Jewelry of our Founding Mothers and Fathers
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With the July 4th holiday around the corner, let’s celebrate Independence Day by taking a look back in time at the jewelry styles that our Founding Mothers and Fathers wore and loved in colonial America during the 17th and 18th centuries.
How we know what they wore
How do we know what kind of jewelry our Founding Mothers and Fathers wore during the colonial era? Most of the facts we have regarding the styles of American colonists come from the newspapers of the era that have survived over the years.
Colonial newspapers provide an interesting account of what colonial Americans sold, bought, wore, lost and had stolen. And like today’s periodicals, colonial newspapers ran advertisements, including many related to jewelry — from sales ads by goldsmiths and silversmiths, to lost and found and stolen property ads by citizens. The jewelry ads in colonial newspapers offer us a glimpse of the jewelry styles, tastes and interests of our Founding Fathers and Mothers.
According to various colonial newspapers, the jewelry that was popular among the early colonists included silver snuff and tobacco boxes with mother of pearl lids, gold and silver sleeve buttons, brooches with detailed portraits set with gemstones, elaborate silver hilted swords, garnet and crystal three-drop earrings, coral necklaces, silver and gold watches, gold heart lockets set with garnets, and, of course, gold and silver belt buckles. An ornate belt buckle was an essential fashion piece to complete a well-dressed look.
What they wore and where it came from
Colonial America was a melting pot of people and backgrounds, and the jewelry of the time reflected the various cultures convening in the colonies. The Native American Indian tribes, known for their intricate beadwork, were a popular influence—they would stitch together thousands of beads made of carved bone and wood, ground coral, shell, turquoise and copper.
Spanish silversmiths and goldsmiths helped introduce metalwork into jewelry, and as a result, silver and gold earrings, necklaces, and belt and shoe buckles became popular. As more European settlers arrived, the jewelry "shops" of the day became more diverse, offering a cornucopia of gems and one-of-a-kind pieces made and found throughout the colonies, Europe and South America.
American colonists were very interested in the latest jewelry and fashion styles of England, France and other countries, but the geographic distance between the New World of America and Old World Europe made it difficult to stay up on the latest trends. The early colonists instead focused on sentimental jewelry that was relevant to them in their new homes — love and loyalty, as well as the specter of impending death.
"Heart-in-hand" rings — descended from Roman engagement and wedding rings — were given as tokens of affection by lovers and would-be suitors, while mourning rings adorned with skulls and crossbones were worn as reminders of one’s mortality in the often dangerous and inhospitable colonies.
Colonial women loved pearls, and single or multiple-strand necklaces were worn to accentuate the necklines of the popular sacque gowns of the mid-1700s. Instead of a clasp or hook, pearl necklaces were often secured with a bow or ribbon at the back of the neck. Pearls were expensive though, and women who were painted wearing them did not necessarily own them.
Gold and silver jewelry, precious and semiprecious stones, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, topaz, and garnets and other valuable gems were highly prized by the colonists, and like today, owning and wearing them gave the appearance of social and financial status in the community.
Where you can see colonial jewelry
While many colonial era jewelry pieces have been lost to the ages, we are lucky to have several museums with impressive collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a 19th-century American jewelry exhibit. Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation Building houses a small but precious sampling of 18th- and 19th-century jewelry.
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