The "Eyes" Have It

With Valentine's Day tomorrow, I thought today would be the perfect time to discuss the history and lore - the epitome - of sentimental jewelry.  Of course, all jewelry can have a sentimental feel but what would you think is the one piece of jewelry that no matter who you are and regardless of marital status would be the most sentimental throughout history?

Historically, I would venture to say that "eye miniatures" would be the one piece of wearable art that can hold the title 'Most Sentimental Piece of Jewelry Ever Created.'  

An amazing example of an "eye miniature" from the collection of Dr. & Mrs. Skier.  Isn't the detail in both the
painting itself & the enamel work just breathtaking?!?!  What a truly sentimental piece of jeweled artwork!

Ok, maybe I'm reaching.  But maybe I'm not.  Either way, in honor of tomorrow's love-centered holiday, let's explore the historical significance of these mini portraits and their enduring appeal to collectors.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy British and European lovers exchanged "eye miniatures." These love tokens were so clandestine at the time that even now, in the majority of cases, it is nearly impossible to identify either their recipients or the people that they depict.  Only someone with an intimate acquaintance — a lover, a spouse, a close family member — would recognize an individual's eye, so they could be worn in a more open way.  They didn't have to be encased inside of a locket.  There are rare instances in which the identity of the subject is known, because of an iron-clad provenance or documentation, but typically the only way to tell is if there's an inscription.  And as we all know, romance mixed with a bit of mystery makes the relationship taste so much sweeter!

A “lover's eye” on a brooch surrounded by split pearls, circa 1790, from the collection of Dr.
& Mrs. Skier.  Seriously, if you're lover or spouse had a commissioned an eye miniature for you; wouldn't you
smile every time that you looked at it?!

According to historical folklore, the story of lover’s eyes goes back to the end of the 18th Century, when the Prince of Wales — who later became George IV — became enamored with woman named Maria Fitzherbert.  He courted Maria unsuccessfully at first.  But, he kept trying to win her affection and profess his undying love for her.  She wasn’t really into him though.  In a desperate plea to gain her attention (and affection), he even staged a sort of suicide attempt.  She reluctantly agreed to marry him but then, shortly thereafter, she came to her senses and realized what exactly she had done by consenting to marry the Prince of Wales.

This example of a circa 1789 Georgian eye miniature is mounted in rose gold & is signed
on the back, "Ann Shepley, 10 March 1789. Age 31."  It is currently available on eBay for 1,827.50 GBP.

At that time, this was completely illegal according to the laws because the King had to consent to the marriage of the heir to the throne which he never would have done because Maria was not only a Catholic but has also been twice-widowed in addition to being six years the Prince's senior.  So Maria fled to the America, trying to escape George’s attention but he didn't give up.  On November 3, 1785, the Prince wrote to Maria with a second proposal of marriage. 

Georgian 18K Gold Eye Miniature with Pearl Border available on Ruby Lane by The Pearl Antiques, $3,294.
This miniature is just stunning!  I love the seed pearl detail & the bow sitting atop the portrait.

Instead of sending an engagement ring, he sent her a picture of his own eye, set in a locket, painted by the miniaturist Richard Cosway.  Cosway was one of the celebrated artists of the day.  At the time, they referred to these pieces as "eye miniatures" but today we call them "lover’s eyes" - a term coined by New York-based jeweler Edith Weber.  Along with the eye miniature, George sent a note that is reported to have said: “P.S. I send you a parcel, and I send you at the same time an eye.  If you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance, I think the likeness will strike you.” 

This antique Georgian Miniature Eye Portrait Brooch Gold painted on enamel, circa 1800 England, is available on eBay, $3,250.

It’s unknown whether it was the letter or the eye that changed Maria's feelings, but shortly after that she returned to England and married the Prince in a secret ceremony on December 15, 1785.  Thus began the fad for these eye miniatures and so, according to legend, the genesis of the eye miniature. 

A rare Georgian Regency Sentimental Lover's Eye Miniature Nature Pearl Gold Brooch Pin offered by
Waterside Dream through Ruby Lane, $3,850.

There is some evidence to suggest that eye miniatures had appeared in France a few years earlier, and that the British were only adopting a French invention but it seems that the jury is still out among researchers.  In any event, the love affair between the Prince of Wales and Maria Fitzherbert popularized these objects and spawned a fad that lasted well into the 1830s — and even later.  Even Queen Victoria was known to have commissioned a number of them during her reign.  Even today, there are artists who are painting lover's eyes.  One is the great-great-grandson of the famous Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully.

Self-portrait, Eye, 2013 - Watercolor on mammoth ivory, 13/16 x 11/16 inches by artist Thomas Sully III.

Currently, the largest single collection of eye miniatures belongs to the Skiers of Birmingham, Ala.  David Skier, an eye surgeon, and his wife, Nan, have been collecting "lover's eyes" for decades.  Their collection went on display for the first time ever at the Birmingham Museum of Art in February 2012.

Dr. David Skier & his wife, Nan, with a few examples from their collection of eye miniatures.
Photo credit: Over The Mountain Journal.

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