Wow Me Wednesday: Neoclassical Jewelry

Welcome to the first installment of “Wow Me Wednesday!”

So, not every Wednesday, but occasionally, we will curate a list of interesting jewelry-related tidbits and jewelry items to share with you.

We hope you like it.

This week on “Wow Me Wednesday” we are discussing Neoclassical design and its return, again.


The neoclassical period was a design-throwback during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During that time the leader of France, the one and only Napoleon, wanted to make his mark on history. To do that, he copied the Classic building designs of the Greeks and Romans. The Arch de Triumph is just one of the Neoclassical structures Napolean built. He also made medals with his likeness featuring the rays of Ceasar’s crown. Emporer Napoleon’s ego knew no bounds as evidenced in this god-like portrait medal from the 1820s.

Neoclassical Napoleon Necklace

Interestingly, the current US President drafted an executive order earlier this year, in February 2020, called “Make Federal Buildings Great Again.” In the draft, Trump mandated that all future federal buildings be constructed in the neoclassical style. Trump is not the first President to take a pen to the architects of DC, Thomas Jefferson did the same. You can read more about the draft in The Art Newspaper. Many Architects have taken the time to respond. Some point out the exclusionary bent of neoclassical architecture and question whether this proposed order more reflects the ideals of modern-day democracy or the grandiosity of the executive order’s author. Although we will never know, neoclassical everything is making a comeback!

The neoclassical period began around 1760 in Western Europe. It is an answer to the idealized nature and flowing lines of the Rococo art that was popular at the time. Neoclassical art, design, and architecture are more concerned with straight lines, hard surfaces, and reimagining a never-was period of social utopia. There is a great deal of illusion involved in the architecture of what appears to be a straight line in grand columned buildings. The weight of the building itself requires that the horizon lines are not actually straight and level. Yet, optical illusion over distance tricks the mind into seeing a straight line, where a curved line exists. The illusions do not stop there, neoclassical art includes marble statuary and numerous friezes depicting past myths, specifically of Greek origin, in an attempt to elevate the appearance of decorum.

The neoclassical paintings are beautiful as well and often seek to elevate a scene by telling fictional stories of better days and lost virtues. Angelica Kauffman was a neoclassical Swiss painter almost lost to history. In 1785 she painted a myth regarding the mother of two important Roman politicians during the 2nd century. The mother is the predominant figure in the painting who proffers her children (the politicians) as her greatest treasures when offered a long gold necklace. Although mother Cornelia is a recorded queen of virtue, during the 2nd century, she was still considered her husband’s property and could not have purchased the chain without her husband’s consent. Whether Kaufman painted the scene as a commentary on the limitations placed on Cornelia or as an exultation of her virtues we will never know. You can read more about Kaufmann and her neoclassical paintings on Artnews.

As neoclassical themes spread across Western Europe, Europeans spread their empires further around the world. Dutch sailors rode the wind toward rich lands peopled with vibrant cultures and violently replaced those cultures with neoclassical ideas.

At the beginning of the neoclassical period, in 1766 the Dutch founded Queen’s College (now Rutgers University) in modern-day New Jersey. The college was granted a charter by William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, so the Dutch Reformed Church could educate new ministers. The Dutch colony continued using Dutch currency in the Americas, as there was no unified country to build a mint and produce coins. Today, those coins are called Dutch, New-York dimes.

Dutch New York Dime

In this New York Dime, you can see the beginning of the union between medieval heraldry and restrained simplified script. On the reverse, the effect is even more impressive. The coin’s designer spaced the letters that spell Hollandia, on three separate rows with the date underneath. The unorthodox spacing is reminiscent of the engraved letters in classical coin designs. By enlarging the Dutch lion in a central shield, the shield borders become more column-like but are not yet fully formed fluted columns.

In order to transition from rococo’s multitude of natural shapes to the neoclassical lines, there had to be a crossover design element. That crossover connection is the fluted column. In rococo fashion, the billowing texture of drapery mimics the cloud’s voluminous shape. In order to maintain that shape, but connect it with the hard-line that neoclassical design pretends to be,  fashion designers used pleats and shimmer on shear fabric during the 17th and 18th centuries. You can see evidence of the transformation from rococo to neoclassical in this 1818  portrait of Princess Charlotte of Whales in her Russian dress.

Today, as Vogue reports, fashionistas are once again embracing the neoclassical thread. Pleats that curve in the shape of clouds grace the runways for fall 2020, although the fashion industry does not have to reach as far into the past to revisit neoclassical themes. In the 1930s the fashion industry toyed with the pleats, or flutes, familiar to all neoclassical students. The pleats take on an unrepressed version of the 1930s goddess gown in the 21st century. Fit and flare hard pleats accentuate the curves of shapely models, while abstract pleated shapes soften the hard shoulder lines of the fine-boned models. These designs would undoubtedly intrigue Princess Charlotte in 1818.

Charlotte’s husband worked closely with Emperor Alexander I of Russia during the Napoleonic wars. Eastern Europe and Russia rebuffed Napolean and his neoclassical ideals, making the Russian coinage of the time uniquely undecorated for the era. For example, the1818, 2 Kopek features a double-headed eagle, crowned, holding a sword in one claw and a helm in the other. There are no attempts to hearken back to an imagined past in this design.

Russian Imperial Eagle 1818 Coin Pendant

To see more detailed images of the coins, click on the photos! They are all available in Etsy.

Thank you for joining us for our very first “Wow Me Wednesday,” we will see you next time!

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