It's a Grand Tour

If you've ever shopped for antique jewelry, you may have seen pieces labeled as "Grand Tour" or "Grand Tour souvenirs."  These little works of wearable art were commonly sold during the Georgian and Victorian eras.  The Grand Tour was a traditional trip taken by the young men and women of the upper class.  The goal was to expose these upper class (traditionally British) aristocrats to the artistic riches primarily of France and Italy.  The opportunity it gave for studying culture, architecture and art were deemed essential for the completion their education. Basically, it served as an educational rite of passage.  These long trips then became a custom of the European social elite beginning in the late seventeenth century and continued to grow in popularity until the middle of the nineteenth century.  These tours were so popular that by the second half of the eighteenth century wealthy young men and women from North and South America began to travel abroad as well.  Overall, the custom flourished from approximately 1660 until the advent of large-scale rail transit in the 1840s with a rather standard itinerary. 

In a 1765 letter to friend and philosopher Jean-Jaques Roussaeu, Scottish writer James Boswell wrote:

"You were indeed right to congratulate me when my father gave me permission to travel in Italy. Nine months in this delicious country have done more for me than all the sage lessons which books, or men formed by books, could have taught me. It was my imagination that needed correction, and nothing but travel could have produced this effect."

Map indicating routes of several Victorian European Grand Tour options.

London was often the starting point for the Grand Tour with Paris deemed an essential destination.  Many traveled to the Netherlands, some to Germany and Switzerland, and very few ventured on to Spain, Greece or Turkey.  However, the most important place to visit was Italy.  As part of this elite tradition, well-heeled travelers would collect artwork, jewelry and other souvenirs as mementos of their travels.  The jewelry created specifically for the Grand Tour tourists trade in the Victorian era was inspired by the study of ancient Pompeii, Egypt, Greece and Rome. These motifs included designs from wall paintings, floor tiles and even excavated jewelry.  The Renaissance and Medieval style jewelry combined well with the heavier Victorian fashions.  Later in the nineteenth century, Oriental motifs provided further inspiration.  

This stunning example of a fine, antique Micro Mosaic Brooch from the Grand Tour period features the architecture of the Pyramid of Caius Cestius in 22 karat Gold offered by Robin C. Larner via Ruby Lane.  Apparently, Caius Cestius was a Roman citizen and his Pyramid is not only one of the best examples of ancient Egyptian cultural influences on the Roman Empire but it is also one of the best-preserved buildings from the Imperial Period. It was built around 2,000 years ago, between 18 and 12 B.C., as a mausoleum for the magistrate & priest Caius Cestius & his family.  To make it even more impressive, it was build in 330 days!  A "Grand Tour" learning experience at its finest!

Other common themes in Grand Tour jewelry include:

Mother Nature - Plant collecting was a prolific Victorian hobby, and those natural motifs were also reflected in jewelry. Reflecting that love of gardening and nature, floral cameos were popular in the later Victorian era.  Additionally, amazing novelty jewelry was made of everything from small real birds to beetles and other insects.  And jewelers catered to those tastes even in Grand Tour pieces where intricate leaf and landscapes would play into the design or subject matter - as you can see in some of the examples throughout the blog.  Queen Victoria's engagement ring was a serpent with turquoise eyes - one of many Egyptian motifs popularized by the Grand Tour. 

Micro Mosaics - Another specialized form of Grand Tour jewelry was micro mosaics.  Mosaics as an art form and decoration goes back thousands of years to the ancient world itself.  Mosaics can be seen as early as in Mesopotamia.  The Greeks and Romans created wonderful mosaics that were used for a wide variety of decoration such as on walls and pavements.  These home d├ęcor mosaics later became the inspiration behind many jewelry pieces as well and were often some of the most prized Grand Tour souvenirs!

This rare, & stunningly intricate, Micro Mosaic Pendant features a Golden Scarab Beetle.  It is modelled in 15ct yellow gold & even features a surprise in the back - a bit of woven hair making it even more special!  It's offered by Fetheray Fine Vintage and Antique Jewelry.  A purely magical example of Grand Tour jewelry as well as Mourning Jewelry!

Cameos - Although cameos well pre-date the Victorian era, for Victorians who loved travel a cameo was considered both a meaningful and wearable souvenir of a Grand European Tour.  It could also be passed down from generation to generation making it a wonderful souvenir.  Both men and women of the time wore cameos.  Cameos were worn as brooches, necklaces, rings and earrings for women; and as watch fobs, rings and stick pins for men.  The Victorian fascination with all things historic in nature is no more clearly demonstrated than in the classical Greek profiles and mythological motifs seen in Grand Tour cameos.  Carved in seashell, ivory, jet, lava or stone, cameos could be set in precious or non-precious metals making them available at all price points to appeal to a great audience of Grand Tour tourists.  Some cameos were portraits of real people; some of gods and goddesses or other mythological characters.  Although thought of as primarily an Italian art form, there were also skilled cameo carvers in a variety of countries.  The quality and craftmanship of the carving is the prime factor determining value, but cameos set in precious metal and/or ornamented with diamonds, seed pearls or enameling are the most desirable.  When buying a cameo, be sure to check its condition by holding the cameo up to the light to detect possible cracks.  There is no way to repair a broken cameo so buy selectively.

Here is an incredible pair of Victorian Carved Lava Cameo Earrings, c. 1870, offered by Laeluis.  The top part depicts an exquisitely hand-carved cameo, & an amphora (urn) adorns the bottom part of the earring.  Lava cameos became very popular in the mid-Victorian era due to Mt. Vesuvius producing an abundance of lava in various colors.  They were sought-after because of the exotic colors & unique texture.  Lava cameo jewelry was one of the most popular souvenirs for those who traveled to Italy.  This pair of earrings is a fine example of archeological revival jewelry.  The earrings are set in 14k yellow gold.

Intaglios - Intaglios were originally used as seals - a sort of signature, if you will.  Images were carved into stones and used to impress into wax seals.  These carvings depict portraiture, renowned architecture and even celebrated scenes from ancient Roman and Greek mythology.  They were intended to preserve the arts and culture of ancient times which had been lost throughout the centuries.  In the 19th century, reliefs of these carvings were being reproduced in plaster form and became collectibles.  These souvenir versions were designed for display and were sometimes molded out of white plaster, marble dust or wax even.  They were collected as souvenirs from their European Grand Tours.  

This incredible & unusual Georgian ring with a carved carnelian intaglio of the man’s head in the center flanked by two oval cabochon lapis lazuli stones on either side, circa 1800-1820, from The Antique Jewellery Company is sold (& I am completely jealous of its new caretaker, by the way!) presents an amazing piece of Grand Tour history!

Even today, Grand Tour jewelry is highly coveted by history buff and jewelry collectors alike.  Truly a bit of history; imagine the stories these pieces could tell!

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