Jewellery Stories

The World of Antique Novelty Jewellery

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by Lea Felicitas Döding

Miniature Marvels: Just a Little Something...

Antique novelty jewellery depicting objects of daily use 'en miniature', last third of the 19th century.

Anyone who concerns themselves with antique jewellery will, at one point, stumble across the term ‘novelty jewellery’. But what is novelty jewellery?

In the broadest sense, the term pertains to unconventional figural jewellery, marked by an element of surprise, individuality and – novelty. A floral brooch, for instance, would not have qualified as a novelty piece, being too conventional. But what would?

From the time novelty jewellery began to grow popular in the 1860s until the fashion subsided in the early 20th century, it included objects en miniature. Nails, post stamps, playing card motifs and the like adorned pins and brooches. Lockets were designed as tiny books or purses, hair and lace pins took the shape of swords and arrows.

Two examples of novelty jewellery executed in precious materials, c. 1890.

An early mention of novelty earrings, published in the German ladies’ magazine Bazar in the summer of 1864, noted that some ladies wore ‘all kinds of household utensils, tools, miniature Masonic insignia as ear ornaments, although it should be noted that it is not required of these small lanterns, weighing scales, Masonic squares, tinkling bells and the like, to be made of fine materials.’1

Indeed, many such novelty pieces were made of relatively inexpensive materials, i.e. corals, seed pearls or so-called semi-precious stones rather than diamonds or large coloured gemstones. They were considered a passing fancy of fashion rather than a sign of truly good taste, and thus not suitable for representative affairs. Towards the end of the century, however, especially swords and arrows began to be made in costly high quality versions for the evening.

Yesterday’s News: The Past Through Jewels

A jubilee brooch commemorating the coronation of King George V., 1911.

Many novelty jewels subtly or boldly referenced current events. They qualify as what we would call conversation pieces and tell us about what once moved people.

Once Japan reopened trade with the West in 1858 and especially after the country partook in the World Fair of 1867, a great fashion ensued for all things Japanese. In jewellery, the theme expressed itself in bangles designed as bamboo stems or jewellery imitating the traditional Shakudo technique

Doubtlessly the most literal take on current events consisted of date or jubilee brooches forming dates, for instance a ‘1911’ brooch commemorating the coronation of King George V.

Express Yourself: Hobbies and Sporting

A page of sporting-themed diamond brooches, Streeter (London), c. 1898.

Just like today, jewellery served as a means of personal expression. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, sporting jewellery in particular grew highly popular, but other pastimes were reflected in jewels as well. One could communicate one’s passion for music via brooches shaped as instruments or refer to one’s athletic pursuits through cufflinks shaped as golf ball and club, pins designed as riding crops, horse shoes, jockeys on horseback or even tennis rackets. 

So-called hunting jewellery enjoyed special popularity; it included not only golden rifles but also diamond-set hounds, hares, ducks, pheasants and foxes, always mounted as tie pins or brooches. 

From the 1890s, many sporting brooches including bicycles were aimed at women, carrying emancipatory notions: famously, cycling allowed women unsupervised freedom and independence of transportation.2

Fabulous Fauna: Animal Jewellery

Various pieces of animal-themed jewellery, c. 1880-1900.

One of the most enduringly popular subjects of novelty jewellery, not least among today’s collectors, are animals. 

Those designs that were not conceived as hunting jewellery often had a humorous twist. Bangles, rings and pins set with tiny detailed mice were popularised by the British company Thornhill’s in the 1880s. Small piglet charms followed, so did monkeys straddling champagne bottles. 

A more enigmatic, highly popular example of an animal jewel is the famous owl head brooch popularised by Paul Robin, made in various versions from around 1880 and often copied. Pictured is an inexpensive copy of Robin’s design, made of vulcanite or ‘India rubber’ and therefore adapted to suit the half-mourning wardrobe if so desired.

Various pieces of animal origin, last third of the 19th century.

However, there was also animal jewellery in a very literal, material rather than pictorial sense. A particular fad of the 1860s and 1870s saw taxidermized hummingbird heads set as earrings, brooches or necklaces, owing to their iridescent plumage which could rival the costliest gemstones. 

Emerald-green beetles, though imported from Brazil, were sold as scarabs in ‘Cleopatra ornaments’, i.e. jewellery in Egyptian revival styles. As an even more obscure ornament served the operculum, the ‘door’ by which a sea snail closes its shell. Opercula were mounted as rivière bracelets or necklaces, satisfying – if only for a moment – the hunger for novelty.

Crawly But Not Creepy: Jewelled Insects

A fashion for insect jewellery swept through Europe in the last third of the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, the butterfly was the most popular example: its wings are perfectly suited to be richly gem-set, and jewelled butterflies count among the costliest examples of antique insect jewellery.

Victorian bee brooch with rubies, sapphires and diamonds, c. 1885.

While many items of novelty jewellery displeased or even shocked a more conservative public, the butterfly was widely accepted; an 1888 article in the German Bazar, for instance, suggested a gem-set butterfly as a hair ornament for a gala dinner.3 Dragonflies, bees and butterflies were also worn as corsage ornaments, pinned to the front of the ball gown.

