Historical Jewelry

Examples from the 1500’s through 1800’s
text © by Rena Klingenberg; all rights reserved.

historical jewelryI absolutely love historical jewelry and clothes.

And I had the opportunity to see some stunning examples of the jewelry and fashions worn during the past thousand years or so, in various original paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

I had only planned to spend one day at the National Gallery, but the collection there is so incredible that I decided to skip some of the other things I was going to do in Washington – just so I could go back and spend a second afternoon in the Gallery.

Many of the paintings included wonderfully detailed historical jewelry examples, so I spent my second afternoon there photographing all of the jewels I loved most!

Here are some of my favorites, from the 1500’s through 1800’s, and why I liked them; for each one, I’ve put the full-sized painting on the left, and the jewelry enlarged on the right:

Portrait of a Merchant

"Portrait of a Merchant" by Jan Gossaert, 1530

This merchant’s hand and rings (above) are so lifelike it’s hard to believe you’re not looking at a photo.

Compared to many of the other paintings I saw, his rings are extraordinarily detailed – although he seems suspicious of my appreciation of them, doesn’t he?

A Young Woman and Her Little Boy

"A Young Woman and Her Little Boy" by Agnolo Bronzino, 1540

I studied this noblewoman’s belt for a long time (top right, above).

It’s made of large beads that look like glass (possibly Italian glass), alternated with metal ones.

Her rings (bottom right, above) were also well-detailed in this painting, and following a trend I noticed in many of the other paintings, she wears one ring on her index finger and one on her ring finger.

Agrippina and Germanicus

"Agrippina and Germanicus" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1614

I read somewhere that Ruben’s inspiration for this painting (above) was his collection of antique cameos – which it certainly does resemble.

I saw a lot of hair-jewelry in the paintings I looked at – and most of it included pearls in some way, similar to what Agrippina’s wearing here.

However, I wish she had turned her head just slightly more toward us, so we could see the focal jewel of her headdress better!

Deborah Kip and Her Children

"Deborah Kip and Her Children" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630

I found the young lady in this portrait very compelling (above).

She’s wearing a pair of black dangle earrings, possibly made from glass or ribbon, with a pearl in the center of each.

Her delicate necklace is a gold ring on a fine black cord – almost like something you might see a gal wearing nowadays.

Since she’s dressed all in black (including her jewelry), I wondered if she might be in mourning for the original owner of the gold ring.

Catherine Howard

"Catherine Howard" by Anthony van Dyck, 1638

Here’s another excellent example of the importance of pearls in historical jewelry (above).

This lovely lady has a “Barbara Bush” style choker of large pearls, and her earrings are large briolette pearl dangles.

Lady Catherine is also notable for her luminous peaches-and-cream complexion and auburn curls, beautifully rendered by van Dyck.


"Lucretia" by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1664

I really admired Lucretia’s double necklace (above).

The large beads on the shorter strand are spaced apart by smaller beads, and the longer strand bears a pendant with two pearls – a squarish one and a teardrop.

I’m not sure I would have thought to combine those two different strands, but they do provide each other with a nice contrast and balance.

Madame Bergeret

"Madame Bergeret" by Francois Boucher, 1746

Oh, Madame Bergeret is lovely, and so tastefully adorned.

Her elegant bracelet (top right, above) is made from four strands of pearls and a large cameo.

Her choker (bottom right, above) is a ruffle of lace with a strand of blue beads and pearls wound through it.

The blue beads are nicely matched by the large blue bow at the top of her bodice.

Madame de Caumartin as Hebe

"Madame de Caumartin as Hebe" by Jean Marc Nattier, 1753

Madame de Caumartin’s ethereal beauty would be overpowered by too much jewelry (above).

A simple corsage serves as her brooch, and her headdress is a strand of pearls with two delicate flowers and a small spray of leaves.

Nattier, who often painted his subjects in classical roles, depicted her here as Hebe, the goddess of youth and daughter of Zeus and Hera.

The Marquise de Pezay and the
Marquise de Rouge with Her Two Sons

"The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rouge with Her Two Sons" by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee le Brun, 1787

I really like the earrings worn by the Marquise de Pezay (above right).

I studied her giant hoops, and can’t help thinking how well they would fit in with today’s jewelry.

The large dangles suspended from the bottoms of her hoops must be pearls. A glass bead of that size would be quite heavy.

Madame Moitessier

"Madame Moitessier" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1851

Madame Moitessier had the most detailed jewelry array of all the portraits I saw in the National Gallery of Art.

I especially loved her unique tasseled bracelet (far right, above).

But what really makes her impressive is that her portrait is life-sized – and so realistically painted that you half expect to hear the jingle of charms on her bracelet as she steps right out of her frame.

I studied her for quite awhile, and when I turned to leave, I saw that several other people had gathered around to study her too. Her portrait isn’t one you can walk past quickly!

About the National Gallery of Art

If you’ve never been to the National Gallery of Art, I hope you have the chance to go someday and experience its incredible collection of original works:

The National Gallery of Art
4th and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20565

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