Secret Messages in Jewellery, Part 1 – Secret Eyes

Subterfuge can be seductive, but can you keep your lover a secret yet wear your heart on your sleeve.. or lapel?

In the 17th – 19th centuries there was a lot to be read from ones jewellery. Your choice of baubles were a window to your deeper thoughts, a peek behind the screen of frosty etiquette. If you had the means you could communicate your inner sentiment in ivory, gold, wood, or later, cellulose. A brooch or locket could be a little, shiny rebellion glinting through the façade of decorum.

This is a 4 part series. We'll begin with this exploration of one of the more well-known reliquaries of feelings, Lover's /Secret Eyes

Secret Eyes

These brooches, lockets and pendants were particularly popular in England and France during the 18th & 19th centuries. They became the hot gift for your lover when an English Prince- a Protestant, gave one to the Catholic widow who he had scandalously fallen in love with- Real Romeo and Juliet stuff. Thus they were the new hip thing, if you don't carry some disembodied eye art, are you even in love?

Watchful lovers eye brooch in gold frame

They were usually presented as miniatures – which doesn’t just mean small, but rather was named for a type of red lead pencil originally used for this type of etching on ivory. 

Tear shaped brooch lovers eye pin

For almost a century we have taken for granted that photographs of our favourite people exist somewhere, but that wasn’t the case then. If your beloved wasn’t with you, carrying a portrait around wasn’t practical, and often the lover in question was illicit anyway- but an eye in a locket, a peeper brooch – much more tidy. 

The pieces were discrete in the depiction of the eye. Usually very close up, and no doubt idealised. Miniature painting is an art of watercolour on ivory, so colours were painterly and the ivory itself was usually left bare to lend the skin tone. 

Tiny lovers eye brooch

It’s hard to imagine anonymity was protected even with these limitations as many of the pieces are still very detailed. It’s worth explicitly noting that these were most often (but not always) worn by people who were not married to each other – either star-crossed singletons, or those who were straight up having an affair. So why display anything at all? We’re so removed now, it’s hard to say what prevailing sentiment motivated these public declarations that something private was afoot. The lover's eye jewellery would occasionally feature in paintings indicating just how deliberately they were displayed and how universally the symbol was understood. 

Secret eye portrait

If you indulged in a Bridgerton Netflix binge, like most of the rest of the world, you may have noticed Marina's Secret Eye necklace, a sure sign that a heart is engaged elsewhere.

Lovers eye necklace Marina bridgerton

Although the Lover's Eye jewellery fad drifted out of favour in the 1830's, we are fascinated by it today. Original pieces are usually valued at over €1,000 and much more if provenance is attached.  But we're also creating new pieces today, some of my favourites are the custom painted rings and lockets from from My LittleBelleVille on Etsy. 

hand with 4 modern custom lover's eye rings

Recently Gucci commissioned the artist Fatima Ronquillo to paint a snake entwined hand holding a lover's eye. Snakes were also widely used to symbolise eternity in centuries past - more on that in future instalments of this series. 

Gucci secret eye with snake by fatima ronquillo

The public secrecy of these beautiful pieces holds an eerie enchantment that we aren't quite able to look away from centuries later. Perhaps the current fascination with them is a product of the prevalence of photography - when everyone has a million images in their phone, a tiny painting in a gilded setting is a statement of what is chosen, held apart, and precious.