Flies, bees, wasps, bugs and – though not technically insects – spiders were also popular. For daytime use, these motifs were often mounted on a bar brooch, executed in gold or silver and set with coloured, often so-called ‘semi-precious’ gems. The same 1888 article quoted above suggests one wear ‘small bar pins which depict bugs, flies and butterflies set with turquoises’ to follow an invitation to afternoon tea.4 

Gentlemen wore tie pins depicting flies, which – if naturalistically carved from brown agate – could even make for an optical illusion and therefore an effective conversation piece.

Various insect brooches and pins of the late 19th century.

There Is a Language Little Known: Love and Flirtation

The Victorian obsession with hidden messages found a refined outlet in jewellery. Brooches shaped as arrows alluded to the golden arrows shot by cupid, intended to spark intense passion in the recipient – a socially acceptable and yet flirtatious accessory, especially if placed above the heart as a corsage ornament.

The French brooch delivers a coded message: it can be solved as à, La, Do and Re, to be read as 'à l'adorée' – to the adored.

Word plays and pictorial puzzles added fun and complexity to everyday ornaments. The popular ‘honeymoon’ brooch, for instance, depicts a fly settling atop a crescent moon, as flies are attracted to sweetness; other examples show the crescent topped by flowers whose nectar implies the ‘honey’. A golden key might have a heart suspended from it as a love token designated the ‘key to my heart’. 

More quizzical brooches depicting a bar of music might convey little messages by way of musical notes that, if solved, spelled out ‘à l’adorée’ (to my beloved – à, La, Do, Re) or ‘Dearest’ (d, e, a, rest). 

Le Temps Trouvé: Battery-Operated Jewels

Yet another type of novelty jewellery – now extremely rare and sought-after – celebrated technical advances and the novelty of electricity.

Battery-operated jewels conceived by Gustave Trouvé and realised by Auguste-Germain Cadet-Picard. The illustration was published in the French journal La Nature, 13 September 1879.

Certainly, the most iconic of these jewels is the tie pin designed as a skull, first exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. Operated by a hidden battery, it could roll its eyes and snap its jaw.5

This jewelled feat of technical engineering was conceived by Gustav Trouvé, whose invention of a pocket battery led him to design several moving tie pins, and realised by Auguste-Germain Cadet-Picard. In the 1880s, Trouvé went on to offer a series of electrically illuminated jewellery intended for the stage. A brochure titled L’électricité au théatre included tiaras, luminous walking sticks, brooches and hair pins illuminated by miniature light bulbs; the pocket battery was to be purchased separately.6

Electrically illuminated jewels for the stage by Gustave Trouvé, published in a brochure c. 1885. Source:

Needless to say, the attention which these pieces commanded brought scathing criticism as well. As wrote influential art critic Charles Blanc: ‘Occasionally, French jewellers allow themselves to be misled by the fever of emulation, or the desire of exciting astonishment. In our exhibitions electric jewels of startling novelty have been displayed. A Voltaic battery, small enough to be carried in the pocket, gave movement to a number of miniature objects arranged for the hair, as brooches or pins: a rabbit played a drum; a silver head, with ruby eyes and enamelled lips, made horrible grimaces; a convulsed butterfly and a bird flapping its wings were also represented, with numerous other fanciful toys, no doubt manufactured for exportation, and well calculated to delight savages.’7

These jewels, however, also had their admirers. Unsurprisingly, they are now among the rarest to ever be encountered by collectors; as early as 1891, they were already considered collectors’ pieces and sold for many times their original price.8

1Veronica v. G., ‘Die Mode’, Der Bazar, 10 (No. 26, 8 July 1864), p. 216.

2Cf. for instance the diamond-set bicycle brooch attributed to Streeter & Co., circa 1896, in the collection of the Boston Museum, accession no. 2009.2419. For the advertisement of the bicycle on a page of sporting brooches, cf. the Streeter & Co. catalogue reprinted by Peter Hinks (Ed.), Viktorianischer Schmuck (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1996), p. 188.

3Cf. R. T.:, ‘Moderner Schmuck zur Badesaison’, Der Bazar, 34 (No. 25, 1888), p. 278.


5An example remains in the collection of the V&A museum, London, accession no. M.121-1984.

6Cf. Gustav Trouvé: L’Électricité au théâtre, bijoux électro-mobiles, nouveaux bijoux électriques lumineux, par G. Trouvé, (Paris: Guillot, no year [c. 1885]) [, retrieved on March 1st, 2023].

7Charles Blanc, Art in Ornament and Dress, trans. by Anon. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1877), p. 256.

8Cf. Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria (London: British Museum, 2010), p. 210. For a more detailed discussion of battery-operated jewellery cf. pp. 209-213.


As an art historian, I am primarily interested in the material culture of jewellery. Who would have worn a piece, when and why? What was the cultural significance of certain gemstones and jewellery designs? These are the questions I attempt to solve for the Hofer Magazine, and which often lead me into the depths of jewellery history.

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