The Greek Key Motif

The Greek Key Motif

The ‘Greek Key’ motif in jewellery can also be known as the ‘Running Dog’, the ‘Greek Fret’, the ‘Maze Pattern’, the ‘Labyrinth Pattern’ or the ‘Meander Motif’. The name is derived from the River Meander, the historical name for the Büyük Menderes River in contemporary Turkey. The River Meander had many twists and was mentioned by Homer in the Iliad.  There is also said to be a connection between the motif and the Cretan labyrinth.

The earliest examples of the motif have been found in the farming communities in Anatolia, 6000 BC and it was a common pottery design throughout Neolithic Europe. It was the most important symbol in ancient Greece, decorating many temples and objects. Interestingly, the Ancient Chinese developed a similar design known as ‘Chinese Fretwork’. Variations of the motif are also found in African, South American and Native American design. It is also reminiscent of many Celtic design elements. 


To the Ancient Greeks, the design symbolised infinity or the ‘eternal flow of things’. It is also said to symbolise friendship, love and devotion and is given as a marriage gift to this day. It is also thought to represent the four cardinal points or the four seasons. 

Most of us will recognise this ubiquitous motif even if we are not aware of the name or the origin.  There are many variations – sometimes the pattern is rectangular and sometimes it is rounded, sometimes there is a simple geometric design and other times is is more elaborate and complex. It may boarder an object or cover a larger area. (If the decoration forms interlaced patterns, it is known as Guilloche.) However, two elements remain consistent – the design is maze-like and repetitive.

Georgian and early Victorian Neo-Classical and Architectural Revival

The Georgian era was distinguished by several great archeological discoveries greatly influencing Georgian jewelry motifs.  When the ruins of Pompeii were excavated from 1706 to 1814 a wave of Neo-classical design influenced almost every area of manufacturing, art and craft. In the 1760s in particular, Roman and Greek motifs, such as Greek Keys and laurel and grape leaves, abounded. The Greek Keys motif was particularly popular on the mountings of cameo. The Greek Keys motif continued in popularity through the Victorian era and remains popular to this day.


Fine Antique Coral Cameo Brooch within a Frame Accented By Greek Key Motifs And Applied Ropetwist Borders, With Pendant Hook, Mounted in Gold c.1801-1908 Prices4Antiques

Art Deco

The Greek Keys Motif experienced another wave of popularity during the Art Deco era. However, many have said that the designers of the Art Deco era were in fact deriving their ‘Greek Key’ Motifs from the Egyptian designs that were being uncovered during the great archeological discoveries of the era. This makes a certain amount of sense as the Art Deco era is not known for it’s neo-classical styles, besides the Greek Key, but is of course renowned for it’s Egyptian Revival styles. Regardless of the inspiration, the motif is still referred to as ‘Greek Keys.


Art Deco Greek Keys bangle. Elder and Bloom.


© Pippa Gaubert Bear and Elder and Bloom LLC, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Pippa Bear and Elder and Bloom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sources / further reading:




Foiled Gemstones

Hair Ornament/Brooch
Enameled Gold, Garnets, Foiled Rock Crystals, Pearls
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Foiling is a way of using tinted and silvered copper sheets to enhance the back of gemstones.  The gemstone jewelry of the early Georgian era prior to 1800, was typified by it’s use of foiling. Even though the Georgians had already developed the open back mounting for gems, it was very rarely used until 1800 when à jour settings started to become popular. (À jour literally means in French ‘to the day’ and is loved because it allows the light to shine through a stone.)  As we have developed the mathematics and the technology to properly cut and mount gemstones, foiling gemstones has become a redundant art-form. Although used in other eras, foiled gemstones have come to be seen as a signature element in early Georgian jewelry and is one of the signs to look for when evaluating the age of a piece.

Bodice ornament

England. c. 1760
Bodice ornament, rock crystals and paste (glass) with foiled settings in silver.
V&A Museum

Foiling gems produces a more intense, rich color and enables diamonds to twinkle in the candlelight; before the advent of electric lighting this was particularly desirable.  Foiling acts as a light reflector.  Quality gemstones were in less abundant supply in times past; foiling was an excellent way of transforming less than high quality stones into more desirable ones and also for matching stones as the foiling was also a coloring agent.  It was also a way of creating a stronger, more noticeable look, suitable for aristocracy and officials.   Foiling does tend to tarnish with time so unfortunately we rarely see the original full beauty of very old foiled gemstone jewelry unless it has been restored. 


England, c. 1830
Gold with grainti decoration, set with a green paste, garnets and green foiled aquamarines
V&A Museum

Other materials apart from metal sheets were also used to foil the back of gemstones.  These included: peacock feathers, butterfly wings, colored silk thread and engraved metallic foils. Glass and paste glass could also be foiled.

Pendant - Cupid the Earth Upholder

Scotland, 1902
Gold and enamel pendant with foiled glass, Anna Traquair
V&A Museum


Earrings, gold set with pierced pearls and foiled garnets
Italy c. 1820-1880
V&A Museum

“The possibility of temporarily masking the color of yellow diamonds has, in recent years, frequently led to fraud,” Max Bauer. c. 1890.

Unfortunately, less honest jewelers did often use foils to fool consumers into believing that gemstones were something they were not.  For example, a green tinted foil back could be used to make a peridot a deeper shade of green and convince the purchaser that it was an emerald. It is for this reason that nowadays foiling gemstones is generally considered fraudulent unless there is disclosure. The 1974 edition of Shipley’s dictionary of gems and gemology writes that foiling came in three categories, and the last two of these were fraudulent.  These were: genuine foil backs in order to improve the performance of a gemstone; false foil backs in order to give a different color to a gemstone so to mimic another and imitation foil backs which were the same as a false foil back, but applied to glass. By 1920, the art of foiling had completely gone out of favor because of the association with fraud.  Nowadays, there are just a few specialists who use the art for restoration work.

What I find interesting about this is how attitudes have really changed; the contemporary mind cares about the objective value of a gemstone whereas in days gone by the apparent beauty of the stone was all that really mattered.  This really comes down to the ‘purpose’ behind jewelry; in the Georgian era jewelry was often very much about displays of grandeur and wealth. In other words, all about external appearances.  In the modern era, we very much like to know that something is not a fake, even if it appears exactly the same, we are concerned with truth and objective value. With this in mind, other ways of treating gemstones to be aware of include ‘tinting’ (this was when color was applied to the setting or directly to the gemstone), ‘waxing’, which increases transparency, ‘mirroring’, which involves putting a colorless mineral in the bezel which then acts a reflector and ‘coating’, which involves using similar substances to those used for optical lenses.  ‘Coating’, is against the law unless there is full disclosure and is yet another thing for gemologists to be wary of.

Sources / further reading:

The popular jewelry motifs of the Georgian era were wonderful and varied; please look at my post ‘The Major Motifs of the Georgian Era’ to learn more.

The Language of Stones

Gem set ‘regard’ brooch, Early 19th century

Sotheby’s Lot 76, The Jewelry Collection of the Late Michael Wellby

Another lovely trend in the Georgian and Victorian eras was ‘acrostic’ jewelry. Acrostic jewelry was a beautifully subtle and poetic way of sending a sentimental message by way of the first letter of each stone, the first letter of which spelled out a word. Acrostic jewelry was a product of an era in love with poetry, when word play, coded messages and subtle verbal games fascinated the populace.

The simple yet intelligent designs of acrostic jewelry captured the imagination and made wonderful gifts for friends and lovers. Acrostic rings were particularly popular items and ‘Regards’ rings were even given as engagement rings during the Victorian era.  During the Georgian years, padlocks with keys or hearts were often worn as pendants or brooches.

Acrostic jewelry is believed to have first been invented in Paris in the 1809 by Jean-Baptiste Mellerio (1765-1850), jeweler to the French aristocracy. The fashion soon took off also in England and America but remained especially popular in France.  It is said that fashionable French women even wore particular stones whose beginning letters corresponded to the names of the weeks. Empress Marie Louise had three acrostic bracelets made by the jewelers Chaumet with messages of love between herself and Napoleon.

It’s important, when you come across a piece of antique jewelry with an arrangement of colored stones, to question whether there is a message being conveyed by way of the names of the stones.  Sometimes, this might be quite difficult to interpret, especially if the piece comes from a non-English speaking country, so this is definitely something to be aware of. Also, certain stones have changed their names; for example the word for garnet used to be ‘vermeil’.

A few of the popular acrostic messages in jewelry were:


Diamond. Emerald. Amethyst or  Aquamarine.  Ruby.


Diamond. Emerald. Amethyst or  Aquamarine.  Ruby. Emerald. Sapphire. Tourmaline.


Ruby. Emerald. Garnet. Amethyst. Diamond.

(The word ‘regards’ had a much deeper and more passionate meaning in times past than we ascribe to it today.)

Seed pearl and Gem set ‘regard’ brooch/ pendant, Early 19th Century
Sotheby’s Lot 74 The Jewelry Collection of the Late Michael Wellby

Je t’aime

Jet, Emerald, Topaz, Amethyst, Iolite, Malachite, Emerald.


Fluorite. Ruby. Indicolite. Emerald. Nephrite. Diamond.


Lapis Luzuli. Opal. Vermeil. Emerald.


England, c. 1830
Pendant, gold with lapis lazuli, glass in imitation of opal, garnet, emerald and gold.
Here, the pendant has the stones of Lapis Lazuli, glass in imitation of Opal, Vermeil ( the old name for garnet ) and Emerald which spell LOVE.
V&A Museum


Amethyst. Diamond. Opal. Ruby. Emerald.

Sources / resources:,_Duchess_of_Parma


Pinchbeck was invented in by Christopher Pinchbeck around 1720 and was guarded as a family secret for many years, although there were many copies. It is a type of brass made from copper and zinc to resemble gold.  It is lighter in weight than gold and stays unoxidized for a very long time.

Pinchbeck’s great benefit was that it brought a gold colored metal to ordinary people.  It was also good for those concerned about theft, particularly when riding on stagecoaches; the wealthy often liked to leave their real gold at home and bring along Pinchbeck replicas.


Christie’s Sale 7800


Pinchbeck Chatelaine c.1730-1735
V&A Museum

Many pieces throughout the 18th and 19th century are made from Pinchbeck, particularly chatelaines but also a wide range of other jewelry and watches. Pinchbeck was eventually replaced by 9 carat gold in 1854 and electro-gilding in 1840.

Pinchbeck typically comprises copper and zinc in ratios between 89% Cu, 11% Zn; and 93% Cu, 7% Zn.

Today, Pinchbeck is considered quite rare and collectible. It has a distinctive look which you can learn to recognize once you have handled a few Pinchbeck pieces.

Pinchbeck and enamel watch c. 1740
Sotheby’s No8848

A related metal is Bath Metal which is like Pinchbeck but has a higher zinc content (approx 45%)  It was developed also in the 18th century.  It has a white color. It was, however, not used frequently in jewelry.

Sources / Resources:


Cannetille is considered to be related to filigree or to be a kind of filigree.  It differs from filigree in as much as cannetille is three dimensional and filigree is flat.  Specifically, cannetille is created with curled, twisted, spiraled, scrolled, beehived or coiled wire.  It can also have tendrils and repoussé (places of raised metal). Like filigree, it can either have a backing or be open work. Cannetille is usually gold, although not necessarily.

Cannetille appeared to emerge in England and France in the 1820s and continue in popularity into the 1830s. Some say it was inspired by the Portuguese, others by India, others say it appeared to emerge independently in France, then spread to England.  Regardless of origin, cannetille flourished in the period of peace and artistic expression after the Napoleonic wars. The word ‘cannetille’ is also used to describe a type of French embroidery method which has a similar appearance and technique and is created using gold thread. It appears that this is where cannetille jewelry might well have found its inspiration.

File:French - Cannetille Ware Bracelet - Walters 572332.jpg

French Cannetille Ware Bracelet, circa 1830 – 1839, Walters Art Museum

After the Napoleonic wars gold was very expensive and in short supply. Cannetille jewelry could be created to give the appearance of a much larger piece using less metal. The styles of cannetille jewelry seemed to be nostalgic and reminiscent of many European folk styles which are still made and worn today.  By the 1820s and 1830s cannetille jewelry was being worn all over Europe, reaching a height in 1830. Brooches and parures were the most popular.  When bracelets were worn, they would be worn one on each wrist, as had been the style for centuries.

Starting in 1830, Castellini of Rome led an Etruscan and Greek revival in the world of jewelry.  Many revival pieces also incorporated cannetille.

Greek revival hair ornament with cameo and cannetille. Apollo on his chariot. circa 1830.

An early 19th century portrait miniature and gold bracelet

Christie’s Sale 5414, The Sunday Sale, 28 September 2008, London, South Kensington
An early 19th century portrait miniature and gold bracelet
The central oval painted ivory portrait miniature depicting a young girl, to a three colour gold border with flowerhead and cannetille detail and mesh bracelet with cannetille terminals, circa 1830

Cannetille is very time consuming to create and requires great patience from the jeweler.  Of course, all Georgian jewelry was made entirely by hand.  There are two main methods for creating cannetille: Thread cannetille and plate cannetille.  Thread cannetille is when the piece is made entirely from gold threads and has other decorative elements soldered on to it.  Thread cannetille is particularly lightweight.  Plate cannetille is made from a thin plate, usually open work,  and then has decorative elements soldered on to it. Larger pieces tend to be made from plate cannetille.


Pair of gold and gem set pendent earrings, Circa 1825, composite – Photo Sotheby’s
 Fine cannetille work with circular-cut and pear-shaped foiled back garnets and cabochon turquoises.

Cannetille in the Georgian era was often set with gems such as pink topaz, citrine, chyrsoberyl, garnet, turquoise aquamarine, amethyst, glass and paste. Glass and paste were considered just as high status as gems and would be set along side them even on the most expensive pieces. Gems in the Georgian era were foiled.

A late 19th century Etruscan revival necklace
Christie’s Sale 5641, Jewels at South Kensington, 14 April 2010, London, South Kensington
Late 19th century Cannetille Etruscan Revival Necklace
Citrine and gold cannetille brooch, c.1820-1830.  V&A Museum. Previously belonging to Jane Morris, wife of William Morris.


Cannetille continued into the Victorian era although dwindling in popularity by the end of the mid-Victorian era.  Even though there are some cannetille Art Deco pieces, cannetille never returned to the popularity it experienced in the Georgian era. There are some very convincing cannetille reproductions masquerading as much older than they are so caution is advised when purchasing.  In the Victorian era, cannetille style jewelry was sometimes made in molds by the English; if you exam it very closely with or without a loupe you can generally see that it is made all from one piece of cast metal rather than many fine soldered pieces.  Mold made pieces are obviously not as valuable although they can still be desirable.

Sources / further reading:

Castellani and Giuliano: Revivalist Jewellers of the Nineteenth Century. Exhibition catalogue. London: Wartski, 1984.

The Eras of Jewelry Defined

Although there is some disagreement about precise dates and categories, these seem to be the most agreed upon definitions of the historical periods of antique and vintage fine and collectible jewelry  in the English speaking world.  Often these periods overlap and of course changes in styles can often be more nuanced and gradual than these categorizations might suggest.  However, for the practical purpose of understanding the history of antique jewelry, these are the best definitions as I see them.  I have also given an approximate overview of some of the basic characteristics of each period which I will be adding to over time, so if you find this useful as a reference please do keep checking back in.

Georgian Jewelry (1714-1837)


Christie’s Sale 5388, 13 June 2012, London, King Street

Some characteristics of Georgian jewelry:  gems set in gold / claw settings for paste / Motifs included bows, flowers, giardinetti, feathers, leaves, arrows, quivers, lyres / cannetille work / types of jewelry included stomachers, aigrettes, girandoles, chatelaines, buckles, buttons, pendeloque earrings, pairs of bracelets, necklaces secured by ribbons, slides and rings, enamel work/ Etruscan revival beginning 1830

Victorian Jewelry (1837 – 1901)

Victorian Jewelry can be further broken down to:

Early Victorian Romantic jewelry 1837-1860

Mid-Victorian Grand jewelry 1861-1880

Late Victorian Aesthetic jewelery 1880-1900

A Victorian coral demi-parure

Christie’s Sale 8127, 16 January 2013, London, South Kensington
A Victorian coral demi-parure

Some characteristics of Victorian jewelry: Gemstones such as diamonds, emeralds, coral, amethyst, garnet, turquoise / Tortoiseshell / Human hair / Sentimental and nostalgic items / Black and dark colored mourning jewelry / Matching sets (parures) / Cameos / pique / Jet / Revival themes that took their  inspiration from ancient cultures (Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Assyrian, Etruscan), Canetille continued.

Arts & Crafts Jewelry 1894-1923


Christie’s sale 7634, The London Sale: Jewels, 10 December 2008, London, King Street
Arts & Crafts Opal Pendant

Some Characteristics of Arts & Crafts Jewelry:  Hand-worked / lack of mechanization / natural materials / simple designs / colorful uncut stones / rejection of Industrial Revolution / often silver

Art Nouveau Jewelry 1890 – 1914

Brooch/pendant, carved opal, demantoid garnet, diamonds, 18k yg, platinum, c. 1890, a circ carved opal depicting a sea nymph, rising/setting sun with circ-cut diamond center, and ocean waves, with grad oe diamond border above and demantoid-set yg foliate wreath border surmounted by two stylized fish below, three hidden pendant loops, sgd "Marcus & Co."

Brooch/pendant with carved opal, demantoid garnet, diamonds, 18k yellow gold, and platinum, c. 1890. A carved opal depicting a sea nymph with ocean waves by Marcus & Co.

Some characteristics of Art Nouveau jewelry: Curves / Natural motifs / Mythical creatures such as dragons, mermaids, fairies and sprites / Gems such as pearls, opal, moonstone, aquamarine, tourmaline, rose quartz, chalcedony, chyrsoprase, and amethyst / Enamel /Glass/The female form and face / Long pearl strands / no diamonds

Edwardian or Garland Jewelry 1901-1915


Christie’s Sale 7853, Jewels – The London Sale, 9 June 2010, London, King Street

Some characteristics of Edwardian or Garland Jewelry: More ostentatious display of wealth / diamonds, emeralds and rubies / bow, garland, leaf motifs / intricate detailing / platinum settings

Art Deco Jewelry (1920-1939)

An Art Deco diamond, emerald and onyx ring

Christie’s Sale 6704, 5 September 2012, London, South Kensington
Art Deco diamond, emerald and onyx ring

Some characteristics of Art Deco Jewelry: Bold geometric designs / Vertical lines / Contrasting primary colors / Gemstones included diamonds, black onyx, lapis lazuli, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, jade, torquoise, topaz / Cabochon and carved gemstones / Amber, bakelite, celluloid and enamel work.

Retro or Cocktail Jewelry (1940-1959)

18 karat gold, platinum, ruby and diamond clip brooch by Chaumet, circa 1945.
For more information see here.

Some characters of Retro or Cocktail Jewelry: Motifs included stylized flowers, animals and bows as well as mechanical motifs such as tank treads, padlocks and chains/ Enamel work / Jeweled brooches / Thin sheets of gold created to conserve metal whilst giving an impression of substances / Gemstones were often small and included diamonds, synthetic rubies and light sapphires / Rose gold / bold / inspired by Hollywood / chunky, raised gemstones / synthetic gems / patriotic themes / large and gold / brooches / wide bangles

Modernist Jewelry (1930-1960)


Ed Wiener modernist jewelry sterling silver brooch with stone
C. late 1940’s – early 1950’s
Click on image for more information.

Some characteristics of Modernist Jewelry: Rejected the ‘fussiness’, feminine and decorative styles of Art Nouveau / Rejected the rigidity and structure of Art Deco / Inspired by ‘Art’ (sculpture and painting) / Often worked in silver and copper / No concern for value of materials, not used to express wealth / Used found objects / Surreal motifs /Geometric or biomorphic / Masculine / Semi-precious stones such as garnets and opals and unusual stones such as cat’s eye / African and cubist motifs / Primal forms / Unexpected materials such as acrylic and wood / Influenced by Bauhaus, Surrealist and Dadist / Hand-working and one of a kind designs

Sources / further reading: