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UNTIL the middle of the nineteenth century the peasants and natives of every country district of Europe wore modest gold and silver jewelry, of small pecuniary value, but of great artistic interest. Before this time peasant jewelry was seldom sought for, and comparatively unknown ; and collectors, better informed in other respects, did not think of saving it from the melting-pot. It then began to attract some of the attention it deserves.

This old peasant jewelry has of course all passed out of the hands of its original owners. The chief cause of its disappearance has been increased facilities for traveling, which resulted in jewelry fashioned wholesale in industrial centers being distributed to the remotest rural districts. The demands of the modern collector, and improvements in present-day taste among certain of the cultured classes, which have led to the adoption of old articles of jewelry for personal use, have also contributed to the disappearance of peasant jewelry.

The wiles of the dealer have induced peasants to yield up heirlooms, which, handed down for generations, have escaped the fate of the jewels of the wealthy and more fashionable. The great museums of art and industry springing up everywhere, especially in Germany, have all obtained a generous share of the spoil, and have preserved it from what, until lately, would have been inevitable destruction.

So completely in most parts has this old jewelry gone out of use among the peasant that hardly a trace remains of a once flourishing industry carried on by local craftsmen working on traditional lines, and by the artistic fashion of the moment. Machines driven by steam power have crushed out of existence skill to make things by hand, and the cold and monotonous production of the artisan has taken the place of the old work, whose peculiarly attractive character is due to its expressing the fresh ideas and inspiration of the artist.

The French peasant jewel par excellence is the cross. It is suspended from the neck by a velvet ribbon, and varies in form according to localities. Its size is often in proportion to the social condition of the wearer. Sometimes it attains considerable dimensions. Fixed upon the velvet ribbon, and drawing it together just above the cross is a slide in the form of a bow, rosette, or heart, and of the same style as the cross itself.

In many provinces of France, such as Savoy, gold is reserved exclusively for married women —custom having it that all their jewels should be of that metal. Silver, on the other hand, is often employed solely for girls’ jewelry possibly because it is considered the natural symbol of virginal purity, just as in ancient times it was consecrated to the virgin goddess, Diana.

The most interesting and perhaps the best-known French peasant jeweler is that of Normandy. The chief Norman jewel is the cross. The most usual form is that which occurs in the districts round St. L6. It is of silver, formed of five high bosses, four round and one pear-shaped, each set with a large foiled rock crystal.


This jewelry was cut and faceted into brilliant shapes, and further ornamented with sprays set with small crystals in rose form. The lower limb of the cross, pear-shaped, is hinged, so as to render it less liable to get bent or broken in wear. The spaces between the limbs are sometimes completely filled up with branched open-work set with small crystals. In the more northerly parts of France the cross is formed simply of large bosses set with crystals; but round about Rome we meet with an abundance of spray-work. Other crosses of considerable size are formed of thin plates of pierced gold. The shape of the cross is indicated simply by crystal bosses, but its form is almost lost in the outline of the jewel.

A favorite subject for representation is the Saint Esprit or Holy Dove. Employed as a breast – ornament or pendant, the Dove is either in gold or silver, mounted with crystals, or colored pastels set close together. It is suspended from an ornament of open knot design, with a rosette-shaped slide above. In its beak is a branch, spray, or bunch of grapes, generally of colored pastels.

Peasant jewelry ceased to be worn in Normandy about 1840, when native costume was given up. While Normandy relies chiefly on crystal quartz for its jewelry, other areas boast, of a variety of gems, such as garnets, opals, and zircons, which are of frequent occurrence in the volcanic rock of Central France.

The jewelry in some of these areas was mounted with cabochon stones in large high settings. Open-work circular pendants have a central boss with eight similar settings around. The Saint Esprit is also a popular jewel, but in these parts the form of the Dove is not completely carried out, the jewel being composed merely of five pear-shaped bosses to indicate the wings, body, head, and tail of the bird. It is to be observed that the patterns of the jewels here alluded to are not entirely original inventions of the peasantry.

As a matter of fact, they are often from precisely the same models as the jewelry in use in the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth century, and are very similar in style to the large series of original designs executed about that time by the Santini family of Florence. Their technique is also traditional. This is shown by the presence on many of the peasant jewels of Southern France, as well as of other districts, of the painted enamel which came in about 1640, and continued in use for upwards of a century.

While fashion has shifted scores of times since those days, types and styles of jewelry then set remained unchanged in these quarters until the great industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the strange and universal decline of taste that accompanied it. Holland is one of the few countries that have retained their peasant jewelry. Not only is it displayed in abundance on festive occasions, such as weddings, but it is worn in everyday life by the well-to-do natives of the country districts.

Much jewelry is employed in Zealand. The country belles wear jutting out on either side of the lace cap curious corkscrew-like ornaments of gold, silver, or gilt metal on which they hang-pendants sometimes tipped with pearls. In the land of Goes a square gold ornament is pinned close to the face inside the lace halo that surrounds the head. Coral necklaces are worn, and jet ones for mourning. Boys have earrings and gold and silver buttons near the throat. The head-ornaments of North Holland and Utrecht consist of a broad thin band of gold or silver which encircles the skull and terminates at each end with the above-mentioned spiral ornaments. These bands are covered by a white muslin cap or by a cap decorated with colored designs.


The women of Netherlands display costly caps of gold beaten out to fit each individual head. In some areas the lace cap terminates with gold ornaments, and the coral necklace has clasps of gold filigree. Men and boys wear flat silver buttons on the coat and gold at the collar. At the waist is a pair of large hammered discs of silver. The natives of the fertile country of Finland possess vast stores of jewelry, generally of gold set with diamonds. Very attractive peasant ornaments are still in use in Belgium. Long pendent crosses are worn, with earrings to match. They are of open-work floral and scroll designs, and are mounted with small rosettes set with rose diamonds—silver rosettes being applied to gold ornaments, gold to silver ones.

The slide above the cross here forms part of the pendant, and is not, as in France, attached by the ribbon worn with it. The heart is not worn above the cross, as in France, but is used as a distinct ornament, as a rule in silver only. These open-work heart pendants, commonly found in France rarely elsewhere, have an opening in the center hung with a movable setting, and a hinged crown-shaped ornament above. Instead of a crown is sometimes two quivers and a bow—a love token.

Flemish jewels, unlike the French, are set entirely with rose diamonds. The peasant jewelry of Norway and Sweden is mainly of silver filigree. Precious stones do not take an important place in it. When used they are more often than not false, and are only sparingly applied for the sake of their color. Particularly characteristic of almost all the ornaments of these parts are numerous small concave or saucer-like pieces of metal, highly polished, or small flat rings. They are suspended by links, particularly from the large circular buckle which is the chief article of jewelry. Most ornaments are circular in plan. Besides being executed in filigree, many of them are embossed or else cast—a style of work admirably displayed on the huge silver-gilt crowns worn by Scandinavian brides. The peasant ornaments of Germany present many varieties of design. Silver filigree of various kinds is employed for almost all of them.

In the northern districts amber beads are naturally the commonest form of necklace, while hollow balls of silver are also worn strung together. Large flat hair-pins are used, the expanded heads of which are ornamented with raised filigree. Swiss peasant jewelry is largely composed of garnets or garnet-colored glass set in silver filigree.

So numerous are the different types of Italian peasant jewels that it is impossible to mention them all. Every small district, nay, every township, seems to have possessed ornaments that differed in some detail from those of its neighbors. Many of them display reminiscences of the antique. Their manufacture follows—or did till quite recent years—the old methods ; the natives of certain out-of-the-way districts still working in very much the same manner as the ancient Etruscans. All ornaments are somewhat voluminous. The head is uncovered, and presents an extensive field for hair-ornaments.

In some areas there is found all sorts of hair-pins, often a couple of dozen, stuck in nimbus fashion, and through crosswise is passed another pin with an oval head at each end. Earrings are likewise of considerable dimensions, but light in spite of their size. Their surfaces are very frequently set with seed pearls. The finest existing collection of Italian peasant jewelry is that in the Victoria and Albert Museum, purchased from Signor Castellani in 1867.

Of great beauty is the jewelry of the shores of the Adriatic, and that of the Greek Islands, probably made by descendants of the Venetian goldsmiths, and commonly known by the title of ” Adriatic” jewelry. It is of thin gold, on which are shallow seals filled with opaque enamels.


Crescent-shaped earrings are formed of pendent parts hung with double pearls. Dating from the seventeenth century are elaborate and delicate pendants in the shape of fully rigged ships enriched with painted enamel and hung with clusters of pearls. Beautiful work of a similar nature was also produced in Sicily. Hungarian and Spanish peasant ornaments have already been alluded to. In both these countries we find the native filigree enamel in sixteenth-century work, and painted enamel in that of the .seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spanish jewelry frequently takes the form of pendent reliquaries. It is usually of stout silver filigree, bearing traces of Moorish design. The Moorish style is also felt on Portuguese jewelry, which displays in addition a certain amount of what appears to be Indian influence.

It is composed of gold filigree of very fine workmanship. Earrings and neck-chains are of such proportions that they reach respectively to the shoulders and the waist. In addition to the cross, star, heart, and crescent-shaped pendants are worn. A favorite form is one resembling an inverted artichoke. Openings are left in its surface, and within these spaces and on the edges of the jewel are hung little trembling pendants. Portuguese jewelry of the eighteenth century, largely set with crystal, is admirably represented in the Museum of Fine Arts at Lisbon.

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Author: connielimon2014

Bead Jewelry Artisan, mother of one daughter and grandmother of two grandsons, daughter of Korean War Veteran.

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