Secret Message in Jewellery Part 2 - Hand Symbols

Symbolism in jewellery was an enchanting element of Georgian and Victorian dressing. Whether you were signalling an openness to flirtation, the mourning of a loved one, or a heart enthralled to another- there was a brooch for that!

In the 17th-19th centuries your choice of baubles was a window to your deeper thoughts, a peek behind the screen of frosty etiquette. Those with the coins for some fashionable jewellery could communicate their sentiments in ivory, gold, wood, horn, or later, cellulose. 

This is a 4 part series which we began with an exploration of Lover's Eyes. This instalment will focus on Hand Symbols.

Hand Symbols in Jewellery

Hands have always been a popular motif in jewellery (and likely always will be), however in the Victorian era Hand Jewellery carried coded messages meant to be interpreted by those you met - like gang signs for posh British people!

This trend carried on well in to the 20th Century, so many fine examples are even made in celluloid, an early form of plastic ( that looks like it's made of Caramac bar).

Victorian celluloid brooch hand holding closed fan with rose

Clasped Hands: Some hand symbols are much older than the Victorian fad, Fede rings, for example, have been seen since at least the Medieval period. These rings featured clasped hands, which could sometimes separate to reveal a heart. Modern interpretations such as the Irish Claddagh are still very popular today.

Irish Claddagh ring hands clasping a crowned heart

The Claddagh is one of the most familiar symbolic jewellery items of our times, and as an Irish teen in the late 90s/ early 00s we all knew what was meant by the twist or direction of a Claddagh.

Fede rings with their grasped hands signal love, and were sometimes used as wedding rings. 

Below is an example of an early 16C Fede ring.

The rings which had hidden hearts are often referred to as Gimmel rings

Gimmel ring that springs apart to reveal 2 hearts joined within

Later, in Victorian times we see the clasped hand brooch, often interpreted as a symbol of friendship rather than romantic love. 

Brooch in the miniature style depicting 2 clasped hands painted on a celluloid base
Pointing fingers: Hands on their own with a pointing finger ( usually worn pointing down) represented the hand of God, selecting and protecting the wearer, or the person the wearer was remembering. 
Fine victorian pointing hand brooch in mother of pearl with golden cuff and ring on forefinger
Like, many of these symbols, variations can also be found in black- jet or imitation jet. These may have denoted a memento mori, jewellery worn to remember a dead loved one. 

Victorian jet pointing hand brooch in black

Snakes: Below is a hand clasping a snake rendered in jet. The snake in Victorian jewellery (and as far back as Byzantia ) represents eternal love- Queen Victoria herself had a engagement ring snake - fun fact, she had to propose Albert as she was Queen but he still chose to buy her a ring... like the sweet first cousin that he was...

 The combination of jet, snake and hand in this brooch can be interpreted as pledging eternal love to dead lover or spouse. 

Fans: Hands holding fans, open or closed, sometimes accompanied by a symbolic flower (more on the symbolism of different plants later...) Fans in jewellery were associated with flirtation and openness to courtship, but I haven't been able to discover whether there was a distinction in meaning between an open or closed fan.

By the way, actual fans had a whole language behind them, here's an excellent article on how entire discussions were held with flutters of fans. Can you imagine the misunderstanding created by absentmindedly touching your fan against the wrong cheek!

Celluloid hand brooch holding closed fan with rose

brass hand with open fan and enamelled rose

Rods: Hands holding rods were symbolic of looking for guidance or comfort- which is a weird thing to want to express with your jewellery! We also see this motif in earlier "Mano Figa" - a Roman luck symbol of hands posed in various ways meant to sign luck/protection/guidance. I haven't been able to confirm this, but I imagine the rod is a reference to divining rods which were used to "magically" seek underground water or sites for wells. 

Orange coral hand clasping rod mano figa

ivory hand holding rod

There is a cornucopia of symbolism attached to the botanical world, and hands were often used to beautify the statement. I'll give *some* of the many examples below.

Wheat: The stunning silver pendant below is recast from an original jet brooch by the AMAZING Irish jeweler (and in my never humble opinion, genius) Louise O'Dwyer, of SWALKDESIGNS. I'm going to direct quote her on the symbolism here cause she's got it down:  "The hand pointing downwards represents the hand of God watching from above and sending down his blessings. The sheaf of wheat represents the harvest. That in death you reap what you sow and that in the afterlife you get your just rewards. Just like the farmer harvesting the wheat at the end of the season; if your life had been good and productive you will get your just rewards too..." Check out her work, cause I have so much of it in my Etsy basket that it may not be available for long!!

Modern silver cast pendant by irish shop swalkdesigns of a victorian mourning brooch with wheat in hand

Rose, Yew, and Forget-me-nots: The beautiful brooch below is likely made of Irish bog oak in imitation of jet (there's a wealth of Irish bog oak that was stolen from Ireland and used for expensive jewellery during the literal Famine...). In any case, we have 3 for one in this brooch. 

The Rose represents love (shocker!), Yew represents the afterlife, and Forget-Me-Nots are the world most explanatory floral symbol symbolising remembrance. 

Bog oak memento mori yew rose forget me nots

As you may have gleaned there's a ridiculous amount of symbology a-foot in this era, we've only scratched the surface. Our next instalment will feature Acrostic Jewellery- spelling your thoughts with gemstones, which is apparently having a resurgence!

I'll keep you posted.