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Coral Necklaces, Regency Style

 

Remember, I am to have a new Carriage hung as high as the Duttons’, and blue spotted with silver; and I shall expect a new saddle horse, a suit of fine lace, and an infinite number of the most valuable Jewels. Diamonds such as never were seen, and Pearls, Rubies, Emeralds, and Beads out of number…
-Jane Austen
The Three Sisters

Lady Maria Hamilton, 1802, by Thomas Lawrence.

You’ve probably seen the necklaces dozens of times without noticing them. I have. These beautiful single string coral necklaces worn by Regency ladies escaped my attention until my friend and blogging partner on Jane Austen Today, Laurel Ann of Austenprose, sent me some spectacular images, such as the one of Lady Maria Hamilton, who died in 1814, unmarried. Coral has enjoyed a long and ancient tradition, first worn as a talisman and later for its color and beauty. One of my favorite drawings by Peter Paul Rubens depicts his son with a coral necklace. At the time coral was thought to protect the wearer.

Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Necklace, Peter Paul Rubens, Red and black chalk heightened with white and some black ink on paper, c. 1619

The tradition of giving children coral necklaces continued through the 19th century, as shown in this detail of a late 18th century John Hoppner painting of one of the Sackville girls. The gemstone was considered a guardian of sorts, protecting children from illnesses like stomachaches, fever, typhus, smallpox, and rickets. The mala beads were polished to a smooth sheen and matched in color. Bead sizes could be similar or gradated from small to larger stones that were strung in the center.

The Sackville Children, detail, John Hoppner, 1796

Handmade jewellery created during the late Georgian Era (1760-1837) is extremely hard to find today.  As styles changed, the pieces were remade rather than tossed out or sold. Until the latter part of the 18th century, coral was harvested from the sea largely by dredging. Fine quality red coral came from the Mediterranean – Algeria, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Tunisia and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, with some saying that the best corals came off the coasts of Algeria and Tunisia. Eighteenth century coral was a rich warm red and is unavailable today. In fact, original antique jewellery made with dark red coral is so difficult to find that it has become a highly prized collectible.

Jane Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford, John Hoppner, 1797

 

Early 19th century red coral necklace

Simple round necklaces, like the one worn by the Countess of Oxford, were popular and complimented low necklines, but chokers were also fashionable, like the Georgian Cannetille Sardinian red coral four strand necklace on the left. Coral is made up of the skeletal material built up by small animals that live in slow growing colonies in the sea. Colors range from vivid orange, red, and white, to salmon and pale pink (called angelskin coral). In jewelry making coral is either carved into beads, cameos, and other forms, or is left in its natural branch-like form and simply polished. (My mother had such a necklace, which I played with as a child.) The most sought after color (and the rarest) is a deep red, as in the necklace at left.  Coral manufacturing during the Regency Period consisted primarily of filing beads of smoothed coral and stringing necklaces. Because coral consists of calcium carbonate, it is extremely sensitive to chemicals,  perfumes, and body acids. Like pearls, the necklaces must be washed with a damp cloth (no detergents) and restrung periodically.

Little boy placing a coral necklace on a dog's neck, Martin Drolling
Drawing by Jacopo Vignali

Many mystical and medicinal properties were attributed to coral, among them vitality, physical strength, stronger marital relationships, wealth, increased sensuality, and protection while out to sea. Coral was also used as a medicinal powder. Primitive physics believed that coral oxides mixed with honey made a person strong. Mix it with betel leaf and it made a potent cure for cough and heart disease. Coral powder is still a popular aphrodisiac in India today, which prompts avaricious collectors to dynamite coral reefs, putting fragile reefs in acute danger. In the detail of a 17th century drawing by Jacopo Vignali at left, one can easily see why this semi-precious stone was considered to have sensual qualities. The combination of the coral necklace and her full lips make the young woman look both fragile and seductive.

More information about corals can be found in these links:

Modern Regency reproduction coral jewelry is available from Jane Smith’s Regency Collection


Vic Sanborn oversees two blogs: Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today. Before 2006 she merely adored Jane Austen and read Pride and Prejudice faithfully every year. These days, she is immersed in reading and writing about the author’s life and the Regency era. Co-founder of her local (and very small) book group, Janeites on the James, she began her blogs as a way to share her research on the Regency era for her novel, which sits unpublished on a dusty shelf. In her working life, Vic provides resources and professional development for teachers and administrators of Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs. This article was written for Jane Austen’s World and is used here with permission.

