“We look into the glittering windows of the jeweler’s shops and I show Sophy which of the diamond-eyed serpents, coiled up on white satin rising-grounds, I would give her if I could afford it.” – from ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens.
I doubt there has ever been a time and place when snakes have not been a motif in jewelry to a greater or lesser degree. The Romans and the Greeks and the Egyptians all wore Serpent jewelry, as did many other cultures, going as far back as the Sumerians. Each culture has attached great significance and meaning to the snake. Snakes were considered to be good fortune in Georgian times and there is an abundance of surviving Georgian serpent jewelry. In the Georgian era, serpent jewelry was not only worn for ornamentation but also as mourning jewelry.
However, in the Victorian era the wearing of serpents reached a whole new level of popularity. The Victorians of course were extremely influenced by the styles favored by royalty. I might even venture to say that few people have been so influential when it comes to styles in jewelry as Queen Victoria. When Albert gave Victoria an engagement ring in 1840, it was a snake with an emerald head. This not only started a rage for serpent jewelry but it also began the trend for giving engagement rings.
Young Queen Victoria
Serpents were now considered a symbol of eternal love and the height of good taste. Before long, all over London ladies were wearing serpent rings, serpent bracelets and serpent brooches, created from gold, silver and alloys. Often emeralds, rubies, diamonds and sapphires were used as serpent eyes and to encrust the serpent bodies. It became popular to create rings with two entwined serpents, each set with a different stone.
Gold Snake Ring. Elder and Bloom.
Soon less affluent women began to make their own serpent bracelets from hair, cord, silk and steel beads. It wasn’t long before the serpent fashion had spread across to the other side of the Atlantic and across Europe. The fashion for serpent jewelry in all its dazzling array continued throughout the early Victorian era. It peaked in the 1840s but continued into the 1850s. In the 1850s fashion became very influenced by the ancient world because of an abundance of archeological discoveries and the tours of Egyptian tombs now offered by Thomas Cook. Serpent jewelry now often took on a more exotic and ancient flavor.
Victorian Gilt Serpent Head Belt Clasp set with amethyst glass eyes and engraved detailing
After the death of Albert in 1861, the whole of England was thrown into mourning along with Victoria and this in turn influenced fashions world-wide. Serpent jewelry was now created in dark materials such as jet, vulcanite, gutta percha, wood, hair work, onyx, ebony, bog oak and French jet. It was sometimes set with gems, particularly garnet, amethyst, emeralds, diamonds, ruby and pearls. Paste was still popular.
Mid to late Victorian Serpent Mourning Bangle, wood or horn, inlaid with silver. Elder and Bloom.
‘The naturalistic movement’ had already begun to emerge as early as the 1850s. It was seemingly an independent and non-mainstream artistic movement. This movement favored natural motifs, including snakes. The naturalistic movement can really be thought of as the beginning of the Art Nouveau movement, although the Art Nouveau movement is officially considered to have begun in 1890 and last until 1910. Rene Jules Lalique (1860-1945) was one of the foremost Art Nouveau designers. He loved to use exotic and natural motifs and he rediscovered the snake motif in his own unique way. The workmanship in Art Nouveau design was more important than the value of the materials used, and now jewelry was created using an even broader range of materials, such as horn, ivory, tortoise shell and glass but particularly colorful enamel work.
Marie-Odile Briot, writing in the catalogue for a Lalique show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, said, ‘‘The serpent takes pride of place in Lalique’s heraldry of the feminine.” She continued: ”The serpent is an archaic underworld god, chased out of the Christian Paradise. Just like a gemstone, its plastic perfection makes it a striking sign of the sacred in nature. The snake is the living abstraction of the line which Art Nouveau would see as the underlying ‘biomorphic’ structure of form.”
Serpent necklace by Lalique, owned by the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In the late Victorian era (1890 to 1901) mass production of jewelry was now fully under way. The Art Nouveau movement, Darwin’s controversial theory and numerous botanical discoveries, led to a strong interest in the natural world. Serpent motifs were now more colorful, naturalistic and delicate. Jewelry was set with amethyst, aquamarine, chrysoprase, sapphires, chrysoberyl, opals, moonstones, turquoise, peridot and rubies. Egyptian and Etruscan design influence was still prevalent and serpent jewelry continued to reflect that.
‘The Temptation’ Engraving, circa 1860
It seems that serpents have always had a certain air of wickedness and daring, perhaps ever since Eve’s pivotal encounter in the garden. I suspect that serpent jewelry would often have been worn by a more seductive type of women in the Victorian era. In October 1891, The Ladies Home Journal, reported, “A wiggling gold serpent having overlapping scales of various hues, forms on of the latest queen chains. The tail terminates the swivel for the watch, while the hold holds suspended in its wicked looking jaws a struggling bird of pearls and rubies.” The writer appears to be taking delight in the wickedness. I believe it is this long cultural association with sensuality, passion and danger that gives serpent jewelry its cache and why it is still so very popular to this day.
Further reading / sources:
The Lady’s Home Journal, October 1891