19th century England was very much the centre of the diamond world, primarily due to the extent of the British Empire. Queen Victoria was Empress of India, where most of the world’s most famous diamonds originated, and South Africa was to become one of the major sources of rough diamonds from the 1860s onwards.
The “Diamond Rush” that grew in South Africa in that era led to a greatly expanded supply chain, and, alongside developments in cutting techniques, allowed for more diamonds (and larger diamonds!) to become commonplace. The new wealthy upper and middle classes could finally aspire to own something that preciously had been the preserve of Royalty.
The Victorian reign is normally divided into three categories, which begins with her ascension to the throne in 1837, and ends with her death in 1901. It was a time of great social, scientific and cultural change, going from candlelight and horse drawn carriages to electrification and motor vehicles. The dates are Early or Romantic Period (1837-60), The Grand Period (1860-85) and the Aesthetic Period (1885-1901). Diamond jewellery is mostly in the latter two categories.
The Romantic Period is so called because of the charm of a young Queen and the nations adoration of her, as well as her love for her husband. With industrialisation, much jewellery began to be mass produced, and was not always hand made. In the 1850s, gold was scarce, so a lot of the jewellery produced was actually gold-plated, but the Californian gold rush reinvigorated the world’s supply, and gold came back into fashion. Jewellery commonly features clusters of pearls, eyes, anchors, crosses, arrows, love knots, serpents, garters or buckles, vines and leaves.
The Grand Period began with the death of Prince Albert, plnunging the Queen and the country into mourning. One finds a lot of jet and onyx jewellery in this era. Diamond jewellery from the Grand Period typically has a lot of floral motifs and decorations, and is large in scale; one sees, for example, large corsage ornaments, long drop earrings, big brooches. They will usually have large clusters of smaller stones, to create the impression of a big diamond, and lots of sparkle.
Aesthetic Period Victorian pieces are more refined, in keeping with the Aesthetic Movement that was in vogue at the time. These pieces have simpler lines, and are less fussy. The diamonds used are generally larger, and fewer diamonds are used.
The most common items one finds are rings, brooches and necklaces. Tiaras were only for rare occasions, as were hair ornaments. Sometimes one would own a parure, a suite of jewellery such as a matching set of earrings, ring, brooch, necklace and two bracelets. Demi-parures, featuring only a few of the above items, also exist. These normally came in beautiful fitted cases
Most of the settings in early and mid Victorian jewellery were silver fused on top of a gold base. As we enter the mid and late Victorian era goldsmiths started using platinum on a gold base, before finally moving to just platinum in the early 20th century.
With very old cut diamonds, cutters used the natural shape of the diamond crystal as the outline of the polished diamond, so often one will find old cuts with an irregular or squared outline. This gives great dispersion and fire, and a lovely warm glow to the diamond. They sparkle in a soft, charming way, and are not as “twinkly” as a modern (post-1920) diamond.