On cold winter days, one of the most joyful sights is a collection of amber. Those yellows, browns and reds just exude warmth. More than 2000 years ago Homer, in his Odyssey, mentioned that amber beads ‘glowed as if with sunshine’. They still do. So vivid was the colour that amber, according to the historian Pliny  the Elder (AD 23-79), was thought to be the solidified urine of the lynx – in fact one of its old names being lyncurius.  Even the different colours were explained as the fiery red from a male lynx and the less pronounced colours from the female.

There were many theories as to the origin of  Amber.  Some believed that certain trees oozed gum when the Dog star (Sirius) rose in the sky. For others, Amber was the setting sun’s rays, solidified in the seas and cast ashore on the morning tides. Another myth was that it was the tears of the gods. Amongst the myths there is one grain of reality. Amber did once come from trees. It is, in fact , fossilized tree resin which has taken between 35 to 50 million years to form and it is found in over 200 colours (even blue). Not too surprisingly the tears of the gods and the sun’s rays sadly don’t play a part but Amber is still found along the shores of the Baltic countries, just as it was in Greek and Roman times.

Amber has been valued for centuries. Its abundance, colours, translucency and ease of working (it is only a bit harder than a finger nail) meant it has been a wonderful material to fashion into jewellery or artefacts, like the chess piece and jewellery below – it has even been made  into wall coverings as in the Amber room in St Petersburg. It was also, at one time , according to Pliny the Elder, so valuable that small Amber effigies were known to fetch a higher price than living men, ‘even strong, stout, vigorous men’.

But for me the most fascinating of all are the pieces showing insects trapped for ever in the sticky resin. Highly desirable but beautifully gruesome, like the ant caught in the chess piece, a pawn ironically. (It  looks so alive. Perhaps with another twist of its body it could have free itself).

amber-earrings  Amber, like many stones in the past, was considered to possess healing properties. Hippocrates(c 460-370BC), the father of western medicine, thought that Amber could ease delirium tremens. Through the ages Amber has been proclaimed as a cure for snake bites, rheumatism, easing childbirth pains and toothaches. Martin Luther was said to keep a piece of Amber in his pocket hoping to prevent  kidney and bladder stones,sadly it didn’t work,and he was said to suffer terribly. Many of these beliefs have been relegated to folk remedy status but one area in which there is renewed interest  is in the efficacy of amber teething necklaces to ease teething pains.

I’m not sure of any medical beliefs about Amber. I look at it as a beautiful material. However, when I hold a string of Amber beads it has such a tactile,warm,smooth feel that I can fully understand why it is the preferred material for prayer beads in many faiths.

My thanks to Amber Fortuna  at Grays Market (Details on Source Page) for allowing me to photograph these pieces.

Flower Power

May is the start of the flower shows in the UK and I thought it would be interesting to see how successful flowers and plants have been in jewellery design. It seems that every era (except 1930’s deco) have incorporated the natural into jewels – everything from wheat sheaves to cherries and strawberries.

The flowers have also been made out of any number of materials from the valuable gold, diamonds, pearls and rubies to the simpler (but in some cases) more suspect materials of tortoise shell, ivory and even glass.  Superstition had assigned meanings to the flowers and these, too, have been passed on to the flowers in the jewels. These were a wonderful way to send secret messages to a beloved in days past. The ivory bracelet below is made up of five
plaques, strung together on elastic and are very Victorian with carved daisies, roses, forget-me-nots and fuschia. Roses are universal symbols of love as are forget-me-nots. The daisy represents purity and innocence and the fuschia good taste. These flower motifs repeat many times.

18 carat gold, natural pearlsAnother delightful design is the flower basket in jewellery. Seen here is a Georgian example. These giardinetti jewels (little garden) pieces could be tiny baskets, vases or flower pots filled with a riot of small gemstones to illustrate the many variety of flowers.
They were also said to symbolise conjugal harmony.

Gold. Textures and Colour

Pure gold is not much harder than talc. (Talc is 1 on the Moh’s scale of hardness, diamond is 10), pure gold is between 2 to 3 which makes gold incredibly flexible to work with. One Troy ounce (31.1 ounces) can be beaten very thinly to cover 4 square metres. These sheets or gold leaf were used to gild artefacts, frescos, the halos of saints, and even to decorate cakes. The ounce of gold could also be pulled into a wire 100km long. As well as the beautiful wire work  in jewellery, the  gold wire provided the earliest use of gold in dentistry when the Etruscans started securing their false teeth with gold wire in 600BC

