Article by Donna Bilak

SNAPSHOT IN TIME. It was early in the afternoon on September 9th, 2013, when Lot 222 came up on the block at Waddington’s Jewellery and Watch Auction in Toronto. Described in the catalogue as a 19th-century 18kt yellow gold brooch weighing 16 grams, its oval body was decorated with a simple filigree pattern embellished with gold granules, its centre set with faceted purple-toned garnets arranged to form a six-petalled flower. From its place in the auction house showroom, this piece of jewellery evinced silent testimony to a bygone era by virtue of its design and materials. If this brooch could talk, what stories would it have to tell about the society in which it was worn? Who was its first owner, and how did it end up for sale in an auction room in southern Ontario?

While we may never know its full story, the brooch itself constitutes a fascinating material embodiment of certain 19th-century cultural trends. Indeed, it was created during a period of British North American history distinguished by the Industrial Revolution, World Fairs, and Grand Tours to Continental Europe—the technological and cultural hallmarks of 19th-century society. What makes this brooch so interesting is that, in fact, it is an amalgamation of two distinct jewellery genres popular in Victorian England. Its body reflects the style known as “archaeological revival,” which emerged from popular interest in contemporary archaeological excavations. Yet the garnet floret embodies what is referred to as “the language of flowers,” the term used for the 19th-century social convention of expressing sentiment by using flowers whose meanings were codified in floral lexicons.

The use of gold and filigree decoration in Lot 222 is characteristic of the 19th-century vogue for souvenir jewellery rendered in the archaeological revival style, often acquired on visits to Italy as part of a continental Grand Tour. Archaeological revival-style jewellery characteristically featured yellow gold surfaces embellished with geometric patterns comprised of gold granules, suggestive of the Etruscan goldsmithing technique of granulation, as well as filigree wire twisted into such classic designs as the egg-and-dart motif, palmettes, and scrolling or fret-work lines. This genre of jewellery and the culture of the Grand Tour intersect in interesting ways. In a period defined on the one hand by industrial and scientific achievements, the Victorian fascination with the past, on the other, was fuelled by an ongoing series of important archaeological digs. Notable excavations included the 1859 discovery of the royal tomb of the Egyptian queen Ahhotep (circa 1560-1530 BC), made at a time when construction of the Suez Canal from 1859 to 1869 drew attention to Egypt’s ancient past. In Italy, significant caches of Etruscan jewellery were excavated from three different tomb sites dating from the 7th century BC: the Regolini-Galassi tomb at Cerveteri (1836), as well as the Barberini tomb (1855) and the Bernardini tomb (1876) at Palestrina. In 1873, Mycenaean gold treasures were discovered in Asia Minor by Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy and self-educated merchant-turned-archaeologist who believed he had found the fabled ancient city of Troy.

The Victorians also experienced classical antiquity through the Grand Tour, a fashionable educational experience embraced in particular by affluent British classes in the 18th century. Indeed, British Grand Tourists collected voraciously on their trips, and while Napoleonic wars interrupted such excursions, recreational travel around the Continent resumed after 1814. For Victorian tourists, the Castellani atelier in Rome was an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour, where ancient jewellery was on display and exquisite reproductions made by the firm could be purchased by visitors as a memento of their trip. Founded by Fortunato Pio Castellani (1794-1865), the firm was managed by his two sons, Alessandro (1823-1883) and Augusto (1829-1914), after he retired in 1852. Castellani became the most influential firm working in what became known as the archaeological revival style, which generally fell into two stylistic categories: close copies of the ancient original or fanciful interpretations. The jewellery creations by Castellani essentially set the standard for this genre, and the firm’s rise to international fame was rooted in their participation in the excavation of Etruscan tombs during the 1830s, which yielded exquisitely wrought gold jewellery among other ancient artifacts. Because the Castellani kept abreast of archaeological discoveries, they were able to amass an extensive collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman pieces, which they studied and copied, and the firm caused a sensation with their display of Etruscan-style jewellery at the London World Exhibition of 1862.

From a material standpoint, Lot 222 reflects the (then) newfound availability of gold in 19th-century Europe in the smooth expanse of its surface use, while its gold embellishments (the granule beads and twisted wire filigree) articulated classical motifs from the decorative repertoire of antiquity. During the period in which Lot 222 was created, jewellery rendered entirely in gold constituted a novelty, at a time when earlier 19th-century wars and campaigns had depleted European reserves. This situation changed with Californian and Australian gold discoveries in 1849 and 1851 respectively, so that by the 1860s, a significant increase in the availability of gold marked the production of revival-style jewellery.

With regard to the gold work in Lot 222, its central garnet floret appears incongruous with the archaeological revival idiom in which the body of the brooch is rendered. This is because the central floret is, without doubt, from an entirely different piece of jewellery. Even though the scale of the garnet floret is well matched to fit the concave centre of the brooch in terms of width and height, it looks to have been either superimposed upon, or have replaced, a pre-existing central element whose edge can still be seen in the photograph as a repeating pattern of gold granule beads set between scallop shapes. This purple-toned garnet floret also has a particular story to tell about 19th-century society, for it is designed as a pansy, also known as “heart’s ease.” According to the Victorian language of flowers—the sophisticated, encoded floral vocabulary that governed flower arrangements used by Victorians to articulate feelings and emotions—the pansy signaled “think of me,” derived from the French verb penser, “to think.” Floral dictionaries were popular publications throughout the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic. These small, pocket-sized books, were collected and admired in England and North America, and were frequently given as gifts between women.

The morphology of the pansy flower is based upon six heart-shaped petals: two large and overlapping petals comprise its top; two side petals fill out the left and right side of the flower’s face; and the lowermost petal is positioned front and centre. The arrangement of the six gemstones in Lot 222’s floret presents a symmetrical interpretation of the pansy; the triangular shape of the garnets evokes the heart-shape of the flower’s petals. A verse from the 1840 edition of the floral dictionary The Sentiment of Flowers, or, Language of Flora thusly summarizes its praise, “…the garden’s gem: | Heart’s-ease, like a gallant bold, | In his cloth of purple and gold…” and also comments on the pansy’s many variations in colour.1 Flower dictionaries also instructed the reader in ways to create flower arrangements to express specific messages between sender and recipient. On this point, the 1878 floral dictionary The Language of Flowers and Floral Conversation provides diverse examples. For example, to say “Your modesty and moral and intellectual worth inspire my love and devotion” you would assemble a posy containing sweet violet (for “Modesty”), mignonette (“Moral and Intellectual Worth”), lavender, or red rosebud (“Confession of Love”), and heliotrope (“Devotion”).2 Conversely, “I disdain a fop” required a yellow carnation to articulate Disdain,” in combination with the cockscomb, “A fop.”3 While hugely popular, floral dictionaries were not standardized in all meanings and nuances of meanings, and the recipient of a floral message would have had to be certain of the floral dictionary used in its composition. However, certain flowers did have fixed meaning, such as rosemary for remembrance, ivy for friendship, pansy for thoughts, and the eponymous forget-me-not.

The forget-me-not provides a useful case study about the flexibility of the Victorian language of flowers as transposed in jewellery. A small, five-petalled bright blue flower, the forget-me-not was a popular motif in 19thcentury pins, rings, bracelets, lockets, and earrings. The bright blue colour of this flower was rendered either in cabochon-cut turquoise stone or turquoise-coloured enamel. Jewelled forget-me-not pieces were often given as tokens of love and/or friendship. Notably, the “forgetme-not” sentiment could be conveyed not only by the flower but also by its distinctive turquoise blue colour.

The following two examples of 19th-century brooches aptly illustrate how forget-me-not flower jewellery played with form and colour to express meaning. On the one hand, we see a brooch designed as an oval-shaped floral frame comprised of generic white and yellow gold flowers interspersed with crescent shapes, which forms the setting for a piece of polished pearly-white agate that has a decorative flower design riveted to it made from gold and set with turquoise stones. Interestingly, this particular brooch evokes the idea of the forget-me-not flower through colour, conveyed by the turquoise cabochons, as the floral design itself is not botanically accurate. On the other hand, and in contrast, the example of the rectangular“shaped mourning brooch features a forget-mesignifying not spray rendered in seed pearls set into a black onyx background framed by a scrolling ribbon-like gold border. Here, the flower is immediately recognizable as the forget-me-not by virtue of its faithful depiction of form, yet its characteristic blue colour is absent. As a piece of jewellery created to commemorate a deceased loved one, the replacement of the forget-me-not blue with white, the colour of innocence and purity, assumes heightened significance against the black onyx background, the traditional colour of mourning.

The garnet floret in Lot 222 participates in this Victorian culture of floral signification, and the brooch itself serves as a physical embodiment of sentiment and memory. It may indeed have been a piece of souvenir jewellery acquired during travel, or perhaps purchased at a boutique in England. Moreover, 19th-century jewellery catalogues included an array of archaeological revival-style pieces as part of the stock in trade. Evocative of the Victorian interest in the classical past, and an eloquent expression of the popular sentiment “think of me” conveyed by the pansy floret, Lot 222 presents us with a fusion of genres as well as a customized statement of emotion. That said, it is difficult to ascertain when this marriage of styles was made, though it likely occurred during the late 19th or early 20th century. But this much is certain: at some point, some owner wished to personalize this piece, possibly taking the garnet floret from a ring or pin and having a jeweller join it to the brooch. As an object lesson, this is what a reading of the design and the materials of Lot 222 tells us. The human element (the interwoven acts of acquiring-giving-receiving-wearing) is more difficult to recreate, yet this is what imparts meaning to the object. While much of the personal story of Lot 222 has been lost in the transit of time, this brooch is like a jewelled time capsule of events and ideas of a past world.

Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Donna Bilak holds a PhD from the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (NYC).

1 Anonymous, The Sentiment of Flowers, or, Language of
Flora. Embracing an Account of Nearly Three-Hundred
Different Flowers, with their Powers in Language
(Philadelphia:Lea & Blanchard, 1840), 234-5.
2 Charles W. Seelye, The Language of Flowers and Floral Conversation (Rochester, 1878), 60.
3 Ibid.

Floral dictionary, 1842 Image courtesy Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto