From Hummingbird Heads to Poison Rings: Indulging Our Antique Jewelry Obsession


This memento mori ring (shown in four views), circa 1700, features a death’s-head skull, an hourglass, and a flower. The interior is engraved with “I am gone follow after” and the initials “AWI.” (The Hairpin, via RowanandRowan.com)

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "If the phrase "estate jewelry' conjures images of fussy Victorian filigree necklaces or impossibly ostentatious diamond encrusted bling, you haven't seen the stuff Monica McLaughlin regularly finds for her Estate Jewelry column at The Hairpin. We spoke to Monica about how a comment she left on a Hairpin blog post proved the launching pad for her column, as well as her fascination with 19th-century jeweler Carlo Guiliano and Tiffany designer Paulding Farnham. Our interview also includes 25 examples of some of the most unusual pieces of estate jewelry McLaughlin has discovered, from a brooch made out of a real hummingbird head to a necklace-and-earrings set fashioned from actual tiger claws."

The Victorians were obsessed with natural history, so I get where they were coming from, but creating earrings and pins from the heads of hummingbirds is too much for me. They weren’t only used in jewelry, either: Feathers and entire taxidermied birds of all sorts were used extensively as hat decorations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Millions of birds were slaughtered in North and South America and elsewhere to meet the demand. I saw an image on Twitter recently of an American hat from 1890 that’s in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a bonnet, and it has three green budgies just sort of stuck to it. The Met has a ton of other hats that also include birds, but in those, the birds are at least a little more artfully arranged so you can see the aesthetic thought behind them. But the budgie bonnet is just awful.

From Hummingbird Heads to Poison Rings: Indulging Our Antique Jewelry Obsession

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