This Week's Obsession: The British Social Season
It's hard to believe that in a few short days it will be May while exciting for all parts of the northern hemisphere. It's most exciting for those of us in Britain and especially London. May is the official kickoff of the British Social Season in London. Millions of people around the world have been getting a bit of an 'education' from the British Social Season from Netflix's surprise hit, Bridgerton.
The 'season' refers to the period of spring and summer where the upper classes of British society would reside in London instead of their country houses and host various events to marry off their sons and daughters. These events would often take the form of balls, dinner parties, and charity events all held at the gentry’s London mansions. The season provided children of the gentry to be introduced into society, with one traditional event being the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, where debutantes were introduced to society in front of the monarch.
This tradition developed in the 17th and 18th centuries but began to decline in the post-World War 1 period, as people gave up their London residences. Eventually, Queen Charlotte’s Ball was abolished by Queen Elisabeth II in 1958 and ‘the season’ became a thing of the past.
The term Georgian refers to an era in English history during the reign of King George I-IV from 1714 - 1840. Like the term Victorian (used for jewellery during Queen Victoria's rule), it is accepted in use as a term that refers to certain styles of jewellery. While this time period saw a number of stylistic changes and, is in reality a broad, sweeping category, the label is oft used for jewellery with certain characteristics. Sometimes the term is applied to jewellery from other countries (France, Italy, and the United States for example) and although its use is not entirely appropriate, it is generally still accepted as a way to refer to a time period and to certain styles of antique jewellery.
18th Century Jewellery
For the privileged and elite, that century saw a great increase in evening pursuits as improvements in the manufacture of candles gave rise to longer burning and brighter candles. Balls and soirees of sumptuous proportions rose to exceptional heights. Thus the divide between day and evening jewellery marked a new chapter in jewellery history. Women often wore pearls, garnets, moss agate or coloured gems or paste in daytime. The most formal evening events, courts, balls and receptions were the only appropriate times to wear diamond jewellery. Consequently, diamonds found new favour. Mines opened in Golconda, India and Brazil began to produce stones in the 1720s. Now diamonds were more readily available.
Closed backs were used on almost all gems and paste stones. Open backs were known, but most of the examples we see today are of the closed style. The true art of stone cutting (and allowing light through a gem to reveal its refractive properties) was not yet truly understood. In addition, then most stones were foiled. Foiling is the use of a metal coating, sometimes coloured, painted on the back of a stone to enhance its brilliance. The cut of gems were either the rose cut or the old mine cut, although a few table cuts were still in use. Brilliant cuts also gained in popularity. Often for coloured gems a flat cut was used - the top being flat with a few facets on the edges.
For metals silver or gold was in use; platinum was not as yet discovered and white gold was not used in jewellery. Rose gold, yellow gold, silver, and sometimes green or red gold were employed. Most diamond jewellery was almost always set in silver; the sentiments of the time were that the silver colour of the metal enhanced the properties of diamonds, whereas a gold surrounding did not. The backs of jewellery and ear wires were often gold to prevent tarnish on skin and clothing. Coloured gems were set in gold. Mounts or bezels for jewels were frequently set in a closed setting, a cut away setting or in a very early claw setting (usually seen for early large pastes). The first two mountings show a good bit of metal that comes up around the sides of the stone, thereby encasing the stone in metal.
Stylistically, the earlier part of the century saw a more ornate form of jewellery with complex and frilly designs. As the years progressed and the next century advanced, the forms turned to more of a neoclassical inspiration of simpler geometric and formal derivation. Also it was a great century for paste. Even Marie Antoinette had her own paste jewellers - it was not just for those who could not afford real gems. Some examples of the themes and motifs used in the earlier 18th century were bows, floral designs, giardinetti (garden) and feathers while later times saw classical themes such as arrows, quivers, lyres, intaglios, and geometric forms.
Types of jewellery worn were the stomacher (a large element worn similarly to a huge brooch at the centre of the stomach just below the breasts and trailing down the front), aigrettes (elements for the hair), girandoles (three drop earrings), pendeloque earrings (a bow and drop form), necklaces (sometimes secured by ribbons, rings, slides), bracelets typically worn in pairs usually slipped onto a ribbon, chatelaines, and buckles and buttons - for men for shoes, breeches and other clothing.
Georgian Paste Jewellery
Paste is, essentially, glass - a material that has been used to imitate gemstones for thousands of years. More specifically though, Georgian paste is a highly reflective kind of hand-cut glass that has been hand-polished with metal powder until it gleams brilliantly.
The Popularity of Paste
Despite the lower price of such imitation jewellery appealing mostly to the less wealthy upper classes, paste jewellery became an art form in itself and was therefore also very popular in high society and amongst royalty. Many believe that because it was softer than diamond, it was harder to work with, and therefore required more skill. Some pieces are so fine and bear so much rich history that they have even sold at auctions for higher prices than their diamond counterparts. With the origin of paste-making being in Paris, high-quality paste jewellery was even worn by the likes of Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette. Paste was used in everything from men's shoe buckles, to the most magnificent of tiaras. Soon after it became popular in France, the fashion spread to England, Spain, Portugal, and beyond, attracting a great many people for both its beauty and its price.
Paste jewellery also served a more practical purpose for some of the nobility. When traveling at night between estates, house parties, or the properties of various family members, wealthy women were often fearful of being robbed of their most precious jewels or family heirlooms. Instead of forgoing wearing jewellery altogether, they would have replicas of their expensive jewels made in paste, so they could still show them off at the ballrooms without worrying too much if they got pinched on the way.