces reserved for formal occasions at court.

While most of the jewelry in the exhibition focuses on members of royalty and their court, it includes pieces made of less costly materials such as a chatelaine of Wedgwood jasperware and cut steel that would have been used to carry items like keys or a watch. Another working-class example is seen in a print depicting Queen Charlotte’s laundry woman, who is wearing a ribbon around her neck.

Men in the Georgian era avoided rings and necklaces, preferring bejeweled seals, watches, shoe buckles and buttons. “Buttons were considered primarily a masculine feature of clothing during the 18th century and were often decorative as well as functional,” Ms. Reynolds wrote. “Buttons embellished with diamonds and other gemstones were fashionable for formal occasions, although a wide variety of other materials were used for everyday wear, including mother-of-pearl, glass, cut steel, brass and enamel.”

Another item commonly worn by men who could afford it was the highly decorative precious-metal and gem-set fob, attached to clothing by a chain or a ribbon. “These included watches and seals,” the curator wrote, “which were often hung below the waistcoat so as to be easily accessible when writing letters.”

Overall, Ms. Reynolds wrote, “jewelry settings in the 18th century were generally more delicate than those of previous years. In the first half of the century, newly popular motifs included ribbon bows, shells and naturalistic flowers, while the later 18th century saw the rise of neo-Classical shapes such as Greek keys, honeysuckle and palmettes.”

Experts on Georgian jewelry say the style remains as versatile and unfailingly chic today as when it was made. (That is even the case when worn with an empire-line dress of the later-Georgian period, like those shown on many women in the Netflix series “Bridgerton.”)

Imagine, said Mr. Benjamin, who was appointed honorary jewelry adviser to The National Trust in 2021, “a single Georgian diamond button which had been sympathetically converted into a ring, or a pair of Regency diamonds tastefully remodeled into a pair of contemporary earrings.

“The wonderful asset of Georgian jewelry is just how supremely wearable it still is today.”