Gold has been found all over the world and nearly all civilisations have been enthralled by it and gone to great lengths to obtain it. Only a few cultures, such as the Aborigines, the Maoris and the indigenous peoples of North America haven’t succumbed to its magic, valuing more, harder materials such as flint or obsidian (volcanic glass). However, one of the great qualities of gold is that it can be mixed easily with other metals such as copper, silver, zinc and palladium to make it harder –  a by product to this process is that wonderful varieties of colours can be created which have been used so effectively by jewellers. 24 carat (ct.) gold is 99.9% gold, and is very yellow.18ct gold is 75% yellow gold and 25% other metals. 18ct green gold has the 75% gold with 25% silver. To get 18ct red gold the 25% addition is copper. 18ct white gold has the 25% addition of silver, zinc and palladium to give a white hue. In the past

nickel was in the 25% mix but nickel can cause an allergic reaction so is rarely used now.  In 1854 lower carat gold was permitted so that gold could be made available to more people. These other carats were 12ct gold, 50% gold and 50% other metals, 15ct gold, which was 62.5% gold and 37.5% other metals  and 9ct gold which at only 37.5% gold and 62.5% other metals could hardly be called gold. However, in 1931,12 and 15 carat gold  were replaced by 14ct gold, 58.3% gold 41.7% other metals. We have kept the 9ct gold.The colour of the gold mixes will
also be different depending on the carat of gold and the percentage of other metals. So for example, 18ct red gold will be a softer
rose colour than 9ct red gold which will obviously have a much greater proportion of copper so will be a richer darker red.

Gold is liked so much for its value and the status it can give to the wearer. But there is much more to gold.

The dog blog – a jewellery homage to Crufts

Let me nail my colours to the mast – I am a cat person. I like my dogs to be in art – preferably in jewellery.  However, as it is Crufts soon, this is my homage to dogs.

Dogs have been domesticated for more than 15,000 years. With this has come a broad symbolism. For the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, dogs had links to the underworld. One of the most iconic images of early dog art must surely be the jackal head of the god Anubis in ancient Egyptian funeral scenes. Anubis, the god of mummification, assisted in the rites by which a dead man was admitted to the underworld.






The Greeks had a three headed dog – Cerebus,  who guarded the entrance to the underworld, allowing souls in, but not back.  Neither images were seen much in jewellery.  The main images that have been portrayed in Western art, highlight symbols that are recognisable today such as dogs’ faithfulness, companionship and of course, their hunting skills. Many of these images were translated into what could be called ‘male’ jewellery and accoutrements such as seals, tie/stick pins or snuff boxes. The jewellery depicting dogs which was made for women tended to be much more frivolous.

This beautiful greyhound family made in 1800 looks as if it had been painted – in fact






it is made of of tiny mosaic pieces so small that they are called micromosaic.  This became particularly popular in Italy between 17th and 19th centuries when many of these mosaics were favourite mementos with those on the Grand Tour.  It might well have been bought already made up into a brooch, as here or bought as a small tablet as with the poodle, ready to be slotted into a box top or framed, back in England.

This delightful micromosaic poodle was made around 1840 in Italy.  The poodle is

beautifully executed – it looks so lifelike that at any moment I expect him to get up, give himself a shake and run off.  What I find amazing is that this style of clipping poodles was obviously fashionable 180 years ago. Poodles may well have originated as gun dogs but these fancy clipping styles made them almost cheeky targets for jewellery images.

Away from the hint of sweetness, these two silver 18th and 19th century pug snuff boxes wonderfully capture the solidity of pugs.







Another jewellery medium for portraying animals was enamelling.  Like the micromosaic it could be beautifully made and very realistic.  These four dogs and one boar epitomise the

skill that went into rather modest pieces.  These five, are enamelled on copper and are hollow backed.  They were made around 1900, and are still waiting to be made into brooches or stick pins.

Looking at these reminds me of when years ago I bought a collection of 40 enamelled dog brooches. They were beautiful and almost photographic in detail. They were, though, an absolute nightmare to sell. Customers would come, see the dog that they thought was exactly like their dog. But on closer inspection it wasn’t.  Their pet  had a white patch on its ear or longer legs or more spots and then a conversation would begin that could go on for hours about how if my dog were more like their dog, then they would buy the brooch but it was such a pity that it wasn’t and didn’t I really have a brooch of their dog with longer legs under the stand? In the end I took them out of the showcase, gave them to someone else to sell and swore never to buy anything that could remotely resemble someone’s pet.

A few more frivolous examples of dogs in jewellery.

Discretion is the better part of Valentine’s Day

In the last post I touched on the less overt love tokens.

