As a jewelry designer and historian, I am very interested in historical jewelry. Also because looking at historical jewelry, you can see what the social-economical situation was in those days. How people dressed and decorated themselves, and jewelry designers get a lot of inspiration to make ‘new’ pieces of jewelry.
In a few weeks’ time, I start as a guide in our local museum ‘House of Hilde’. In our neighborhood archeologists have found quite a few skeletons of people that lived from the 4 century BC until the 18th century AD. History is told on the basis of large puppets, in the size of real persons, wearing the clothes of their time and representing the skeletons found.
During the last renovation, they added two puppets, a couple, that lived in the 17th century, the Golden Age in the Netherlands. Clothing historians and jewelry designers dressed them according to that century and of course with matching jewelry. They are gorgeous and I have the privilege to guide people around and tell them all about the Golden Age. And especially about the jewelry, of course.
To prepare me for my new ‘job’ I dived into my books, into the internet to find information about the jewelry of the 17th century. Not that easy, until I discovered that on the painting of the Dutch masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer, you can find everything you want to know about the clothing and the jewelry of that time. I tell you, that period is heaven for jewelry designers. And I found some surprises too!
In this blog, I like to tell you what I find out and that you too can get a lot of information by looking at paintings (in the museum). And you realize that the 17th-century in the Netherlands was heaven for jewelry-loving ladies and their jewelry designers.
Golden Age in the Netherlands
Just a little quick history lesson to understand the 17th century better. In the 16th century, the Spaniards conquered a lot of Western Europe, including the Netherlands (that not existed yet) and Portugal. The Spaniards were Catholics and the people from the Netherlands were protestant and fought against Spain for their freedom. And they were successful and got their freedom back.
The Spaniards had to move South again and for instance, Amsterdam became a free haven for merchants, intellectuals, jewelry designers, and artists who fled from the oppression of Spain. And the big advantage was that when the Netherlands was founded there was no royalty or royal family around and the largest merchants became the regents of the country.
Of course, decisions were based on getting the largest profits, all religions were more or less accepted, the country was full of immigrants with large possibilities, and they brought money, lots of money.
Merchants and trade
In 1602 the VOC was founded; the largest trade company in the world, with thousands of employees, 100 vessels, warehouses all over the world, and the first brand in the world. Their first goal was to find and bring spices to the Netherlands, necessary to preserve food and to camouflage the body odor caused by bad hygienic circumstances.
But on the way, they also traded tea and pottery from China, gemstones from India and Sri Lanka, delicate fabrics like satin, linen, silk, and velvet and tulip bulbs from Turkey. Those tulip bulbs became a real booming business, with enormous profits on bulbs that weren’t even imported yet. Sometimes people bought a certain tulip variety for a whole 4 story house on the canals of Amsterdam. Unnecessary to say that this Tulipmania ended as the first stock market crash in the world.
The traders and the craftsmen were rich and could afford all kinds of luxury goods. We are not talking only about expensive China or exotic seashells, but since there was no photography invented by then, the portrait painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer were in business and asked quite an amount of money for a portrait, showing the clients and their luxury surroundings and goodies.
And the Dutch masters showed on their very precisely painted portraits how the people dressed and what jewelry they were wearing. Luckily, they were experts in their job, so we now can see what life looked like. And you see the exceptional craftsmanship of Dutch jewelry designers. Of course, we find objects to see how they lived, but fabrics, clothes, and jewelry from that period are scarce.
Although 2 years back in the North of the Netherlands in a rather shallow sea fishermen found a 17th-century vessel, made of palm wood, and in the vessel was a remarkably well-preserved silk dress in a wooden box. They are still renovating it for the Texel Museum.
Religion and clothing
First of all, let me tell you that in the Netherlands every religion was welcome and every Dutch person or immigrant could choose his own religion and follow their beliefs. But…
Most of the people were protestant and we had a Dutch variety called Calvinism. This Calvinism is widespread in the Netherlands and Germany and is based on certain values, like rational, orderly, and focused on getting ahead in the world. You had to work hard and be loyal; ideal values to be a great trade partner. Calvinist people worked hard, lived sober, and should not spend too much money on appearances.
