Alphabet of Gems: The Language of Stones During the Regency
A cross-post from The Regency Redingote:
First introduced in France as the eighteenth century slipped into the nineteenth, and despite the ongoing Napoleonic wars, this particular type of sentimental jewelery soon crossed the English Channel to become all the rage in England, just as the Prince of Wales was poised to become Regent. The majority of this kind of jewelery had a romantic theme, though there were instances when it was used to register political protest. Though these jeweled messages were very popular in Regency England, they have yet to find their way into any Regency romance which I have come across.
How precious gems first began to express tender sentiments, two hundred years ago …
Acrostic jewelry is believed by most scholars to have originated in Paris, in the early 1800s. The first documentary evidence of this type of jewelery was an article published in the Gazette de France, in 1811, though such jewelery is known to have been in use some years prior to this publication. Written by Étienne de Jouy, under the nom-de-plume L’Hermite de la Chaussée-d’Antin (The Hermit of the Chaussée-d’Antin), the article reported acrostic jewelery was the invention of the jeweler Jean-Baptiste Mellerio, erstwhile jeweler to the French queen, Marie-Antoinette, who was then enjoying the patronage of the Empress Josephine. Though one biographer of Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepdaughter, wrote that the "alphabet of gems" was invented in Austria, by Prince Metternich, there is no evidence to substantiate that claim. It is clear that acrostic jewelery originated in France, at the House of Mellerio dits Meller.
Jean-Baptiste Mellerio conceived the idea of setting gem stones into rings, brooches and bracelets, spelling out words by the first letter of the name of the gem. Soon many items of jewelery set with such sentiments were available from Mellerio dits Meller, Jeweller, on the rue Vivienne, a la Couronne de Fer (at the Iron Crown). Thus, in Paris, J’adore (Love), was spelled out in a ring with a jacinth, an amethyst, a diamond, an opal, a ruby and an emerald, set in that order. Many rings were made in which stones were set to spell out the names of loved ones. However, the two most common words found in acrostic jewelery in France were Souvenir (Remembrance or Recollection) and Amitié (Friendship). The two words were spelled out, using the French names of the stones, as follows:
A méthiste or Aigue-marine
T urquoise, or Topaze
Typically, only a word, or occasionally, two, could be set into a ring or a brooch. But longer phrases could be spelled out with stones set in bracelets. Napoleon was fascinated with acrostic jewelery and commissioned several such bracelets, which he gave as gifts to commemorate significant events in his life or that of his family. There is a very good picture of three of these bracelets in the blog post Making Silent Stones Speak: Understanding Acrostic Jewelry, at the Sentimental Jewelery blog. For each of these bracelets, the phrase which they contain and the stones used to spell them out are all provided just above the photo of the bracelets. There are also some nice photographs of other pieces of acrostic jewelery to be found on this page.
By the time de Jouy published his article on acrostic jewelery in the Gazette de France, the fashion was already widespread in France and had made its way to England, where it quickly gained popularity, such jewelery being worn by both men and women. Though Britain was at war with France, French was still the language of the educated and upper classes in England. For that reason, the alphabet of gems relied on the French names of the stones (which were, in most cases, the same as the English names), though the words which were set into acrostic jewelery in Britain were in English as often as they were in French. Rings or brooches might spell out "Love" just as frequently as "J’adore." The English word "Love" would be spelled out with the stones lapis lazuli, opale, vermeille and emeraude, set in that order. In England, however, the two most popular words, set in either rings or brooches, were "Regard" and "Dearest." The stones typically set in order for these two words are as follows:
However, acrostic jewelery could be used to display political sentiments as well as romantic ones. During campaigns against both slavery and the Corn Laws, many people wore rings set with a ruby, an emerald, a pearl, another emerald, an amethyst and a lapis lazuli, which spelled out the word "Repeal." Many of those who supported Daniel O’Connell in his ongoing efforts to repeal the Act of Union also wore rings set with gems which spelled out the word "Repeal." The tale is told that an Irish gentleman who owned such a ring lost the lapis lazuli stone and took the ring to a jeweler in Cork to be repaired. When the gentleman went to collect his ring he found that a topaz had been set into the place where the lapis lazuli had been. He pointed out the mistake to the jeweler, who replied, "No mistake. It was ‘Repeal,’ let us repeat, and we may have it yet."
