Nineteenth century jewellery reflects social change as vividly as the most beautifully illustrated book of history. Spanning the Industrial Revolution, the years between the American Revolution and the death of Queen Victoria saw the growth of a middle class in which ordinary men and women bought and wore rings, earrings, brooches and engraved pocket watches. The nature of the change was made possible, of course, by the mechanisation of jewellery making.
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Prior to mid 19th century, jewellery was primarily produced by hand in small workshops by highly skilled craftsmen and artists. Their methods were limited by adherence to time-honoured techniques such as wire work and engraving of precious metals such as gold and silver. Up to this time, precious stones were faceted only by a few very skilled cutters, and stones were often set polished but uncut in solid metal settings.
One of the most unusual aspects of hand made 19th century jewellery was the introduction of human hair as a whole or partial design. The custom probably originated as a way to memorialise a loved one who had died or gone away. Hair jewellery required that the hair be braided or woven in a pattern and transformed into a brooch, locket, bracelet or ring --- sometimes framed with metal and jewels and sometimes left unadorned.
Fashionable 19th century ladies enjoyed cameos in all forms of jewellery. Earrings, pendants, bracelets and rings were topped and centred with hand carved portraits in genuine shell from various sea creatures. Usually profiles of women and children, the carver might choose to portray a real person living or dead. Pink or white in colour, cameos were nearly always backed with a precious metal and framed with a decorative edge, sometimes hand applied.
As the century progressed, mechanisation of manufacturing techniques made the stamping of metal jewellery pieces more affordable than hand engraving and shaping. Precious stones such as diamonds, rubies and emeralds gained in popularity as they were cut in facets and set in open mountings so that light could shine through. Other stones --- including opals and seed pearls --- were considered fashionable; enamelled jewellery, made possible by bonding colour to metal with heat, became popular.
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