There is a quote of Samuel saying ‘ all display of wealth should be done with moderation, restrain, and piety. Inner quality should not be seen in someone’s outer appearance’.
But it is hard to live with so much money in the bank and don’t enjoy it. Therefore the 17th-century ladies find a solution: they wore dark-colored to black clothing with crystal white collars and a lot, I mean a lot of jewelry. The jewelry designers made over time.
The clothes were made of flexible fabrics like satin, silk, velvet, and linen. And only the rich people could afford to dye their clothes black since it was a formal color and it is very difficult and therefore expensive to get a perfect black color, that stayed black.
Gemstones, diamonds, pearls and coral
Thanks to trading a lot of gemstones and pearls in Amsterdam. The diamond cutters were experienced and great craftsmen. The pearl drillers were famous for making extremely small holes in the pearls, so the weight of the pearl stayed high. There were craftsmen who could polish and crave coral and preserve amber. The jewelry designers had enough work. And there were enough people who could afford expensive jewelry.
At the beginning of the 17th century, a certain type of collar got popular. This fashion came from Spain and the Dutch traders loved it because with this type of collars they could be seen and everybody knew how expensive these collars were. The merchants might live sober but wanted to show the world that they were wealthy and had enough money to be loyal and trustable trade partners.
The ‘molensteenkraag’ or millstone collar was made of batiste and finished with lace. The large collars needed up to 15 meters of fabric. At some point, they got that large that I wonder how they can eat with these collars on without spilling food or wine on them. And washing was not possible. The collars had to be supported by a frame wrapped with silver or gold threads. You think that it is impossible to wear a necklace ánd a collar, but they managed.
Around 1640 the collar got flattered and most pearl necklaces with little diamond pendants got popular. I bet that the jewelry designers loved the removal of the large millstone collars since now there was more space for jewelry.
Wearing a large ‘molensteenkraag’ made it impossible to wear long hair that got entangled in the collar. So ladies wore a batiste white cap decorated with pearls. Some fancy ladies even had a small wig under their cap to look even more beautiful.
Married women wore a betrothal pin of gold or silver on the right side of their head in the hair, with a little decoration at the end of the pin. There is a portrait with a lady wearing a betrothal pin decorated with a lock, to show how devoted she was to her husband! Engaged girls wore the same pin, but on the left side of their head.
The pins were put under the cap with the end sticking out a bit, but clear enough to see and show that you were married, engaged, or still ‘looking for a husband’.
In the second half of the 17th century, the large collars were replaced by the flat ones, and the hair of the ladies was adapted by the new fashion, pipe curls. And now they could wear large earrings, whether statement diamond chandeliers or statement pear-shaped pearls.
And a new thing was wearing a love lock attached to one earring. That love lock contained real hair from a loved one and Amalia van Solms, married to a Dutch prince and warlord started with this fashion, wearing the love lock of her brother.
Due to the large collar, a necklace could be hardly seen, although the ladies wore one anyway. To show their pearls they had long strings of pearls hanging from shoulder to shoulder, attached to their clothing with a little ribbon. Under the strings of pearls and between the breasts they wore a gemstone or diamond floral brooch, and an attached pendant was to be seen later in the 17th century.
From her waist down she wore a girdle, made of gold or diamonds or another precious gemstone. On the girdle was a kind of key chain, but then with all kinds of utensils for needling, etc. The bourgeois lady was not only richly decorated but was also well fed or well-figured with a double chin and all. Wearing at least two layers of skirts and maybe a crinoline/petticoat and with her ‘round-shaped’ figure a girdle that was high above the skirts and going down in front made her look thinner.
Thanks to the ¾ sleeves or the tight long sleeves decorated with batiste and lace the bracelets came in fashion. A lady got a so-called cupid manacle, made of gold in the shape of a chain for her engagement and another one for her wedding. These cupid manacles were the only pieces of jewelry I could find that weren’t a real challenge for jewelry designers: no decorations, no gemstones, just plain gold chains.
