A Brief History of Antique Miniature Portrait Jewelry

Posted on January 19, 2017 by Mary Hood | 0 Comments

Although mourning jewelry is typically associated with Victorian fashion, mourning jewelry dates back to at least the 15th century when miniature portraits (which were often worn as jewelry) gained popularity among European monarchy. In fact, the miniature portraits famously featured in Victorian mourning and sentimental jewelry is the product of centuries of development.
A Brief History of Antique Portrait Jewelry | BMJ Blog

Miniature portraits on display at the National Museum in Warsaw.

The Origin of Miniature Portrait Jewelry

Mourning jewelry expert Hayden Peters argues that miniature portraits have their roots in the introduction of the printing press. “Miniature” stems from the Latin miniare, or “to color with red lead.” During the 15th century (and for some time before), hand-printed books often featured red capital letters (these books are also known as illuminated manuscripts).

By the 1460s, however, these handmade books faced competition from books created with the printing press. Although there continued to be hand-illustrated books, some illustrators turned their attention to creating miniature portraits.

By the 1520s, miniature portraits were popular items in French and English courts. Jean Clouet in France and Lucas Horenbout in England were two early notable miniaturists, creating miniature portraits for jewelry that could be worn around the neck or simply held in the palm of one’s hand. At a certain point, miniature portraits were used to adorn snuff boxes as well.

A Brief History of Miniature Portrait Jewelry | BMJ Blog

Portrait of a man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hollard, c. 1600.

Miniature Portrait Symbolism

From roughly 1580 to 1635, miniature portraits were fashionable gifts among society’s elite. They could be given unframed to a loved one, allowing the recipient to select their desired frame. In some areas, they were even the subject of public ceremonies. In addition to serving as memorial pieces, miniatures were of special important to those whose loved ones were required to travel or live far away. For example, a wife may have kept a miniature portrait of her husband while he was away.

Peters points out that the Humanist movement during the Renaissance may have played a role in the popularity of miniatures. Given the renewed focus on the individual (rather than the divine), it’s no wonder that people would want to carry around images of the people they held dear.

A Brief History of Miniature Portrait Jewelry | BMJ Blog

Miniature portrait of Charles I.

Miniature portraits also served as an outlet for individuals’ political loyalties. During the reign of Oliver Cromwell, some people carried around mourning portraits of Charles I to show their solidarity with the Crown.

Miniature Portrait Materials and Innovations

Miniature portraits were sometimes as small as 40mm x 30mm. Initially, they involved watercolor painted on stretched vellum. By the second half of the 17th century, most miniatures were created by painting vitreous enamel on copper, a method that was particularly popular in France. By the late 18th century, this method was mostly replaced by watercolor on ivory (ivory had become fairly affordable by this point).

A Brief History of Miniature Portrait Jewelry | BMJ Blog

Miniature mourning portrait of a young girl.

The quality of miniature portraits varied, of course, with some featuring exquisite details while others were created from classic templates and adjusted to more closely represent an individual’s features—with varying degrees of accuracy.

With the development of the daguerreotype in the mid-19th century, the popularity of miniature portraits eventually diminished in favor of photographic technology.

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You may also be interested in: A Brief History of the Charm Bracelet
Witch’s Heart Jewels and Other Antique Heart Jewelry
The History of the Cufflink

 

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons, The Art of Mourning

 

Posted in antique jewelry, art, memorial jewelry, mourning


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