Jewellery History through Art

Perhaps the most fun and interesting ways we can age and date very old jewellery is through artwork. Almost always signed, we can normally tell exactly which year a piece of art was painted in, unlike jewellery which is rarely signed or dated! It’s also wonderful to see how people wore jewellery, what type of jewellery they had, and what we can tell about social rank from their jewellery.

On a recent trip to Belgium, I visited the home of Peter Paul Rubens, and it was amazing to see the jewellery featured in the artwork. Sitting for a portrait back then was a big event; one would wear one’s finest clothes and jewellery for the event.

Rubens lived from 1577–1640, so in this case the jewellery is mostly early 17th century.

The first image is of a young girl, wearing pearl earrings, a pearl necklace with a pearl centrepiece set with stones. Getting pierced ears was a sign of maturity, so she would have been proud of her new status as a lady! Rubens would have been aware of this, and so the earrings feature prominently in the image. Pearls were incredibly rare in this era, as cultured pearls had not been invented, so this strand shows the wealth and status of her and her family.

The devant-de-corsage appears to have faceted gemstones set into it, but it is hard to tell what type of stone they might be. Perhaps garnets? They could also be point cut or hogs-back cut diamonds.

So, we can infer from the jewellery that she is someone of consequence! In fact, she is Elisabeth of France, daughter of Henry IV, King of France, and Maria de’ Medici!

The second lady is more simply dressed, with a pearl choker and a swag of pearls across her shoulder. Interestingly she wears no bracelets or rings, but carries a fan, a symbol of luxury. So, she is obviously wealthy, but perhaps not as wealthy as a Medici! She is, in fact, Marguerite de Lorraine. She secretly married  in 1632 to the Duke of Orléans, the younger brother of King Louis XIII. Political tension between the two brothers resulted in the duke’s exile to Brussels. The duchess followed him in 1633 to Brussels, where their marriage was made public. However, the parliament in Paris dissolved their union in 1634.

The next portrait, of a gentleman, shows that jewellery was also for men! The subject, Rubens’ grandfather, wears a simple stone set ring, on a slim, wire-type band. The stone is in a cut-down, cupped setting. The stone would either be cabochon or faceted.

The next lady is the wife of the gentleman in the previous picture, not a nun as one might think! She wears two rings on the ring finger of her left hand and also on her first finger, and clasps a necklace in the same hand. The image below it is a close up of this portion of the painting. Perhaps the necklace is a rosary beads? They are made of a red stone, probably coral. The rings are matching pairs, set with a red stone, probably garnet or ruby, on simple bands with swirled shoulders.

The next subject is very splendidly dressed, his jacket set with silver buttons, and he wears a gold chain set with stones, with a suspended pendant, possibly the mascot of an aristocratic order. Once again, the quality and value of the necklace shows us that he is an important man. He is Archduke Albrecht of Austria.

A close up shows the necklace in better detail.

A different portrait (not in the museum) shows the same chain.

Finally we have this lady, Archduchess Isabella of Austria. She wears pearl earrings and necklace, a pearl tiara, a stone set cross and a stone brooch of Mary and Jesus. The pearl tiara has large teardrop shape pearls above and below a central line of round pearls. The earrings are simple drop pearls on a gold wire hook. The pearl necklace is a show-stopper, with two main strands, splitting to six strands at the front. Interestingly, the six join onto the two with a ribbon, tied in a large bow. The cross has large stones set on gold, with one large round pearl and two large drop shape pearls. Again we see a preponderance of pearls, symbols of power and wealth.

Here we see the cross and pearls in better detail. You can see the matching of the pearls is superb, no mean feat even today, never mind 400 years ago! The cross is held by a jump ring to a  gold chain with large, open links. The stones in the cross are probably large, and valuable, diamonds! The brooch appears to be stone, with Mary in a blue shaw holding infant Jesus. It is clasped with a similar ribbon as the pearls, and attached to the jacket with a large pin. Again, no rings are worn.

In another, earlier, portrait of her, we can see her wear the same cross, though the pearl at the bottom is instead a cluster of pearls. (It was clearly changed to the large single pearl at a later date).