Symbol Treasures

A guide to the secret messages hidden in jewellery

With the festive season fast approaching, many of us are readying ourselves to tackle the challenge of giving the perfect gift. In an age where sustainability and counting your blessings is important, we’ll most likely be on the hunt for something built to last and that will inevitably be cherished. A symbolic piece of antique or vintage jewellery could be the perfect solution to this present buying dilemma.

By giving something with meaning it shows thought and care and allows you to say a little about or to the lucky recipient. Saying the right thing will certainly result in a gift that’s treasured forever! It’s doubtless that jewellery’s essential purpose is to adorn – to reflect the tastes of the wearer and the trends of the time, making a person feel beautiful and confident. However, throughout history, jewellery has also been utilised as a powerful tool of suggestion and sentiment. Motifs, colours and materials aren’t just chosen for their aesthetic properties, but for the messages they convey. So what are the hidden meanings behind pieces that can be bought from antiques and vintage dealers today?

A great deal of the symbolism we find within jewellery design comes to us courtesy of the natural world and one of the most popular creatures utilised to convey meaning is the snake. The favouring of serpents dates back to early civilisations with the Aztecs viewing them as representations of knowledge and protection and the Ancient Greeks seeing them as symbols of regeneration, due to their ability to shed skin. In the Victorian period, a coiled snake came to symbolise eternal love. This was largely due to Prince Albert giving a ring depicting a continuous snake with an emerald set head to Queen Victoria on the occasion of their betrothal.

Victoria was ever the trendsetter and this dazzling serpent statement saw the popularity of snake jewellery across Europe during the 1800s increase ten-fold. Unsurprisingly, the fashion for serpents did not cease with the end of the 19th century. A perfect Christmas gift choice could be a celluloid snake wrap bangle as worn in the 1920s by every stylish flapper girl – so evocative of the Art Deco era.

Other symbolic creatures in jewellery design include bees and beetles. Bees have been used to suggest busy workers and beetles in both Ancient Egyptian and Egyptian Revival jewellery symbolise endurance of the soul.

Mythological animals in the jewellery of other cultures have also been used as tokens of suggestion. In Far Eastern design, dragons symbolise strength and prosperity, whilst Foo or Lion Dogs are protectors of the truth.

Specimens from the plant world have been widely used to carry messages in jewellery too. Returning to the Victorians, they attributed meaning to so many forms of flora. This was particularly thanks to the 1856 publication of Mrs. A. Burke’s Illustrated Language of Flowers. It contained 700 meanings for a variety of plants and was small enough to fit inside a reticule, meaning it could be carried everywhere for reference. Lilies-of-the-Valley represented a fond return of love, Forget-Me-Nots suggested remembrance, Ferns implied sincerity, Oak conveyed strength, Ivy meant fidelity and Buttercups were indicators of happiness.

Read more in Issue 43 here

Woo Gilchrist