Posted by: Moira Drexler | October 12, 2010

Snakes and Serpents in Antique Jewellery

Of all the animals represented in antique jewellery, the snake or serpent is surely one of the most popular motifs.  I got inspired to write this as I walked past the pharmacy noticing the medical serpent on the door.

 

Snake necklace set with turqoise, diamond and garnet.

 

The Greeks in the 7th to 5th Century BC used snakes in jewellery designs. the Greeks regarded it as an important symbol for protection.  The Greeks invented the snake bracelet, the typical coil style that goes around the wrist or arm.  In the 6th Century BC, these were made both in gold and silver.  That makes any lovely Victorian ones a reproduction!

 

Snake Bangle in stock at Kellies Antiques, Brisbane.

 

The Romans too, used snakes in jewellery designs.  or them, the snake symbolised wisdom.  For earrings, they also used an ‘S’ shaped hook which looks like a snake, but these were hidden at the back of, mostly, circular designed earrings.  Italian-born jeweller Carlo Giuliano used Renaissance emblems in the 1860’s, of storks eating snakes.

The serpent design for earrings became fashionable around 1550, when large, open wing-shaped collars were being modelled.  Women wore their hair up, so extremely long earrings looked spectacular.  This trend began in Italy, thn by the early 17th century, the trend moved to Northern Europe.  Because elaborate , long earrings could be worn, earrings were sometimes designed with a coiled snake right at the very top, mostly in green enamel.

Around 1820, snake necklaces were popular in a mesh form.  They were made in this style from both gold and pinchbeck.  Since this tiem, the snake motif was used widely in jewellery, necklaces, earrings, rings, bangles and even stick pins.  The serpent or snake could symbolise two different things.  It was a symbol of eternity, hence snake themes in mourning or memorial jewellery and it was a symbol for love.

 

black enamel snake bracelet

 

Georgian mourning brooches sometimes have the snake around the outer edge of the frame with its tail in its mouth as a symbol of eternity. Late Georgian mourning rings often represented a scaly, black, coiled snake the scales in black enamel on yellow gold with diamonds for eyes.  A snake ring from the same time set with rubies or diamonds, would symbolise never ending love.  At this time snake chokers were woven out of the deceased’s plaited hair would be for mourning.  Sounds macabre doesn’t it?

 

Snake ring.

 

 

rose gold snake ring

 

Some examples of mid-Victorian snake necklaces are scary because they look real.  Depending on how skilled the goldsmith was, the gold body seems to shimmer.  These necklaces often double up as bracelets, as there was a second clasp within the snake’s head, so it could be worn as a bracelet.

If you get seriously attached to the snake design in jewellery, you will be amazed at what you can find.  In the Pforzheim Museum in Germany, I witnessed a past buckle with two snakes wrapped around one another.  Even men wore snakes as tiepins and stickpins.  An 18th century diamond snake brooch has a pearl dangling from its mouth.  This may represent sadness, the pearl representing a tear, but it could also just be for novelty.

From the 1860’s to the 1870’s, drop earrings made for pure novelty value often included snakes as a theme.  Snakes were popping out of dangly vine and grape earrings.  Lovely and a great talking point! Medusa head cameos were popular in the mid-19th century, as were hardstone cameos from tortoiseshell.

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Responses

  1. Hi Moira – just subscribed to your blog and found this article about the snake jewellery very fascinating. Snakes have always scared me, but the jewels are quite lovely….Liz

    • Thanks for subscribing Liz. Snakes are beautiful in both the antique and contemporary jewellery world……Moira

  2. I love that rose gold snake ring.

    • It is a beauty and the nicest one I ever owned. It didn’t take long to find a new owner.


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