Exploring the Jewelry of Colonial America

With Thanksgiving a few weeks away, we thought it was a good time to go back in time and explore the jewelry styles that were popular with our founding fathers and mothers. Although the pilgrims were stark and austere, by the 18th century colonial America had become adorned. So pull up a wooden chair, sit down with a cup of hot tea and enjoy some tales of jewelry in early America.

Recorded History Begins with the Newspaper

How do we know what our early American ancestors wore? Portraits of well-to-do citizens and their families that have survived the ages are one source. But we get much of our historical information from colonial newspapers. In 1704, the British government allowed the publication of The Boston News-Letter, which became the first continually published newspaper in America.

Like today’s papers, colonial papers carried many advertisements related to jewelry, from sales ads by goldsmiths and silversmiths to lost and found and stolen property ads by citizens. The papers that survived from that time provide an interesting and accurate account of what Americans bought, wore, lost and stole. Gold and silver jewelry, precious and semiprecious stones, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, topaz, garnets were highly prized by the colonists – and for the same reasons today: an appreciation of its beauty, the collection of wealth and the appearance of status and social standing in the community.

What They Bought, Wore and Stole

Based on sales, lost and found and stolen property ads from various colonial newspapers, the jewelry that was popular includes silver snuff and tobacco boxes with mother of pearl lids, gold and silver sleeve buttons, brooches with detailed portraits set with gemstones, elaborate silver hilted swords, garnet and crystal three-drop earrings, coral necklaces, silver and gold watches, gold heart lockets set with garnets, and, of course, gold and silver belt buckles. An ornate belt buckle was an essential fashion piece to complete a well-dressed look.

A Blending of Cultures

Colonial jewelry came from various sources, and the result was a melting pot of the cultures convening in the colonies. The Native American Indian tribes were known for their intricate beadwork. They would stitch together thousands of beads made of carved bone and wood, ground coral, shell, turquoise and copper.

Spanish silversmiths and goldsmiths helped introduce that style of metalwork in jewelry, and silver and gold earrings, necklaces, belt and shoe buckles became popular. As more European settlers arrived, the jewelry “shops” of the day became more diverse, offering a cornucopia of gems and one-of-a-kind pieces made and found throughout the colonies, Europe and South America.

Where It Can Be Seen Today

While many colonial era jewelry pieces have been lost to age, war and attrition, there are several museums with impressive collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a 19th century American jewelry exhibit. Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation Building houses a small but precious sampling of 18th and 19th century jewelry. Visit Colonial Williamsburg online – their website has an online clothing exhibit, “Historic Threads: Three Centuries of Clothing.” You can see some of the intricate beadwork and accessories of the day. The Antique Jewelry University is also a good resource to view and learn about early American jewelry.