The Victorian era saw a boom in the making and selling of jewellery made with precious metals and stones. But only an elite had the money for such jewellery, so costume jewellery became popular amongst those that wanted to keep up with fashion, but could only afford items made with cheaper materials. The fashion for costume jewellery was further encouraged by the low prices that could be achieved with new mass production methods such as electroplating and fly pressing.
Throughout the Victorian era, fashion was often led by the Queen herself. The time from her coronation in 1837 until the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861 is known as the Early Victorian or Romantic Period. From 1861 until about 1880 is the Mid-Victorian or Grand Period and from 1880 or so until 1901, when Victoria died, is known as the Late Victorian or Aesthetic Period.
During the Romantic period, Queen Victoria was much interested in all things Scottish, and her enthusiasm sparked a fashion for a Scots, or Celtic, style in jewellery. This included silver brooches with Celtic designs, Celtic crosses and necklaces. Silver was used in the best pieces along with Agate, a stone commonly found in Scotland, which can be polished to a fine finish with a variety of colours. Being a semi-precious and relatively inexpensive stone, Agate lent itself to costume jewellery, and solid silver could be replaced by silver plating.
After Albert’s death in 1861, mourning and commemorative jewellery became popular. Around the same time, various new manufacturing techniques entered the mainstream including electroplating and machine stamping, while new materials like aluminium came into wider use. Whitby Jet, a premium material used in mourning jewellery, could be replaced with Bog Oak, an inferior and cheaper material that resembles Jet, at least superficially.
Jewellery of the Aesthetic Period became more ostentatious, with heavy use of gold and diamonds at the top end of the market. Costume jewellery makers responded by using materials like pinchbeck, a copper and zinc alloy which resembled gold, at least in colour, and had been developed in the 18th century. Coloured glass was used in place of precious stones and other cheaper materials like shells were used.
Unfortunately, costume jewellery of the Victorian era was much reproduced during the 20th century, so to guarantee that you’re purchasing a genuine piece you should buy only from reputable dealers.