Early American Jewelry

From Native Americans to first ladies, early Americans adorned themselves with shells, gold, gems and remembrances of loved ones in the form of miniature portraits and mourning rings.

Anna Greene Winslow was only ten when she arrived in Boston from her home in Nova Scotia to board with her aunt while at school. Two years later, on January 17, 1772, she wrote in her diary an account of a party ("a very well regulated assembly") she had attended. The other guests included some whose names are well-known in Boston today--Codman, Quincy, Scollay, Hubbard--and the occasion must have called for finery, if Anna's costume is any guide.

"I was dress'd in my yellow coat, black bib & apron, black feathers on my head," she wrote with no false modesty. Her clothing was accessorized by "my past (paste comb) and all my past garnet marquesett & jet pins, together with my silver plume--my loket, rings, black collar round my neck, black mitts & 2 or 3 yards of blue ribbin, (black and blue is high tast) striped tucker and ruffels (not my best) & my silk shoes compleated my dress."

Anna's jewelry collection was hardly typical for an eighteenth-century American schoolgirl, or for such a girl's mother for that matter. Many women of that era owned no more than a single ring, and that would probably not have been a wedding ring.

Fales's big (447 pages) book is a treasure trove whose color plates allow a reader to study at leisure antique jewelry, much of it rarely seen, gathered from family vaults, rarely opened drawers of historic societies, the showcases of small town and big city museums and elsewhere. But the jewelry itself is not the only treasure to be found in Fales's book. For here are names, places, dates, anecdotes; excerpts from account books, catalogs, and diaries; sketches; copies of advertisements; all of it adding up to a wealth of information on a subject that had previously been covered only piecemeal, perhaps because of its very complexity.

Anyone attempting a history of Americans' jewelry must deal not only with its makers here and abroad and those who wore it but with its materials--precious metals and gems, of course, but also amber, bone, coral, cameos, crystal, glass, wood, jasper, enamel, mosaic, ivory and jet, hairwork, and shell, among others.

Native Americans were the first Americans to make jewelry--of shells, claws, teeth, pebbles, and bone. Sixteenth-century engravings show Florida Indians as heavily adorned as Anna Greene Winslow, wearing "double earbobs" as well as necklaces, wristlets, and anklets of beads. More jewelry came to America with the first European explorers, who arrived bedecked in utilitarian glitter: gold and silver buckles and buttons, signet rings on their fingers, and ornamented swords at their sides. Their jewelry, like that of the early settlers, was made primarily in England. An English-made ring now owned by the Maine Historical Society figures in one of Fales's most colorful stories: made in the late sixteenth century, the ring was plowed up in 1855 on an island off the coast of Maine. It had been buried there in a jug with coins dated between 1564 and 1625, probably by Walt Bagnall, a foresighted man, since he was killed by Indians in 1631.

The first jewelry makers to arrive in America probably were the jeweler, two refiners, and two goldsmiths who reached Virginia in 1608 aboard the ship Phoenix. But, according to an account by Captain John Smith, the five returned to England without ever having a chance to work at their crafts. Others followed, however, and jewelers were soon at work in American cities from Boston to Charleston. The earliest known piece made and marked by an American-born and American-trained jeweler is a gold mourning ring made in Boston in 1693 by Jeremiah Dummer. That piece is now owned by Winterthur Museum.

Mourning rings are the earliest pieces of jewelry that can be confidently traced to American makers. Although most colonial-era American jewelry was unmarked, the goldsmiths' guild in England required that mourning rings be marked, and artisans here acceded to the rule. Gold mourning rings inscribed with the name and the date of death were commonly distributed at some New England funerals. Judge Samuel Sewall, prominent in early Boston, owned fifty-seven such rings presented to him at funerals. Fales refers to records showing that at one funeral two hundred rings were given to mourners.

It was not typical for most women in colonial America to wear or own jewelry, both because of the simplicity of life in the colonies and the lingering impact of the Reformation and the sumptuary laws in England. But exceptions can be recognized thanks to period portraits. A portrait of Mrs. John Freake, c. 1671-74, for example, shows her wearing a double-strand pearl necklace, a four-strand bracelet of jet or glass beads, and a gold ring, "probably her wedding ring," on her thumb. (Wedding rings might be worn on any finger, Fales explains.)

