In celebration of the 4th of July and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, let’s go back in time and take a look at the jewelry styles that were popular with our founding fathers and mothers in Colonial America during the 1700s.
Colonial Newspapers Offer a Glimpse of Jewelry History
Much of our historical information regarding the jewelry styles of American colonists comes from the newspapers of that era that have survived the years. Colonial newspapers provide an interesting and accurate 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.
A Melting Pot of Styles
Colonial jewelry came from various sources, and the result was a melting pot of the cultures convening in the colonies. The Native American Indian tribes were known for their intricate beadwork. 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 in jewelry, and silver and gold earrings, necklaces, 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.
Gold and silver jewelry, precious and semiprecious stones, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, topaz, and garnets were highly prized by the colonists — and for the same they are today: in appreciation of their beauty, the collection of wealth and the appearance of status and social standing in the community.
What They Wore and Why
Based on sales, lost and found and stolen property ads from various colonial newspapers, the jewelry that was popular among the early colonists includes 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.
American colonists were 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.
Museums with 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.