One of the loveliest I always thought was Regard jewellery, which found favour during the late Georgian and Victorian times. This is where the stones in the ring or locket, for example, spell the message regard (Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby and Diamond) or dearest (Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby,

 Emerald, Sapphire and Topaz.) It sounds ghastly and in modern jewellery the colours clash appallingly but in antique jewellery the stones are often combined with different shades of gold so the effect is more muted.  This early Victorian padlock and key jewel combines the symbolism of having the key to unlock the heart’s secrets with the charm of the message.

For most, the ultimate symbol of love is the wedding ring, (the gotcha symbol). It has, though, gone through many transformations. to arrive at today’s wedding band. A simple twisted hemp ring sufficed in ancient civilisations, an iron ring in the early Roman period (which symbolised the man’s ownership of the woman). However, a more attractive Roman development of the marriage ring was a  fede ring. Fede comes from the Latin for trust, faith and fidelity. This sign of two hands joined together was the Roman emblem for a legal contract, (perhaps the modern equivalent of shaking hands on a deal).  This ring has kept this essential meaning of trust over the

centuries – Nelson gave his Emma a fede ring.  A more popular version of this ring  is  this 17th century design – remarkably similar to the Irish Claddagh ring.  The hands holding the heart make it a natural choice to represent sweethearts.

For me, though the most delightful wedding bands were always poesy rings. Often looking remarkably like plain modern wedding rings, the inside would be inscribed with some sort of message. Some messages had religious overtones such as ‘Fear God, and love me’ (written 1086) or were painfully honest such as ‘When the money’s low. This ring must go.’ (c.1595), while others were deliciously flirtatious such as, ‘Com kisse me daintilye.’ (c.1596). The
significance of these secret mottos was supposed to be greatly enhanced because the words actually touched the recipient’s skin. (Perhaps this didn’t apply to the wearer of the painfully honest message). Poesy rings were particularly popular from the early Medieval period to Victorian times. Unfortunately, when the Hall Marking Act of gold wedding rings came into force in 1855 this attractive custom died. However, one can still find these old poesy rings around.
Of course, one doesn’t actually need a  ring to get married.  The Puritans in England tried to pass a law forbidding wedding rings as it smacked of the Papacy etc. They failed, but the remains of this attempt is that a ring does not have to be a part of a civil ceremony. One delightful anecdote incorporating this is that in America, the early Puritans gave a wedding thimble to the bride instead of a wedding ring.  However, the bottom often ‘fell out’ of the thimble – so the wife was left with a ring anyway.
If you feel that discretion is not the better part of Valentine’s Day  then here are some more traditional jewels.


Men, why not give her a frog for Valentine’s Day?

Roses, chocs and hearts are the traditional gifts for Valentine’s day.  But why not a give a frog  or a snake? I mean, of course, the jewels.Traditional can mean very nice but maybe on the dull side. We all know the codes for love. It is always red roses on Valentine’s Day and hearts are hearts are hearts. Chocs are just delicious.  But why frogs? They too, are tokens of love, Roman ones, which  signified  wedded bliss. The sentimental Victorians loved this sort of symbolism and designed  some gorgeous frog jewellery using  fun stones such as green garnets or just beautiful diamonds.

Snakes were another popular Roman symbol of love. Queen Victoria’s engagement ring from Albert was a gold jewelled snake ring. A snake with its tail in its mouth makes a circle, a symbol of eternity.

In centuries past when love was less overt and more discreet, romantic gestures abounded.

The 15 most popular symbols :

  • Hearts
  • Padlocks
  • Key and Heart
  • Red roses
  • Arrows
  • Cupid
  • Wings
  • Venus’s accoutrements
  • Snakes
  • Frogs
  • Bees
  • Regard jewellery
  • Engagement rings
  • Wedding rings (The Gotcha symbol)
  • Eternity rings                                             

So go for them.                                                        


Many of these tokens of love hark back to Classical mythology – to Venus, the Roman goddess of love and her son Cupid. Roses were sacred to her-particularly red ones as red  was the colour of passion. However, much of the symbolism has been lost, or watered down. The Victorians, for example, developed meanings for nearly 40 types of roses, whether in bud, full blown or with thorns (the latter was passion with pain!) 
Venus’ son Cupid is associated with the second most iconic symbol for love – an arrow. He was able to either shoot golden arrows which created passionate desire or leaden ones to repel. This allegory of love was often translated, at the turn of the last century, into  beautiful arrow brooches and is still found in more modern designs with hearts pierced by an arrow. 
The next post, the ‘gotcha’ symbol (among other things).