While the Victorian era officially spanned the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) historians also include the timeframe from the Napoleonic Wars until the start World War I as inclusive of the fashions and trends synonymous with the period.
In that time, Great Britain transformed from predominately rural and agricultural to an urbanized industrial leader in the world. Literature and the arts flourished. Globally, women turned an eye toward Queen Victoria’s clothing, jewelry and cosmetic usage, emulating her style.
The romance and sentimentality of the era has continued to fascinate consumers for more than a 120 years after the monarch’s death. Rosanna Nunan, who runs BrightAndDusty, a vintage and antique jewelry shop on Etsy, is one such admirer. She sat down with Antique Trader to discuss how she buys, sells, authenticates, and cares for Victorian pieces she hopes customers will treasure for generations to come.
Antique Trader: Tell us a little about your background. Where are you from, where did you go to school, what was your area of study?
Rosanna Nunan: My background is in English literature and music. My undergraduate degree is from the University of Richmond where I majored in both English and music performance. I studied English at the graduate level at the University of California, Irvine, where I completed my Ph.D. in English in 2015. My area of specialization for my Ph.D. was Victorian literature.
AT: How did you get interested in the Victorian era?
RN: I started getting interested in Victorian literature way back in middle school. I think the first Victorian novel I read was Jane Eyre in the eighth grade. It has been a lifelong passion, and once I started becoming fascinated with antique jewelry, my gravitation toward Victorian pieces felt like a very natural extension of my interest in Victorian art and culture in general.
AT: Where do you obtain the pieces for your BrightAndDusty shop? Do you sell on other platforms besides Etsy?
RN: I live in a pretty rural area of upstate New York. You would be surprised by how much antique jewelry you can find at rural antique malls and flea markets. I also make regular trips to central Pennsylvania where my parents live because there are lots of places for antiquing there as well. Hunting for vintage and antique jewelry is the fun part of running my Etsy shop. Most weekends I am traveling around and visiting my favorite shopping spots. I also love to go to antique shows, which were on hiatus for a long time because of COVID-19, but now they are coming back. One of my favorites is the Madison-Bouckville Antique Week that happens in August in upstate New York. I don’t sell on any other platforms because it is complicated enough for me to keep everything organized on Etsy! I do, however, advertise my pieces on Instagram, where there is a large community of people focused on antique jewelry.
AT: How do you determine a piece of jewelry is from the Victorian era?
RN: The Victorians had very distinctive styles when it came to their jewelry. Pieces tend to be larger, darker, ‘heavier,’ than the styles before or after the Victorian period. Large cameo brooches worn at the throat come to mind. Mourning jewelry in particular tends to be distinctive and identifiable because pieces are typically black, often with hair or photo compartments. Victorian jewelry can be extremely ornate, what we think of as gothic in style. Besides these aesthetic considerations, I identify Victorian jewelry based on its construction and the materials used.
AT: What advice do you have to help people avoid buying a fake or reproduction piece?
RN: It’s good to have a handle on what kinds of materials were used in the Victorian era as well as how pieces were constructed. Oftentimes simply looking at the back of a piece and its hardware can tell you a lot about when a piece was actually made. Brooches did not really have rollover locking clasps until the early 20th century, so if you look at the back of a brooch and see a rollover clasp, it’s probably not Victorian, unless you can see evidence that the clasp is a replacement of the original ‘C-clasp.’ When I am buying pieces online, I will usually avoid listings that don’t show the back of a piece. It is just too hard to tell from photographs what is genuine when you don’t have a complete picture of the piece and its construction or hardware. As you handle more and more pieces, you will develop a better instinct and notice patterns in construction. A celluloid cameo may look very detailed and beautiful, but with experience you will immediately know the difference between celluloid (an early plastic) and actual carved shell.
AT: What makes Victorian era jewelry so distinctive?
RN: Victorians wore jewelry not only for aesthetic enjoyment but for sentimental reasons as well, and much of the jewelry is imbued with symbolic meanings. Common motifs included: hands symbolizing friendship, ivy symbolizing fidelity, butterflies symbolizing the soul, hearts for love, and many, many, others. Mourning jewelry was often heavily engraved with the individual’s name and dates of birth and death, or with brief sayings meant to comfort the wearer. Sentimental jewelry exchanged between friends or sweethearts could also have beautiful engravings or symbols. While we still do this with our jewelry to a certain extent, the jewelry of the Victorian era seems to me to be much more deliberately fashioned to elicit an emotion in the wearer. That is not to say there aren’t pieces of Victorian jewelry that were primarily for aesthetic enjoyment. Eveningwear jewelry like the beautiful gemstone necklaces you see draping the necks of the nobility in paintings or photographs from the 19th century, are some of the most colorful, vibrant and dramatic pieces out there.
AT: Are there any Victorian jewelry items that are particularly most popular now?
RN: Garnet jewelry from the Victorian period is extremely popular. Every time I am lucky enough to get a 19th century garnet necklace or locket into my shop, it never lasts long. The garnets of this era were mined in the area of the world then known as Bohemia, so they are now referred to as Bohemian garnets. The Victorians used them as eveningwear pieces because these stones look beautiful under candlelight. They were also considered an acceptable form of jewelry for someone in the late stages of mourning because the stones are a very dark, inky red. As such, garnet jewelry was very prevalent in the 19th century and it is still possible to pick up really beautiful pieces like festoon necklaces here and there. Garnet brooches are even more common and many are in the shapes of stars or crescent moons, so people really like the celestial pieces. Victorian lockets are also very popular today because lockets are a timeless style of jewelry and I think in any era people like the idea of keeping a secret close to their heart. While brooches were extremely popular in the Victorian era and I find them everywhere, they are less popular today because modern sensibilities really tend to associate brooches with older generations. I personally love Victorian brooches and I love wearing them, but it is harder to convince others of their versatility and appeal.
AT: Do you ever clean or repair a piece?
RN: I will occasionally clean pieces if their condition is so poor that it will affect my ability to sell them. If the piece just has some patina or tarnish on silver or gold components, I will generally leave the patina intact. Many buyers of antique jewelry do not want the patina disturbed as it has taken many years to form. If a piece is extremely tarnished and looks terrible, I will use a silver polishing cloth to lighten up the piece and make it beautiful again. I don’t use any silver cleaner typically except very occasionally I will use Wright’s Silver Cream. I used this cream on a locket so tarnished it was almost black. You only want to use it on sterling silver. If the piece is silver plated, the cream will strip it, so you want to be certain of what material you’re working with before you attempt to clean or polish a piece.
As for repairing, I only do very easy repairs myself. I am pretty good at adjusting pin backs when they are not staying in their clasps properly. Most pieces I find are in wearable condition even if they have small flaws.
AT: How should people care for and store their Victorian jewelry pieces?
RN: Quite a bit of Victorian jewelry is made of delicate natural materials, such as coral, soft carve-able stones and shells, pearls, carved jet (a black fossilized material), and hair-work in a lot of mourning pieces. Some stones have a foil backing to enhance their color that can be eroded if exposed to water. While these pieces are durable since they have survived since the mid-19th century in many cases, you still want to be more careful with them than you would be with a lot of modern jewelry. If you have any pieces with a glass compartment for portraits, photos, or hair, you do not want to get them wet since moisture will get trapped in the glass compartment and ruin whatever artifact is in there. Natural materials should not be cleaned with any chemicals or harsh solvents. Opal is a delicate stone that has a tendency to dry out if not stored properly. Once an opal has started crazing, there is no going back, so you don’t want it exposed to extremely dry conditions or harsh sunlight. I was once advised by a gemologist to store opals in a cigar humidor to control their environment. I have not tried this yet, but I think it is a good idea. All in all, it is best to store your Victorian pieces away from light and extreme temperature fluctuation.
AT: Do you know much about the Victorian Revival jewelry era of the 1940s?
RN: When it comes to early 20th century jewelry, I mostly deal in costume pieces. Costume jewelry from the 1940s is often beautifully constructed and durable and looks fantastic worn. While mass production was more prevalent in the 1940s than it was in the 19th century, you can tell that jewelry manufacturers still put quite a bit of effort into crafting unique pieces with timeless appeal. Some of the Victorian style lockets coming out of the 1940s are almost indistinguishable from the real thing, and I often see them listed online as being from the 19th century, even though they are not. They tend to be big and hefty like real Victorian lockets, with ornate designs. The difference is they are usually cast brass and you can tell that they were mass-produced by machine. However, this kind of jewelry is some of the most fun to wear because it is big and bold, looks fantastic, and is typically a lot more affordable than genuine Victorian pieces.
You can visit Rosanna Nunan on Etsy at: www.etsy.com/shop/BrightAndDusty. She may also be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.