While the inspiration for art, design, architecture, fashion, and jewelry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was predominantly of classical origin, the dominating influences of the early years of the young Queen Victoria's reign were medieval. Historical Gothic, Romantic themes and natural symbolism were espoused, possibly to counter the increase in urbanization and industrialization. This retrospective fantasy was popular in both France and England, but in England no attempt was made at authenticity; in France more austere and serious Gothic themes predominated.
The symbolism of Victoria's early reign flourished as natural and sentimental themes became popular. The Far Eastern "language" of flowers was incorporated into an emerging fashion for relatively cheap daytime jewelry. Intertwined branches set with semi-precious or crystal stones spoke of everlasting love. Leaves of ivy became talismans of marital bliss and forget-me-nots of true love.
Victorian innovation led to a bewildering variety of materials finding their way into jewelry. For example, gilded metals were set with tortoiseshell, ivory, coral, jet, glass beads, precious and semi-precious stones, porcelain, steel, human hair, glass, shell, wood, and straw.
The degree of skill and attention to detail of metal workers was remarkable. Although the fashion for cannetile (fancy gold wirework) was over by the 1840s, the skills of goldsmiths were put to use in repousse work, in which shapes were stamped out of thin gold sheets and further worked to add detail, creating leaves, shells, and flowers. Gold was combined with copper to produce reddish colours and with silver to make green. By the 1880s, however, silver had become more popular to wear.
The increase in the use of non-precious materials allowed jewelry to be made more cheaply than ever. Inexpensive cameos from the Continent were set in gilded frames. Carved ivory from Dieppe and Switzerland was very popular, as were porcelain jewels.
The serpent was among the most ubiquitous motifs favoured by Victorian society. Rendered in almost every material, the form of a snake with its tail in its mouth took its inspiration from both classical and naturalistic sources. The hand was also another popular device.
The Victorian Romantic period ended with the death of the Queen's beloved Albert, and the dark blacks and browns of Whitby jet and bog oak (or bogwood) symbolized her mourning. Jet (fossilized wood) had been increasing in use as a mourning jewel for some years and came to be used for every type of jewelry, often quite large, representing natural forms such as oak leaves and bouquets of flowers. Elaborate faceted jet necklaces and earrings were set with cameos or hand-painted porcelain plaques. The supply of jet from the traditional source of Whitby could not satisfy the enormous demand, so imitations began to spring up French jet, a very dark purple glass that appeared black, being one of them. Bog oak, dug from the peat bogs of Ireland, was another imitator, but it could not carry facets or a shine. It was, however, easily carved and was also reminiscent of jewels excavated from the Celtic period. Other imitators included compressed wood shavings and vulcanite.
In the later High Victorian years, a relaxation of strict mourning brought colour back into fashion along with a flourishing of design and unusual materials. Jewels, especially brooches, in the form of insects were extremely popular, their bodies of chased gilded metal and their wings of crystal or Vauxhall glass. This glass, similar to French jet, was usually foiled on the reverse and faceted on the front. Burgundy and violet were most popular.
With increasing affluence and more modern manufacturing techniques, fashions in the world of jewelry moved quickly. Silver and gold inlaid into tortoise shell, pyropic Bohemian garnets, Venetian glass beads, and even aluminum all appeared. Although aluminum had been discovered in 1827, a method of producing it commercially had not been developed until the 1860s. Parisian jewelers lead the way in its use, and aluminum set into gilded metal or gold attracted great attention.
Coral was particularly popular from around 1830 to the 1860s. Generally orangey in colour, the most sought after were the pinkish hues. It was worn as a good luck charm against witchcraft and the devil and was intricately carved into cherubs, flowers, and cameos, or used for hair ornaments. It was inset into gold and even faceted. In the late 1860s, however, it came to be seen as vulgar.
Victoria's love of Scotland spurred the popularity of jewelry in the Celtic style annular and penannular brooch designs especially. Associated motifs were dirks (daggers), kilt pins, St Andrew's cross, buckles and straps, shields, and heraldic devices. Stones used included agates, jasper, bloodstones, polished pebbles, micro-granite, and carnelian, to name but a few. Many of these jewels were manufactured in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh, but the majority were actually made further south, in Birmingham, England.
In the 1880s, the bright polychrome jewels that were fashionable up to this point began to look overly garish in the new electric lighting, whereas diamonds shone beautifully. Imitation diamonds, or diamante paste, thus found a renaissance after its rather limited use in the earlier 19th century. In conjunction with the development of faux pearls, the ingredients for the birth of 20th-century costume jewelry were being assembled.