Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

Clandestine Eye Jewelry

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Not too long ago, a friend shared a post about Victorian Lover’s Eye jewelry on her Facebook page. I clicked on the link and quickly became fascinated by what I learned.

Eye miniatures, as they were originally known, were small portraits of the human eye painted on brooches, rings, lockets and bracelets. But not just anyone’s eye, these clandestine gifts were exchanged in secret between paramours and effectively concealed the giver’s identity. Only someone with intimate acquaintance — a lover, a spouse, a close family member — would recognize an individual’s eye, thus allowing the gift to be worn in public.

But how did this odd custom become a fad?

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George !V of Wales

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George IV of Wales

According to legend, the origin of eye miniatures can be traced to the prince of Wales, who later became King George IV. Young George became smitten with the beautiful, twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert, who was six years his senior. But according to British law, the prince could not marry Maria, a Catholic. Fearing scandal, she fled to the continent. George, however, was not to be deterred and secretly pursued Maria. On Nov. 3, 1785, the prince sent Maria a written declaration of his love, including a proposal of marriage. To demonstrate his undying affection, he sent a miniature portrait of his own eye, set in a locket, painted by the miniaturist Richard Cosway, one of the celebrated artists of the day. Shortly after, Maria returned to England and married the prince in a secret ceremony on Dec. 15, 1785. The bride, not to be outdone by her prince, commissioned Cosway to paint her own eye in order that she might secretly give a token of her affection. Soon, other British nobility followed the couple’s lead and the fad spread throughout Europe, taking the contintent by storm until about 1820.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817. .© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817.
.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

lovers-eye-ring

Eye Ring, circa1816

Queen Victoria revived the eye miniature fad when she commissioned Sir William Charles Ross to paint portraits of her children and many of her friends and other relatives. A modest resurgence of the art form existed through the the early part of the twentieth century by a few devoted followers of the style, mostly members of the royal family or the aristocracy. Attempts were made by artists at the time to bring the fashion to America with little success.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the early nineteenth century eye miniatures were adapted as a form of mourning jewelry sometimes referred to as ‘tear jewelry.’ The purpose of the eye portrait was refocused from romance to remembrance. Portrayed with a tear or depicted as gazing through clouds, these miniatures were seen as tributes to loved ones and friends and often evoked powerful emotions. Mourning eye miniatures included symbolism of the gemstones used to surround the painting. Pearls often represented tears when they surrounded an eye portrait. Diamonds portrayed strength and longevity. Garnets indicated true friendship and turquoise was believed to bring good fortune for the deceased in the after life.

Without an inscription, the identity of those painted eyes on these much sought after heirlooms remains a mystery to this day.

What do you think of the lover’s eye jewelry? Creepy, romantic, or just plain weird?

 

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6 Comments

  1. Colleen

    Where do you find your information? I’ve never heard of anything like this before… so cool! There were so many ways people declared their love in bygone days. I feel so sad sometimes that it is a lost art. Thank you for sharing your passion for history and breathing new life into the past for a few moments. <3

    • romancinghistory

      Aww, thanks so much Colleen. A fellow writer friend posted something on her Facebook page about Victorian Lover’s Eye Bracelets and piqued by curiosity.

  2. Mike Goshorn

    Reminds me of the eye on the back of the dollar. Hmm. Always thought that was illuminati, now here’s a great story: what if the eye on the dollar was some boughs way of expressing love to his sweetheart or mistress. Would have been right around that time that the dollar was first enscribed.
    As his undying love he altered the engraving of the dollar and put in his eye!!

  3. romancinghistory

    You’re right, Samantha! At first I thought it was rather creepy, like a stalker. But when you think about the eyes being a window to the soul, you’re really gifting a very intimate glimpse into the heart and soul of the giver. I still its rather an odd custom, but not quite as creepy as I originally thought! Thank you!

  4. Samantha

    Well, I guess that’s one way of keeping your eye on someone. :p

    I kind of like it. Since eyes are considered both the lamp of the body and a window into the soul, it’s an art form full of expression and intimacy, in my opinion.

    But I got to say the miniature in the mirror case kind of gives me the willies. I much prefer seeing a bit of the nose, rather than just an eye.

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