By Katie Austin
In the last installment of The Jewelblog’s (Abridged) History of Jewelry, you learned that jewelry took an abrupt turn with the advent of leaded glass and paste gems in the 18th century. Well, the 19th century was a crucial time for the development in jewelry history, and all because of three intertwined people and things: Queen Victoria, Charles Goodyear and the Industrial Revolution. You’re probably scratching your head and wondering how any of those relate to jewelry, let alone each other, but rest assured- all will be revealed!
The Industrial Revolution was an era spanning the late 18th through 19th centuries that is characterized by new developments in machines and factories that totally changed how (and how much) consumer product is fabricated and made available to the public. What is considered by historians to be the First Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the late 18th century with the advent of James Hargreaves’s Spinning Jenny, a mechanized device that allowed yarn weavers to produce up to eight (and eventually, with improvements, 120) spools of yarn at a time rather than one. While the Spinning Jenny turned England on its ear in 1760, the 19th century was when the revolution spread to most of Europe and the United States. Thanks to the advent of interchangeable parts, the adoption of coal over wood as factory fuel and the advent of the assembly line to allow the fast production of mass quantities of goods, jewelry could be produced in heretofore impossible amounts and at lower prices, making jewelry available to more people than ever.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention and that was certainly true in the world of 19th century industry. Because the Industrial Revolution caused an explosion in production of goods, there was a dire need to get those goods out to an ever-widening market. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the 19th century’s biggest advancements were in transportation. When Robert Fulton invented the steam-powered engine in 1807, it opened up a world of possibilities for quicker transport of goods by steam-powered trains and ships. Oddly enough, it was a piece of safety equipment on ships that led, in part, to a unique change in the world of jewelry.
In the early 1830s, a young inventor and entrepreneur named Charles Goodyear was experimenting with gum elastic, or natural rubber, when he observed low-quality life preservers for ships from the Roxbury Rubber Company in Boston. Determined that he could produce something better with his experimental material, Goodyear set out on a scientific quest to process gum elastic into something that was durable, strong and not sticky. He stumbled across a heating process, vulcanization, after years of experimenting with chemicals -some of which nearly killed him with toxic gasses- and putting so much into his ideas that he sold all of his furniture and put his family up in a boarding house. You can see the end results of his dogged determination anytime you set foot in a mechanic’s garage, parking lot or car dealership and see Goodyear vulcanized rubber tires.
But what does Charles Goodyear’s successful experimentation with vulcanized rubber have to do with 19th century jewelry? To answer that question, I have to tell you a bit about The Jewelbox’s URNS Memorial Jewelry and Queen Victoria. Are you confused? By the end, all of the loose ends will come together!
If you’ve given our new website a good look, you’ve probably noticed a link on the home page to URNS Memorial Jewelry. This is our line of jewelry that can hold the ashes, hair or other tiny mementos of a departed loved one. When presenting the line to customers in person and online, it’s interesting to see how many people react to the jewelry with surprise because the concept of mourning jewelry is something completely foreign to them. Honestly, in modern culture, it’s a foreign concept to most people. A century and a half ago, though, mourning jewelry wasn’t just well-known and culturally acceptable. Mourning jewelry was highly fashionable in the 19th century, largely because of one of the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarchs.
Queen Victoria was the ruler of the United Kingdom and Ireland from 1837 until her death in 1901. Her accomplishments and political influence as a ruler are vast but for our purposes, her greatest influence was in jewelry, particularly when her husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid fever in 1861. Upon Albert’s death, Victoria thrust herself into a permanent, semi-secluded mourning period that lasted the full forty years until her death.
Now, Victoria was already well-known in her taste for fine jewelry. A quick search of paintings and photographs of her will always show you a woman practically dripping in gems and she was so passionate about the art of jewelry that she actually designed some of her pieces herself. When Albert died, though, her desire for flashy jewels abruptly metamorphosed into a collection dominated by dark, mostly black fine jewelry to match the all-black clothes that she wore until the end of her life.
It might seem weird that someone could turn grieving into a social and fashion trend, but Victoria did. Even though mourning jewelry had existed for centuries before Victoria’s existence, her standards for appropriate adornments for mourning periods, particularly for women, led to a surge in popularity of black enamel and gold mourning rings; jet, tortoiseshell, onyx and ebony jewelry pieces; and even jewelry set with the braided hair of the dearly departed. It’s safe to say that even The Jewelbox’s URNS Memorial Jewelry collection has been influenced by Queen Victoria. Without her, the niche art may have fizzled out eons ago instead of inspiring new, modern makers.
This brings us back around to Charles Goodyear and the Industrial Revolution. Since the Industrial Revolution made goods more widely available, there was greater public demand for many luxury items but not everyone could afford the original, pricey incarnations of those goods. This was true with prevalent 19th century mourning jewelry. The practice of wearing such jewelry in emulation of high society was adopted so wholeheartedly in parts of Europe and in the United States that there were specific dress and adornment customs during different stages of mourning that were strictly followed. Because the average mourner couldn’t afford the kinds of mourning jewelry that rested on Queen Victoria, ingenious 19th century jewelry manufacturers created brooches, pendants and more out of an affordable, black-colored substitute material. That material? Vulcanite, the trademarked name for Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber.
And there you have it. The history of 19th century jewelry involves a soar in popularity of mourning jewelry in the style of those worn by Queen Victoria, made available to the working public thanks to the mass production facilitated by the Industrial Revolution and an inventive synthetic material from Charles Goodyear that was both affordable and the right color for periods of mourning. Check in for The Jewelbox’s upcoming ninth installment of The (Abridged) History of Jewelry for a look at the evolution of jewelry from 1900 through the First and Second World Wars!