This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
Now there are two points of view from which we may regard the possession of plate and jewellery. We may admire them for their intrinsic value, on account of the high price we paid for them, and the amount in sovereigns which they would fetch if sold again, or we may admire them for certain rare qualities of beauty, whether expressed in the nature of the material itself, or in the excellence of design and workmanship to which it has been subjected in manufacture. It is, I fear, chiefly to the former source that the general admiration of the goldsmith's and jeweller's art may in modern days be traced. If the multitudes who at the Great Exhibition of 1851 flocked to gaze with profound reverence at the Koh-i-noor had suddenly been told that the researches of science had proved it to be a piece of cut glass, valued at, say ten shillings, who would have stopped to waste his attention on so insignificant an object ? Yet it was only at a certain hour in the day that this precious gem differed in outward appearance from a piece of glass. It is well known that the diamond, when subjected to a high temperature, may be reduced to the state of graphite. Let us suppose for an instant that any one had discovered the secret of reversing that operation, how long would these gems remain fashionable ornaments ? Not a single season. They would be at once and for ever banished from the heads and necks and stomachers of every court belle in Christendom. As it is, the imitation of diamonds is carried to such perfection in France that none but the most practised eye can distinguish the real jewel from its counterfeit. After this it would be absurd to suppose that the diamond is valued solely for its intrinsic beauty.
The truth is we value it because it represents so much wealth.
For this reason the scientific cutting of precious stones, simply to insure lustre by a certain refraction of light, and then only under certain conditions, would seem but a questionable advantage, especially when we remember that the shape thus obtained, at probably a great sacrifice of material, can always be assumed by the false gem with nearly as effective a result. To have and to hold for one's own property one of the largest diamonds ever discovered, is no doubt a magnificent possession; but in a purely artistic sense I prefer the original Koh-i-noor, worn on the arm of Runjeet Sing as he sat 'cross-legged in his golden chair, dressed in simple white, with a single string of huge pearls round his waist,' to the Koh-i-noor cut and pared down to mathematical symmetry by English lapidaries, with a loss of one-third of its weight.
It is to be feared that the possessors of diamonds in any quantity are, as a rule, not very likely to be influenced by suggestions which arise from the consideration of artistic taste; yet I cannot refrain from pointing out what appears to me a great mistake made by ladies who insist on wearing a profusion of these gems clustered together either in the shape of what is called a tiara, or on any other part of their dress. The true beauty of a diamond is best seen when it shines like a star from a dark ground on which, as in the firmament itself, it may have companions, but never in close association. A mass of diamonds grouped together in the form of a coronet, or, as we too frequently see them, in the ill-adopted form of a wreath of leaves and flowers, may produce a fitful blaze of light; but so will tinsel or any other mean material used for a similar purpose. Such an effect as this is surely but a paltry one to aim at, and when it is obtained can only dazzle the eye and distract it from those charms which are popularly supposed to be enhanced by this mode of decoration. The subtle beauties of a fair woman's complexion, the modest lustre of an expressive eye, the delicate texture of soft wavy hair, are not these well nigh extinguished in the profuse glitter of surrounding brilliants ? Diamonds of any important size should be quite isolated, or if small should be arranged in small, distinct, and geometrical groups on the ornament which they are intended to enrich.
It is lamentable to think how little real art is now displayed in the manufacture of jewellery, notwithstanding the enormous sums which are annually paid for it by private purchasers. Not long ago I visited the establishment of one of the leading West End firms, who very politely displayed their principal treasures for my inspection. I saw many articles of immense value, but I am sorry to say very few which reached anything like a high standard of taste in design. The workmanship seemed excellent: the gems were matched and cut and set with extraordinary precision and regularity, but the far more important qualities, which are indicative of the artist's hand - grace of form and composition - were generally wanting.
It would be unfair indeed to ascribe the dearth of good specimens to the indifference of manufacturers alone. It is a well-known fact that chaste and well-designed objects of jewellery - such as those, for instance, which have been reproduced from antique examples - will not sell in the English market. There is a demand for rare and expensive gems, and a ceaseless demand for showy designs, provided they are novel; but for that exquisite school of the goldsmith's art which Castellani has laboured to revive in Rome, there is little popular appreciation in this country. At the shop which I have already mentioned I was shown a necklace of large single diamonds, the fancy of a particular customer, and valued at 20,000/. For a hundredth part of that sum a rich and beautiful work of art might have been produced and applied to the same purpose. But so long as people prefer the display of mere wealth to the encouragement of true principles in manufacture, we shall look vainly for improvement in the design of expensive jewellery.
I say expressly of expensive jewellery, for that which is of moderate price and exposed in ordinary shop windows is often in far better taste. The best examples are either directly copied or partially imitated from modern Roman work, the design of which is chiefly based on antique precedent. They may be easily distinguished by the solid geometrical form which they assume, the groundwork of the gold being generally plain and unburnished, relieved by a delicate enrichment of the same material overlaid in thin corded lines. Bracelets, brooches, necklaces (with pendants in the form of the ancient bulla), earrings, armlets, etc, of this kind may be now bought in many of the shops in Regent Street and Oxford Street. Mr. Green, of the Strand, has published an illustrated catalogue, which includes some very good examples of this class.
But if we wish to find specimens of really artistic jewellery, we must seek them in the museums, for they are not the productions of the present age; or if of the present age, certainly not of this country. * At South Kensington alone there are countless treasures from which, if they were properly studied, might be formed a standard of taste far higher than that of our own day. It is not only from the much prized cinquecento work of France and Italy - beautiful as most of it is - that we may learn a lesson. Even the rudely-made peasant trinkets of Russia, the unskilled manufactures of central India, the quaint and early devices of Rhenish Byzantine artists, are all infinitely superior to what we have made or invented in the way of jewellery during our boasted nineteenth century. In the east cloister of the South Court at the Kensington Museum were, not long ago, some cases of oriental jewellery lent by Sir R. N. Hamilton, and well worth inspection. Those specimens are for the most part of Bhopal and Indore work, remarkable not only for extreme simplicity, but for an elegance and appropriateness of design which our jewellers would do well to imitate. Among others was a throat ornament or flat necklace, composed of little tablets of gold about three-quarters of an inch long and three-eighths broad, divided transversely into three panels, each containing a ruby. These panels alternate with a double row of four seed pearls, disposed so as to occupy about the same space as the adjoining ornament throughout the length of the necklace (about seven inches), except that at each extremity of the band the panels, instead of being oblong, are trefoil shaped. To these extremities are attached a small silken cord of crimson colour, whipped round with gold thread, which serves to fasten this ornament round the neck of the wearer.
* Some of the Algerine trinkets, now sold in London, of white metal decorated with beads in imitation of coral and turquoise, are really exquisite in design and worthy of the best periods of ancient art manufacture. They are hand-made specimens of native work. If our jewellers would only reproduce them, using silver and real stones for their material, they would be doing good service in the cause of household taste.