Only the woman wore a wedding ring, which she got from her husband during the wedding ceremony. The ring was made of gold decorated with diamonds or other precious gemstones. In those days one did not know or could not make the diamond shapes we know now. Most of the time the diamond had a point on top and a point down, with a ring set in the middle. The jewelry designers could manage that diamond shape by making the total of the ring higher.
The jewelry designers used in the setting a black foil, so that the color of the diamond stone looked black too. Understandable if you think that black was the formal color for the rich and wealthy people.
At first, the lady could wear her wedding ring on any finger she wishes. At it was more or less fashionable to have your wedding ring on your right index finger. Later the ring moved to the right thumb and after that to the ring finger. But now Mr. Cats, a Dutch Puritan, with a lot of influence thought enough is enough.
The wedding rings made by the jewelry designers became more rich and exuberant and did not match the Calvinist way of life. So he ‘advised’ that the wedding ring should be only a small golden band, without any decoration. Of course, people followed his ‘orders/advice’, but the ladies thought differently about it. They beaded the golden band on a string and wore it around the neck, and have the fingers free for beautiful with gemstones decorated rings.
And all this jewelry was not all to show her richness (and to keep it sober!). The jewelry designers had to come up with a special piece of jewelry to please the ladies, and they ínvented’ the pomander. The lady needed a pomander with exquisite spices or amber to camouflage a bad odor. And the amber was not the resin we know from the Baltic States. No, this amber was a very small part from the testicles from a whale (and that stuff seemed to smell nice), that was caught during the whaling.
In her hand, she had a folded fan, made of exotic feathers, ivory, and decorated with gemstones. And she had expensive embroidered gloves, a lot of times decorated with tulip flowers (Tulipmania).
Don’t forget the diamond clasps on the shoes and all the buttons on her dress made of silver or gold and pearls. She had a very ingenious button system to keep up her sleeves or to pin something on her dress. On one side was a pearl, then silver or golden pin, and on the other side a pearl. Clever and beautiful designs made by jewelry designers.
The heaven of the jewelry designers
The trade and the profit made by it, the freedom, all the wealthy and talented immigrants, the many goods coming in from all over the world made the people of the Netherlands so rich that they could afford all this jewelry. And luckily the jewelry designers from Antwerp fled to Amsterdam, in those days not a diamond or a jewelry designers center. So not only the material was available but also the jewelry designers and the other craftsmen to make beautiful pieces.
It was custom that at special occasions like marriage, baptism, meetings with important partners exclusive jewelry was exchanged. Also, a lot of jewelry was presented to the wife as a dowry since she was wearing all these beauties. But there was another reason for having and buying so much jewelry. they formed solid collateral for credit. And when they were in need of money, they sold it or brought it to the pawnshop.
The rivalry between two women
There is another reason why wearing jewelry was so popular, and I mean wearing so much jewelry was ‘hot’ at the time. That was because of the rivalry between Elisabeth Stuart, a princess from Bohemia finding with 200 employees asylum in the Netherlands after her husband was knocked off the throne. And Amalia van Solms, one of her employees, marrying a prince of the Netherlands.
Both ladies tried to outdo each other in clothing and especially exquisite jewelry. The jewelry designers had a lot of work coping with the wishes of the two ladies. And of course, all the other ladies followed. Unfortunately, Elisabeth Stuart had a royal lineage, but no money and was not as pretty as Amalia van Solms. She only was married to a royal but with enough money to buy what she wanted.
Elisabeth Stuart overplayed her hand ordering too many expensive goodies at different jewelry designers and one day she had to bring a large amount of her jewelry to the pawnshop. She asked her son to pay off her debts at the pawnshop and in return, he could have a very expensive diamond necklace. But he refused and a lot of her jewelry is lost. Therefore we have to look at all the paintings to know what a rich century the Golden Age was in the Netherlands and how the jewelry business flourished as never before in those days.
I often stated that looking like a Christmas tree, like the ladies in the 17th century, is not my idea of having good taste. Try to stick to one or two beautiful pieces of jewelry, pieces that stand out.
If you need some help with choosing the right jewelry to accentuate your best features, ask for my free e-book. Just let me know where I can send it to.
Hug, Florence from FlorenceJewelshop.