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A Cameo Appearance

 

Charlotte was to go: with excellent health, to bathe and be better if she could; to receive every possible pleasure which Sanditon could made to supply by the gratitude of those she went with; and to buy new parasols, new gloves and new brooches for her sisters and herself at the library, which Mr. Parker was anxiously wishing to support.
-Sanditon

Cameos seem as if they belong to the Regency. Often portraying Greek or Roman scenes and faces, they evoke a romantic mood and whispers of a time long past. In reality, though, these charming vignettes of time gone by hearken back over thousands, not hundreds of years.

The word cameo, actually refers to the method of carving an object such as an engraved gem, item of jewellery or vessel. These nearly always feature a raised (positive) relief image (in contrast with intaglio, which has a negative image.) Originally, cameo only referred to works where the relief image was of a contrasting colour to the background; this was achieved by carefully carving a piece of material with a flat plane where two contrasting colours met, removing all the first colour except for the image to leave a contrasting background.

An elaborate cameo necklace and earring set. Part of the Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion traveling exhibit.

Cameos are often worn as jewelry, but in ancient times were mainly used for signet rings, although the largest examples were probably too large for this, and were just admired as objets d’art. Stone cameos of great artistry were made in Greece dating back as far as the 3rd century BC. The Farnese Tazza (a cup) is the oldest major Hellenistic piece surviving. They were very popular in Ancient Rome, especially in the family circle of Augustus. The most famous stone “state cameos” from this period are the Gemma Augustea, the Gemma Claudia made for the Emperor Claudius, and the largest flat engraved gem known from antiquity, the Great Cameo of France.

the Gemma Augustea and the Gemma Claudia made for the Emperor Claudius

During the Roman period the cameo technique was used on artificial glass blanks, in imitation of objects being produced in agate or sardonyx. Cameo glass objects were produced in two periods; between around 25 BC and 50/60 AD, and in the later Empire around the mid-third and mid-fourth century.Roman glass cameos are rare objects, with only around two hundred fragments and sixteen complete pieces known, only one of which dates from the later period. During the early period they usually consisted of a blue glass base with a white overlying layer, but those made during the later period usually have a colourless background covered with a translucent coloured layer. Blanks could be produced by fusing two separately cast sheets of glass, or by dipping the base glass into a crucible of molten overlay glass during blowing. The most famous example of a cameo from the early period is the Portland Vase.

The Portland Vase

Although occasionally used in Roman cameos, the earliest prevalent use of shell for cameo carving was during the Renaissance. In the mid 18th century, explorations revealed new shell varieties. Helmet shells (Cassis tuberosa) from the West Indies, and queen conch shells (Eustrombus gigas) from the Bahamas and West Indies, arrived in Europe. This sparked a large increase in the number of cameos that were carved from shells.

An assortment of vintage cameos

In Britain, this revival first occurred during King George III’s reign. As with many fashion trends of the time, this one was imported from France and stemmed from a heightened interest in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, due to Napoleon’s campaigns in the south. A cameo diadem carved from a single shell, depicting a scene from greek mythology, framed by gold, pearls and precious and semiprecious stones, was a present to Josephine from her brother-in-law Joachim Murat in 1811.

Empress Josephine's cameo tiara

Napoleon, himself, was fascinated by cameos, and as you can see, Josephine, who did nothing by halves, had a large collection of them set in pins, bracelets, combs, and more.

The Empress Josephine painted in a variety of cameo accessories

 

In 1823 the diadem became part Josephine's grandaughter, Josephine of Leuchtenberg's dowry upon her marriage to the future King of Sweden, Oscar I. Now part of Swedish Crown jewels, the tiara has been worn by many royal brides, including Crown Princess Victoria, who married the Duke of Västergötland in 2010.

 

In Britain, King George’s granddaughter, Queen Victoria, was a major proponent of the cameo trend, to the extent that they would become mass produced by the second half of the 19th century. After 1850 demand for cameos grew, as they became popular souvenirs of the Grand Tour among the middle class.

Antique Victorian Cameos

Cameos continue to be popular jewelry subjects for pins, necklaces, rings, hair clips, earrings and more. Both vintage and new models can be found for sale with little searching; perhaps because they evoke a romantic feel…perhaps because they are so innately elegant. However you look at it, though, cameos continue to be one of the longest lasting jewelry trends in history.

Cameo earrings
Cameo earrings

 We have a lovely range of cameo jewellery at our giftshop – click here to visit out market place.


 

A variety of vintage and reproduction cameo jewelry pieces can be found at Austentation: Regency Accesssories and Austenation: Etsy.

Historical information from Wikipedia.com

For more information about France’s Empress Josephine and her love of Cameo jewelry, visit Melanie’s in depth site.

To view more information about the Swedish Crown Jewels, try this page.