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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  • What a great idea, Rena – it never occurred to me to look at the jewelry depicted in classic works of art! I was struck by how contemporary every one of those pieces seemed ( I guess everything old really is new again!) and also the artists’ skill in capturing the luster of the pearl and gold jewelry.

    The next time I go to the Art Institute in Chicago I’ll definitely be paying more attention to the jewelry!

  • zoraida says:

    Visiting museums for jewelry inspiration is a great idea. I often visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in NY and study the ancient jewelry on exhibit from various cultures.

    I’m always inspired (even get the catalog in the mail). It’s fascinating that many designs look so contemporary. Good design is always good, not a passing fad.

    There is so much to learn by looking at timeless art from Tiffany stained glass to the Hall of Gems (at the Museum of Natural History, NY). It’s something all aspiring artists of all kinds need to do.

  • Kristine says:

    What a treat this is: both the gorgeous jewelry designs and the masterfully rendered art. Now I can’t wait to go to the Art Institute in Chicago – which I WILL do this year.

  • carole says:

    I will be traveling soon in Spain and Italy. I look forward to the museums even more…what a wonderful idea!!

  • Nancy says:

    Hi Rena. Exquisite pieces of fashioned jewelry of eras gone by. What a terrific way to excite the creativity in all of us.

    On another note, has anyone ever heard of African glass beads. Resembles sea glass, but mine are round, 1 1/2″ rectangle, brown & green teal color.

    Thanks for any help.

  • Kathryn says:

    For several years I made jewelry for sale through the gift shop at our art museum. It not only benefited the museum, but supported the shop as well. (I kept my name off the info cards I printed for each piece*.) Everything I took in sold quickly – people wanted a memento of their visit; since my jewelry designs were drawn from the collection, it was a perfect match! NEVER forget the many non-profit institutions that gave you so much in your formative years. I still love making those designs and they still sell at my shows.

    * The museum provided me with inspiration for many years – I started classes there at age 5 – so the pleasure was mine.

  • Paddie Reed says:

    A great article Rena; however I must point out that in the pre-Victorian era wearing black was merely a sign that someone was wealthy (as was purple because deep dyes were very expensive). Black for mourning and white for brides were Victorian introductions.
    Some of the jewellery really is an inspiration though. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Janis says:

    This is a great article Rena, thank you. I love historical jewellery and have a particular interest in ancient jewellery, Egyptian in particular, which has a strong link to my favourite modern era, Art Deco. Oh to have the money to work the precious metals and gemstones of those times! Never-the-less, the elegance, style and design principles provide much to learn from.

  • Thanks, all, for your lovely feedback! I love history (and art history) – and it was so fascinating to find some jewelry history in these paintings. I’ll definitely be looking for more jewelry depicted in other art forms when I go to museums in the future!

  • Liz says:

    This gives me such a new perspective in looking at art. Since I don’t have a museum nearby with these type of paintings, I plan to head to my library & pick up a few art history books. Thanks for another source of inspiration.

  • Diane (Dewdrop Designs) says:

    I love pouring over books on jewelry history. It really is amazing to see the styles over the ages and has inspired me as well. I find it interesting that I recently read that art deco is going to be “in” this year and I have been having a fascination with it the past few months. I’ve always loved art deco and as a child, my Grandmother had some fabulous pieces that she would let me wear when I would visit her. During every visit, there was at least one session of looking through her jewelry, many that had been pieces past down through the generations, so it is natural for me to have a love of jewelry past.

  • Art Deco, my favourite era, wow would love link to commentary re revival of this style. I have a fabulous book, out of print now (1985) but can be found at some booksellers: Art Deco Jewellery – Sylvie Raulet This is a big coffee table book…history of Art Deco Jewellery and famous designers, beautiful pictures of their elegant pieces.

  • Hi, Rena, Awesome article – love looking at historical jewelry! If you’re ever down here in Charleston, be sure to visit the Charleston Museum; they have a very large collection there!

    Jackie Watson

  • Michelle says:

    When I watched the HBO series “The Tudors” I was enamored and inspired by their costumes and their jewelry. I found loads of pictures from the show online as well as of the real Tudors just by “Googling” them. Like one of the commenters said, everything old does eventually become new again. I’m sure TV and period movies have a lot to do with trends.

  • ginger jenkins says:

    Thanks for this great idea–I already do this as a matter of course, be it jewelry, fashion or other art form ideas–but have gotten a little lazy lately. Now you’ve given me a little kick start and I’ll be back at it. One hint I got from a sewing professional is: look for color and design ideas in art forms that are unrelated to your working genre–for instance, she hit on a great color inspiration by seeing an ad for lawn chairs. I have a quilting book which shares principles for color combos which will easily translate to jewelry making. I love your website and timely hints. Thanks!

  • Luz Urena says:

    Wow! Thanks so much for sharing this with us Rena.. Now I want to run to the Metropolitan Museum here in New York… I love Victorian Jewelry. And yes the old is new again…. love, love , love it… thanks again…

  • Cynthia Dawn says:

    Thanks for posting this great article. I too am fascinated by jewelry of by gone days. I recently checked out a copy of the book “Creating Your Own Antique Jewelry” by Cris DuPouy. There are many examples of great pieces of jewelry, alongside a photograph of the painting they are featured in. Then, Cris teaches you, step by step, how to make a piece inspired by what is shown in a particular painting.

    I am particularly fascinated with Empress Josephine & the paintings of Jacques Louis David….so I was able to make a bracelet, based on the one Josephine wore in the Jacques Louis David masterpiece “The Consecration of Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804.

  • Julie White says:

    I got a great idea for a necklace from a Biblical movie! I keep my sketchbook handy for when I see or get an idea, otherwise, poof……the ideas can vanish and not be there when you need some inspiration even though you think you’ll remember them. Also, sometimes I’ll photograph my works in progress. That way, if the design or beads get discombobulated or rearranged, I can go back and see how it was originally laid out in the way that I first designed it and liked.

  • k says:

    I look forward to all of your articles but this one is a treasure! Please, whenever you are able to visit a museum, photograph and comment on jewelry worn by the subjects in the paintings. This is all so delicious and inspiring. Or … possibly, would you be open to museum jewelry observations offered by some of your readers?

  • Thank you so much, K! Good idea. When I get to an art museum again I’ll see what I can come up with. And yes, definitely – I would be thrilled with museum jewelry observations from our JMJ community! It’s a fascinating topic for me too.

  • Michele Counihan says:

    Ever since I saw Shakespeare in Love, I’ve been obsessed with the pearl drop necklace Gwyneth Paltrow wears in the move. I want to make one for myself. I’m not sure what type of chain I need and teardrop pearls. Do you have any suggestions?

  • Hi Michele, it looks like the necklace is made with pearl links alternated with small, ornamental metal links. You could possibly use wire to make your own version of the small metal links. For the pearl links, you could either use flat pearl cabochons that you set into bezel links – or use pearl beads and make a wire loop at each end of the bead. I’d love to see your finished necklace if you’d like to share it here! 🙂

  • Sheila says:

    Looking for treasure in historical portraits would be an exciting pastime. I would love to travel the world visiting art museums. Such inspiration for jewelry designers! Thank you for sharing.

  • Nancy says:

    Don’t forget the Girl with a Pearl Earring! My jewelry business, New Classics Jewelry, began reflects my love for historical jewelry. Most styles just keep circling back again! Your wonderful pictures are excellent examples.

  • Nancy, good one! I love Girl with a Pearl Earring too! Thanks for your lovely comment. 🙂

  • Becky Clemmons says:

    Absolutely wonderful article Rena! Thank you.

  • Thanks, Becky!

  • Lena says:

    Thank you for this great article, Rena. In Archaeological Museum here, in Skopje, I saw many beautiful pieces of golden jewelry from the 3rd and 4th century. I was really surprised by their beauty and complexity.

  • I am Intrigued by the square pearl in the pendant worn by Lucretia and wonder how it was formed and where it could have come from. And the charm bracelet on Mme Moitessier is almost exactly like the one I never wear because it’s heavy and also ostentatious. Maybe I should get it out again unless somebody has another idea, like redesigning. Lots of 18 kt gold there!

    Rena, this article is an absolute feast for the eyes. Thanks.

  • Barbara, thanks so much for your lovely comment!

  • Caroline Westcott says:

    Fascinating! A new source of inspiration. Thanks Rena.

  • Thank you, Caroline! 🙂

  • Marsha Napier says:

    Love this article. I find I’m drawn to historical jewelry as well….gotta be in our genes.

  • Rita says:

    Hi Rena! What a lovely idea! DC has the best museums. Inspiration abounds in these places. You have some beautiful photos here and the close ups follow your well written article perfectly. Thank you for sharing your trip with us.

  • Thank you so much, Marsha and Rita! 🙂 I so agree about art in our DNA, and DC having a wonderful collection of museums – I could spend a year there if possible! 🙂

  • Diana Stiles says:

    Hi Rena, Thanks, great article. For a couple of years now I have used printed copies of paintings of women to display my work at shows and in retail shops, mostly faces that sport my handmade copper and brass earrings. Customers go wild for them; and sales are increased! Just an additional note from my perspective as the mother of a child of color and as someone vested in diversity on many levels, I try to include as many models’s portraits as possible of women of color as my jewelry models, including Latinas, African Americans, and Indigenous women.

    Best regards, Diana Stiles

  • Diana, thank you for your lovely comment! What a creative idea to display your jewelry that way.

  • Michele C. says:

    I’m crazy about Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Shakespeare in Love” necklace! It is a choker, which I can’t tolerate, but I adore the design and use of gold chain with alternating drop pearls. Googling it I found it is part of a Renaissance costume collection.

  • Michele C. says:

    Dear Nancy,

    My friend snagged a strand of African glass beads last Sunday at a women’s club yard sale. They are more of a cylinder shape but are the colors you described above. She found then at the bottom of a box of unrelated junk and grabbed them for a dollar. Someone just didn’t know the value of her stuff!!

    If you have the time & patience to sort through a lot of junk, community yard/tag sales can be a good source of jewelry people just want to unload and not carry home!

  • What great fun Rena! I have never thought about looking at paintings for inspiration. I have been watching a TV series called “Reign” which is about Mary Queen Of Scots when she lived in France. I don’t think the clothing and jewelry are actually authentic the the period but I am loving the jewelry so much,

  • Judy, thank you so much for mentioning this show – it sounds like something my Mom and I would enjoy watching! (And the jewelry would be icing on the cake!)

  • Michele C, If you make your version of the “Shakespeare in Love” necklace, I’d love to see it!

  • Kelly says:

    Thanks so much Rena – I live in the DC area and used to LIVE at the NGA when I first moved here as a starving student. I haven’t been there since I started making jewelry in 2012 – so now I have a great excuse for another visit!

    Did you happen to see the da Vinci, called the Ginevra de’ Benci when you were there? I’ve seen the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and, IMHO, the de’ Benci is a MUCH better piece (though they both lack jewelry)

  • Kelly, yes, I saw the da Vinci – in fact, I had my Mom take a picture of me next to it! A very exciting moment. Thanks so much for your lovely comment! 🙂

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