Professional Jeweler Archive: Suddenly Silver

April 2000

From the Vault

Suddenly Silver

From the Wild West to the emerging middle class, silver marked an era

Yeehah! Imagine the whoop of excitement echoing across Nevada’s wide open spaces marking silver’s discovery in 1859. Over the next several decades, the Comstock Lode, along with many other silver mines found in the American Southwest, put an abundance of silver on the market.

While this silver bonanza was happening, the U.S. monetary system converted to the gold standard, which meant less silver was needed for coins. Prices for silver dropped, which was great news for jewelers. Now they could acquire all the silver they wanted to produce luxury items with room to make a tidy profit.

Jewelers rolled up their sleeves and proceeded to churn out silver goods of every sort, including jewelry, silverware, chatelaines, buckles, penknives, cane handles, card cases, desk sets and even bicycles.

White from the West

By the late 1870s, silver jewelry was the fashion for day wear, its cool whiteness a welcome change from yellow gold’s domination. Silver chains with lockets, hinged bangles, link bracelets, brooches and earrings were most popular. Chains were exaggerated in size; cuff bracelets were often two inches wide. Lockets were typically oval, though rectangular and heart shapes were made also.

Rarely left plain, most of these silver jewels had machine-stamped or hand-engraved designs, beaded edges and overlaid scrolls, strapwork or monograms. Ornamental engraving was either floral, geometric or Japanese in design. (Japan had recently lifted its ban on international trade, so Japanese art and culture were making a profound impression on Europe and the U.S., stimulating and inspiring all the arts.)

In the late 1880s, new techniques for mass manufacturing brought silver jewelry within reach of the working classes, who now had more disposable income. Once this trend was established, the elite viewed silver jewelry as vulgar and déclassé and stopped wearing it.

The New Middle Class

Happily, the rising middle classes continued to provide a ready market and new styles emerged. Pierced and engraved silver brooches and bangle bracelets, many with the signature beaded edge, were all the rage in the 1890s.

Bracelets, hung with little tags that spelled out bonheur – French for good luck – made stylish good-luck charms. Girl’s first names, mottos and sentimental symbols were the most frequent subjects for brooches of this period. “Mizpah,” a protective Biblical reference signifying “may the Lord watch over thee and me when we are apart,” was a typical sentimental motto. Flower symbolism such as the “Forget-me-not” and other sentimental motifs such as hearts, lovebirds, crosses and anchors were worked in wherever possible.

Japanese motifs and patterns still appeared, elegant in their simple, balanced asymmetry, while modest brooches in non-figurative, radiating designs appealed to the most reserved tastes of the time.

It’s hard to know how long late-19th century silver jewelry was worn fashionably, but it was soon eclipsed by more modern silver jewelry in the Art Nouveau style.

It’s no surprise the silver jewelry of the 1880s and ’90s is still wearable and a highly collectible antique. Although more than a century old, these silver jewels are as cheerful and appealing as when they were fabricated. They also provide a link to silver’s discovery in the Wild West and to the spirit of enterprise that made them possible.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

The beaded edges of this locket and chain are typical of silver jewelry from the late 19th century. The subtle Japanese design engraved on the locket cover is also characteristic of the period. Jewelry and photo are courtesy of Christie Romero.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications