By Danielle Olivia Tefft
Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837 marked the beginning of the Victorian era. Her death in 1901 marked its end. During the 64 years of her reign, there were three distinct periods in which fashions and jewelry changed considerably. These changes were due to monumental events in the Queen’s influential life and in the world at large. The types of chains worn by Victorian women changed during these periods, as well.
The early Victorian period from 1837 to 1860:
The early days of Queen Victoria’s reign, as the 200 years prior, were still heavily influenced by the Renaissance jewelry and chains of the 15th and 16th centuries. The popular jewelry of this early Victorian era included plenty of enamel and gemstones like that of the Renaissance. This included dainty handmade chains set with cabochon or table-cut gemstones and enameled floral plaques or cartouches between the chain links. No two chains were ever exactly alike. They were meticulously crafted by hand as was most jewelry until the age of industrialization which would not begin until the 1850s.
These dainty, feminine chains reminded the sentimental Victorians of all things romantic in Shakespeare’s tales. Images of chivalrous knights defending castles, damsels in distress, and prosperous, bustling kingdoms were all conjured up when these delicate chains were worn. Early Victorian women’s dresses were extremely cumbersome with volumes of fabric and balloon-like sleeves. But many of these dresses had deep necklines that dipped well below the shoulders. These necklines showed off the dainty chains well.
The Victorians were especially fond of chains with floral attributes because of the symbolic meanings of flowers. These chains were typically made of 18K or 22K gold for the wealthy. But chains could also be crafted out of less expensive silver or pinchbeck for the less affluent. Pinchbeck was an alloy combining zinc and copper. It looked quite like real gold. Even the wealthy commissioned pinchbeck jewelry with paste stones to wear during their travels in case they were robbed.
In the 1840s, the process of electroplating gold onto base metal was introduced. Electroplated chains were made of lower quality base metals than pinchbeck. Electroplate is not to be confused with gold filled pieces (also called rolled gold pieces) which were created by fusing thin gold sheets to base metal with high heat. Whether electroplated or gold filled, gold overlay was typically 10K, 12K, or 16K.
Berlin iron work chains, first introduced in Germany, were also popular during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. These distinctive dark grey iron chains typically had elaborate neo-classical or Gothic features on large embellished cartouche links. Some Berlin iron work chains even featured mother of pearl plaques with iron pictorial scenes mounted upon them. Unlike most chains of the day, Berlin iron work chains were molded in factories, first in Germany but then in Austria, Bohemia and France.
Cut steel chains were also in vogue. These intricate works of art took a lot of time to assemble. Each link and each embellishment was riveted in place by hand. These chains typically featured cartouche style links encrusted with gemstones. Cut steel balls and Bohemian garnets were popular embellishments on cut steel chains.
Snake chains were introduced early on, as well. They actually looked like real snakes with a head and tail at either end. Snakes had long been symbols of eternal love and good fortune. After Prince Albert presented Queen Victoria with a snake-shaped engagement ring in 1839, snake motif jewelry including chains became mega-popular. These chains remained popular throughout the entire Victorian era. Victorian snake chains were more “knobby” than the snake chains of today. Often they were set with turquoise or seed pearls to more closely imitate a snake’s skin.
The Industrial Revolution changed the way chains and other jewelry was made. Chains and other jewelry began to be made by machine in the 1850s. Prior to that time, most chains were assembled by hand. Mechanization enabled chains to be made more cheaply. It also made mass-production possible. Chains and other jewelry became more widely available to the growing middle classes in both Europe and America.
In 1854, to compete with the world market, Britain legalized 9K and 15K gold. In America, gold chains could be as high as 18K and as low as 8K. In1855, aluminum chains were introduced. At the time, aluminum was considered to be a rare precious metal on par with gold.
The middle Victorian period from the 1860s to 1880:
1861 was a year no Victorian could remember without sadness. Queen Victorian lost her beloved husband Prince Albert to typhoid fever. The Civil War began in America. Death of loved ones and subsequent despair permeated every aspect of Victorian society from then on. The dresses of the day were still bulky but typically darker and more somber than those of previous years. They often had high collar necklines that no longer accommodated the dainty chains of previous years.
During this time period chains took on a heavier look. Heavy chains were popular because they could accommodate heavy mourning jewelry ; lockets, crosses and medallions worn in remembrance for lost loved ones. By this time, most metal chains were machine made. Thick chains of tortoise shell, jet (black fossilized wood), woven hair and other materials besides metal were also popular.
By the 1860s, the Victorian fascination with ancient civilizations was in full swing. Much of the jewelry, including chains, took on archeological themes from ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman civilizations. Revival of Renaissance themes also came into vogue. New chain styles in the middle Victorian years included thick Etruscan revival mesh chains and chunky book chains which had an air of the Renaissance about them.
Book chains consisted of large flat plaques for links, often with elaborate engraving on each link. They fastened in front, typically by a clasp hidden behind a cameo or other large medallion. Regardless of the style, most chains created in the middle Victorian years and beyond were machine made of gold, gold plate, gold fill, silver or brass.
The late Victorian Period from the 1880s to 1901:
During the sunset of Queen Victoria’s reign, the world was advancing at lightning speed. Inventions like the bicycle, telephone and the automobile thrust society forward and made it more fast-paced than ever before. Naturalism and Darwin’s theories of evolution were hot topics of the day. Times were prosperous and the middle class was growing exponentially. Industry was booming. Both men and women were in the work force. To accommodate their active lifestyles, women had to wear less cumbersome clothing than their earlier Victorian counterparts.
Chains were made from much the same metals that had been popular in previous years: gold, gold plate, gold filled, silver, and brass. But gunmetal also became a popular metal for chains in the late Victorian era. Gun metal (also called German silver) was an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc. It had a distinctive dark grey sheen.
Etruscan revival and Egyptian themed chains remained popular. Aesthetic movement chains with lovely etched scenes of the natural world came into vogue. Long chains to hold watches, lorgnettes (eyeglasses and opera glasses), purses and chatelaines (sets of household items and keys) became a necessity. Almost all chains were manufactured by machine and mass-produced unless specially commissioned to be made by hand.
Watch cock link chains quickly became the new trendy style in the late Victorian era. These attractive chains were made from the intricate round metal findings or cocks that held clock movements in place. They were so ornate they looked like works of art.
In addition, there were other numerous manufactured chain styles available to suit every taste. Many of these chains are still popular today. They included trace chains, rope chains, curb chains, twist chains, woven chains, metal bead chains and chains with gemstone beads between the links. Some had fancy names like the Prince of Wales chain, and the Spanish knot chain. Many advertisements for chains from fine jewelers and department stores survive from this era today. They offer a delightful glimpse back into Victorian utility and vanity.