Just as in France, in England, rings set with gems which spelled out the names of loved ones were quite popular. Though, of course, the stones for a name like "Anne" could easily be set in the hoop of a ring. But for names such as "Annabelle" the gems spelling out the name would have to be set almost entirely around the hoop of the ring. Long names might occasionally be set in a brooch or a bracelet, but only if that piece of acrostic jewelery was to be worn by a woman. Very few men wore brooches or bracelets by the Regency, when men began to wear less flamboyant jewelery than had men in the eighteenth century. Therefore, any gentleman who wished to wear a ring in which jewels spelled out the name of his beloved should hope to fall in love with a woman with a short name, or at the very least, a nickname of only a few letters. Perhaps he might even bestow a diminutive nickname upon her and then have it set in jewels in an acrostic ring. Women had the luxury of being able to wear any type of jewelery they pleased. Thus, whether a woman fell in love with a man named "Brian" or "Bartholomew," she could easily have her sweetheart’s name set in gems in any type of jewelery which suited her fancy. A long name might be set in small jewels around a larger central stone, or even around a lock of her lover’s hair set under crystal. A woman could wear such a piece as a ring, though it would be rather large, as a brooch, a locket, or even the buckle of a belt to be worn beneath her bodice. A man might have a similar setting placed inside his watchcase or in the secret lid of his snuff box.
Acrostic jewelery remained popular in England right through the Regency. In 1819, it was reported in La Belle Assembleée that " … the acrostic rage prevails in jewellery." When Edward VII was still Prince of Wales, just before their marriage in 1863, he presented his bride, the Princess Alexandra, with a ring set with a beryl, an emerald, a ruby, a turquoise, an iacinth (actually "jacinth" but at this time, the letters "I" and "J" were still considered inter-changeable), and another emerald, which spelled out "Bertie," the familiar name by which his family knew him. In fact, acrostic jewelery remained popular in England for over a hundred years, well into the twentieth century.
The stones used for this alphabet of gems changed over time and from one country to another. I have not been able to find a list of the gems used for acrostic jewelry which was published during the Regency. The earliest published list which I have been able to locate was published in 1855, by Charles Edwards, in his book, The History and Poetry of Finger-Rings. But it is likely this list is very similar to that which would have been used by English jewelers during the Regency. The list is in French, just as it would have been during the Regency, and is transcribed verbatim, below, from Edwards’ book, with the addition of translations of the French phrases:
A. Améthiste. Aigue-marine.
B. Brilliant. Diamant, désigniant la même pierre. [meaning the same stone, diamond, (but only a brilliant-cut)]
C. Chrisolithe. Carnaline. Chrisophrase.
F. (Pas de pierre connue.) [No stone known]
K. (Pas de pierre connue.) [No stone known]
L. Lapis lasuli.
O. Onix. Opale.
P. Perle. Peridot. Purpurine.
Q. (Pas de pierre connue.) [No stone known]
R. Rubis. Rose diamant.
S. Saphir. Sardoine.
T. Turquoise. Topaze.
V. Vermeille (espèce de grenat jaune) [especially yellow garnet]
Y. Z. (Pas de pierre connue.) [No stone known]
According to this list, the French had gemstones which could serve for all the letters of the alphabet, with the exceptions of the letters f, k, q, w, y and z. First it must be pointed out that both the letters k and w are not letters which are used natively in the French alphabet, so the French had no need of these letters. It is also curious to see "quartz" missing from this list, though research suggests that most types of quartz were named with a phrase in which the first word indicated the color or other properties of the particular type of quartz. That may be the reason for its absence from this particular list, though evidence suggests that English jewelers were more liberal in their usage of gems by name and quartz was often used for an acrostic piece in which a "q" was needed. Though in France it was not considered acceptable to use the color of a stone as part of its name in order to have a gem with the needed letter, most English jewelers did not adhere to this convention. A fire opal was used for the letter "f," a white stone could provide the letter "w," a yellow stone the letter "y," and so on. Of course, this practice often meant that only the jeweler and his customer knew exactly what the gems on any given piece of acrostic jewelery spelled out. For many customers, that was a benefit rather than a disadvantage, as one of the most powerful allures of acrostic jewelery was the sense of secrecy coupled with romance which was attached to such pieces. It is, however, also the reason why many pieces of acrostic jewelery extant today have never been deciphered. They keep their secrets still.
During the Regency, in France, and to a lesser extent in England, some women owned sets of seven rings, each ring set with a single stone. The name of each of these stones had the same initial letter as the name of one day of the week. These ladies then selected the ring which matched the day of the week when they chose the jewels they would wear for that day. This practice appears to be the precursor to ring sets called "Semaines," which were introduced in 1827, after the Regency had ended, but while George IV was still king. Rather than having a single stone whose initial letter corresponded to the first letter of each day of the week, rings in a set of Semaines had the complete name of each day of the week spelled out in gemstones. In most cases, the stones set in these rings were quite small, as women tended to have slender fingers and days like Wednesday would require many stones to spell out the full name.
As with all consumer items, even during the Regency, there was a wide range of quality in acrostic jewelery. Some of it was made by the very best jewelers in the land, of the finest materials and some was made by mediocre jewelers of base metals and paste stones. Just as today, the customer’s pocket-book usually influenced the grade of materials which would be used in making their acrostic jewelery. There are acrostic pieces which have survived from that era which have gemstones of the first order set into fine gold settings of exquisite design. There are also some acrostic survivors which were made of brass or pewter and set with paste imitations of the real stones whose names they represent placed in uninspired settings. Yet who is to say these less expensive acrostic pieces were not every bit as dear to their owners as those made of high-grade gold and precious gems.
By its very nature, acrostic jewelery was rather secretive and mysterious, for even if the item was worn in public, it was not always easy to guess the sentiment which was spelled out by the gem "letters" which were set into it. The word or phrase might be in a language other than English, the word(s) might be something of special significance known only to a pair of lovers, or a treasured memory of a cherished past love. Acrostic jewelery not only had romantic associations, but could also be used to make a subtle, if rather elegant, political statement, as in the case of the many "Repeal" rings which were worn by those committed to a cause.
Acrostic jewelery has such potential in Regency novels that I hope one day to read about a gentleman who wears a ring upon which is spelled out the pet name of his true love in gems, or perhaps on the pin in his elegantly tied cravat. Mayhap I shall read of a lady who treasures a locket containing a lock of her first love’s hair, around which is set his name in jewels. And what of those rings which were set with a stone for each day of the week? What if our heroine must communicate to the hero the day on which the dastardly villain intends to carry out some evil deed? But she is closely watched and may not be able to have an opportunity for speech with him. She could wear the ring which proclaims the day on which the villain plans to act, thus informing our hero and outwitting the villain. Dear Regency authors, I entreat you to please remember acrostic jewelery as you plot your next Regency novel.
It is rather a pity that acrostic jewelry is seldom made any more, even as a bespoke, or custom-made piece. What more unique and precious an item of jewelery might one posses than one in which is set some very personal declaration of love and affection? Or even a strongly-held personal belief or commitment? Amazingly, the firm which originated acrostic jewelery, Mellerio dits Meller, is still in business, and according to their web site, will soon celebrate their four-hundredth anniversary. It appears they no longer make acrostic jewelery, yet one wonders if they might still do so upon request, to honor their own tradition of innovation. Acrostic jewelery does not have to become a curiosity forever locked in the past. Baring the expense, of course, there is nothing stopping those of us living today from having our own piece of acrostic jewelery in which the gems speak for us, with elegance and subtlety, just as they did for our Regency ancestors.
© 2008 – 2012 Kathryn Kane, Kalligraph
Originally posted at The Regency Redingote
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.