Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Nineteenth–Century American Jewelry

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The significance of jewelry made and owned in America extends beyond the realm of personal adornment to encompass social customs and craft practices as well as stylistic and technical developments. Like domestic silver, jewelry is both utilitarian and a distinct marker of social status. Also like silver, jewelry is often personalized with engraved inscriptions or monograms that help to tell its story (2000.532). The history of jewelry in America illuminates international trade practices, for although many objects were made in this country, others were imported from abroad. Exotic materials in particular, such as coral (2000.564a-c), helmet conch shell (2000.562), and diamonds (41.84.20a-e), could often be acquired only from afar.


The American jewelry industry gradually grew from small workshops to large factories and from handcraftsmanship to increasingly mechanized production.

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The American jewelry industry gradually grew from small workshops to large factories and from handcraftsmanship to increasingly mechanized production. By the mid-nineteenth century, American jewelers were able to supply their patrons with a wide range of objects, including gold and silver jewelry and medals (2000.544); hair jewelry to memorialize or honor a loved one (2000.557; 2000.556); and brooch-and-earring sets inspired by French or English models (2000.549a-c). Cameos, whether carved here or imported from Italy, were especially prized. Rarely, as in the case of a cameo depicting Andrew Jackson (2000.562), the cameo cutter signed his work for posterity. Seed pearl jewelry (2003.350.2) became fashionable during the Federal period, particularly as gifts to a bride. This jewelry, made from hundreds of tiny pearls imported from China or India, remained popular into the early twentieth century.


The collection of American jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum enables us to study a variety of materials and techniques, such as different types of enameling, a process that involves heating vitreous enamels to bond them to a metal surface. In champlevé enameling (2000.571), for instance, a design is cut into the metal surface and the enamel fused into the hollow reserves, while in plique-à-jour (2001.331), transparent enamels are set within a pierced metal framework similar to stained glass. At times the jewelry industry has benefited from scientific developments, such as Charles Goodyear's invention of Vulcanite in 1836. Made from India rubber treated with sulfur, Vulcanite provided a durable and practical substitute for imported tortoiseshell (2000.561). The California Gold Rush of 1849 was one of the most important events in the history of American jewelry. Although gold had been mined in Georgia and North Carolina since the 1820s, its discovery in the West coincided with the ceding of California, Texas, and the American Southwest to the United States.


Diamond jewelry became very popular during the nineteenth century, spurred by growing prosperity and increased supplies worldwide (41.84.20a-e; 2001.234a-d). Colored gemstones were also highly prized. Late-century jewelry designs, including Egyptian and Renaissance (2001.238) revivals, reflect contemporary interest in historical styles. During the 1880s, a fashion arose for jewelry made from ancient coins or for die-stamped silver discs imitating coins. The centuries-old process of die-stamping was both efficient and affordable (2001.335), and silver became more readily available to Americans following the discovery in 1859 of the Comstock Lode in Nevada.


At the end of the nineteenth century, jewelry designers were embracing the Art Nouveau style with its interest in natural and asymmetrical forms (2001.330). More humble materials, such as enamels, opals, moonstones, and baroque pearls, replaced diamonds and precious stones (2001.246; 2001.239). One of the most talented and experimental artists of the period, Louis Comfort Tiffany, turned his attention to jewelry design around 1904, producing exquisite creations inspired by nature (46.168.1). Developing alongside Art Nouveau was the English-born Arts and Crafts movement, which strove to revive handcraftsmanship in an era of increased machine production. Somewhat less free-spirited than Art Nouveau designers, proponents of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic shared their passion for nature, modest materials, and artistic freedom (52.43.1-.3). Although these design movements waned after World War I, Americans' enthusiasm for handcrafted jewelry remains to this day.

Beth Carver Wees
Department of American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art