Other portraits of seventeenth-century women show them wearing their own jewelry. In later years, however, painters kept items of jewelry in stock as accessories for their subjects; the same pearl necklace appears on many necks in the paintings of John Singleton Copley. "Pearls, real or artificial, can be seen in the earliest surviving portraits of colonial women," Fales writes, although those pearl necklaces, being particularly fragile, have rarely survived the centuries. Among those who favored pearls: Abigail Smith Adams, wife of the second president of the United States.

Mrs. Adams owned jewelry in other characteristic eighteenth-century forms as well, including a handkerchief pin made with a lock of hair given to her by her friend Mercy Warren in 1810. In turn, she had a ring made with locks of her hair and her husband's and sent it to Mrs. Warren as "a token of love and friendship." Jewelry made from the hair of friends and family members, braided, woven, or worked into designs, was popular in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The miniature portrait became popular in America around the mid-eighteenth century. Later, Fales writes, the Revolution "fostered a keen desire for miniature portraits among many Americans due to the repeated separations and deaths that war inflicts." The Adamses also owned miniature portraits set as jewelry. Abigail Adams, missing her husband, who was in Paris in 1780, wrote to ask him for "a miniature of Him I best love." The Adamses had commissioned a portrait of John in America, but in Abigail's considered opinion, the result more closely resembled "a cloistered Monk, than the Smileing Image of my Friend." Fifteen years later, she had miniatures painted of her sons, John Quincy and Thomas Boylston. Those portraits were set in bracelets.

Martha Washington also wore miniature portraits of her children, Martha and John Parke Custis, and of her husband, painted by Charles Willson Peale. As Fales explains, "The miniatures were set as clasps fitted to hold nine-strand bracelets, perhaps of delicate gold chain, or to be sewn to ribbons."

Portraits were not the only miniatures used in eighteenth-century jewelry. Hannah Barrell, whose father, Joseph, was a Boston businessman known for fine taste, owned earrings made of paintings on ivory, gold, and diamonds. And Martha Washington gave Hannah Prescott a chatelaine made in London that had "two beautiful pictures painted in Ivory on it."

Mrs. Washington also wore garnet jewelry, whose popularity was never greater than in the eighteenth century. Her garnet necklace was ordered by her husband from London; other pieces were added from American jewelers.

While most of the First Ladies' gemstones probably were the real thing, some may well have been made of "paste," or as twelve-year-old Anna Winslow spelled it, "past." Paste, a technique much admired in early America, is leaded glass cut like a gem and set in silver against a backing of bright metal, called foil, to give the "stone" color or glitter.

Most early nineteenth-century American women were not wearing a profusion of jewelry compared to their European counterparts. James Silk Buckingham, a former sea captain and member of Parliament, traveled to America in the late 1830's. In New York, he wrote, "The women far exceed the men in the costliness of their dresses and in the gayety of their walking apparel." But at the parties and balls he attended, "There were no such splendid displays of jewels as one sees in an English party." Nonetheless, interest in jewelry was obviously growing even in more rural areas of America. An advertisement in the New Hampshire Patriot, published in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 13, 1826, offered Fancy Articles including "Silver, Steel and Plated Spectacles; English and French Watches, Chains, Seals and Keys; Warranted Gold Beads and Rings; Pearl, Jet and Paste Knobs and Pins; Hair Neck Chains; and many other articles . . . all of which will be sold cheap for cash or credit."

Fales's book examines dozens of such pieces, describing materials and manufacture: jet is a fossilized form of coal; gold beads were constructed of two hemispheres soldered together. It defines periods: seed pearls were popular from the early nineteenth century into the last decade of that century. It bemoans losses: many early diamonds were reset to meet later fashions. Others were taken to Canada by Loyalists.

One of the few questions not answered by the author of this book is which piece of jewelry she would choose for herself from all this historic treasure. When asked, she did not hesitate. "The lovely little floral spray that belonged to Eliza Pinckney and is now at the Charleston Museum." Eliza Lucas Pinckney lived from 1722 to 1793. Her brooch may have been made by John Paul Grimke, who advertised in 1741 that he had the very kind of stones set in this floral spray: twenty-two diamonds, five almandite garnets, five emeralds, three rubies, a pink and a yellow sapphire, and one single amethyst mounted in silver.

"Yes, yes, that's the one," Fales said.


Other Travel Tips: