European artists and jewellers shared a common visual language of love and romance, with some symbolism dating as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. Among many design motifs, musical themes, pastoral settings, flowers and animals are all traditionally found on jewellery with romantic associations.
Based in England Beatriz Chadour-Sampson is an international jewellery historian. Her publications range from Antiquity to the present day, such as 2000 Finger Rings from the Alice and Louis Koch Collection, Switzerland (1994) of which she continues to be a consultant for the Swiss National Museum.
The close link between music and love is found throughout the history of European literature, art and jewellery. Music has the ability to express emotion: instrument and song can evoke the yearnings for love, being in love or love lost. From antiquity, goddesses, muses and lovers are shown on jewellery playing musical instruments, such as the lyre, harp or lute. Some jewels have hidden depths, like a French automaton ring from about 1838, which has concealed inside the bezel an older mechanical musical device made by the Geneva company Piguet et Capt, probably dating from 1802–1811. The gold silhouetted scene against a finely painted enamel background appears simply to depict a music lesson. However, when a lever on the side of the bezel is activated, a tune plays and the figures are set in motion: the arm of the girl on the left turns the handle of the serinette (bird-organ) on her lap and, opposite, the young man with a violin under one arm conducts the music with his baton. Between them is an elegant table with three column-like legs and a music-stand on top, next to a bird. Serinettes were used to train birds to sing various tunes. A red curtain with gold tassels opens to reveal a view into a garden with trees, the scene reminiscent of the romantic serenades depicted in eighteenth-century pastoral scenes, for example in the paintings by François Boucher. Inspired by his artwork, goldsmiths created elaborate lockets and pocket watches featuring amorous scenes in enamel, framed, as here, by traditional symbols of love. Above the girls’ head is a sprig of roses (for love) and a white dove (pure love), at her feet a sleeping dog (loyalty).Jewels could take the shape of musical instruments, like a dainty blue enamelled ring of the early 19th century in the form of a mandolin. Musical notes could also be used wittily to express love, as in a French rebus ring of 1782-1789 which plays with words and images to create a message: the word ‘JE’ above the musical note D (known as ‘re’), followed by a picture of a glass (‘verre’), a clog (‘sabot’) and the letter ‘T’, can be read together as ‘Je révère sa beauté - I admire her.Miniature jewels with such fête champêtre scenes as found in the automaton ring above were popular tokens of love. An Austrian ring from about 1790, with a gold foiled silhouette against a bright blue backdrop, belongs to this pastoral genre. It shows two altars of love, a motif representing the sacral nature of love, with flaming hearts linked by garlands forming an arch and held by two doves in flight. The French inscription ‘Nous sommes unis’ (We are united in love) underlines the imagery.Flowers became particularly popular motifs on jewels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when there was an explosion of interest in botany and a refinement of the idea of a ‘language of flowers’, that different flowers symbolised different attributes and emotions. Unsurprisingly, the rose was one of the most popular symbols for romantic love. According to legend, Venus, the Roman goddess of love, was injured by the thorns of a white rose which turned red with her blood, so the red rose became linked with the pains of love. A ruby-studded rose can be seen on a ring dated 15 November 1831, probably from Germany. It is unknown if this date was one of betrothal or marriage, or simply a declaration of love to accompany the lock of hair hidden in a compartment under the rose and presented as a token of love. Even today, the rose is one of the most recognisable love symbols.
Love ring with ruby-studded rose, emeralds as leaves and concealed compartment under the rose, Germany, 1831. Swiss National Museum / Alice and Louis Koch Collection
As envoys of love, flowers could not be more affectionately employed as on a Swiss ring of around 1835 featuring alternating rose sprigs and daisies in enamel against an ornately engraved background. The daisies conceal four little compartments bearing French inscriptions under the lids. Similar to the petal-plucking game played between lovers, they read ‘je l’aime pas du tout’ (I love you not), ‘je l’aime un peu’ (I love you a little), ‘je l’aime beaucoup’ (I love you a lot) and ‘je l’aime passionnément’ (I love you passionately). In the language of flowers daisies stood for innocence.
Love ring with hinged lids decorated with daisies, circa 1835.Swiss National Museum / Alice and Louis Koch Collection
Animals, either domestic or mythical, often featured as popular emblems of love. Dogs appear in paintings and sculpture as faithful companions and Christian symbols of loyalty, especially in tomb sculpture where they can appear at the foot of the deceased. During the Renaissance period, miniature dog sculptures on rings conveyed love and faithfulness. A decoratively-enamelled ring from about 1830, with pink roses and forget-me-not flowers on the hoop, has a brown and white Cavalier King Charles spaniel painted on an oval panel, resting on a grass verge. The panel opens to reveal a secret compartment which would have originally held a lock of hair of a loved one, a personal sign of affection. The dog and flower symbolism suggests the ring would have been given as a token of friendship and love. The style of the painted enamelling suggests the ring may have been made in Geneva, Switzerland.One of the oldest metaphors for love, in particular pure love or purity of heart, is the dove, depicted here in micromosaic on a late 18th-century gold ring from Rome. The dove is tied around the neck with a red ribbon, the band of love, whose other end is fastened to a bare twig from which a cherry - the fruit of paradise - is suspended. The symbolism could not be more suggestive.Love and romance have been rich sources of design ideas for jewellers, particularly as jewels commemorating moments of love – love declarations, betrothals, weddings and mourning - have always had a universal popularity.
The exhibition showcases more than 7,000 exhibits from the Museum’s own collection, highlighting Swiss artistry and craftsmanship over a period of about 1,000 years. The exhibition spaces themselves are important witnesses to contemporary history, and tie in with the objects displayed to create a historically dense atmosphere that allows visitors to immerse themselves deeply in the past.
Beatriz Chadour-Sampson23.02.2023Jewellery does not have to be static. The jewellery artist Friedrich Becker was also of this opinion and created fascinating pieces of jewellery with moving parts. Some of them found their way into the collection of the Swiss National Museum.
Beatriz Chadour-Sampson01.12.2022It's amazing what a finger ring can tell you. For example, the life story of Josiah Wedgwood, who elevated pottery to an art form in the 18th century and did not shy away from industrialisation.
Andrej Abplanalp16.02.2017What does a poet do when his lyrical wooing falls on deaf ears? He presents his queen of hearts with a ring. Alas, this too did not change Wilhelmine Herzlieb’s mind. The rare jewel, however, survived.