Adorn: A New Curator’s Perspective

13 Dec 2019

Liz Tregenza, Collections and Learning Curator (Colchester)

My name is Liz and I am the new Collections and Learning Curator at Colchester + Ipswich Museums. I was very excited to have a look around the current major exhibition Adorn: Jewellery the Human Story at Colchester Caste and offer some of my thoughts on this visually striking display.   

My specialism is 20th century dress and textiles and I’m really interested in wider ideas of personal adornment and how this helps a person to create their own sense of style. Whilst most of the objects in Adorn are 2000 (or more!) years old, I have decided to pick out a few of the more ‘modern’ exhibition highlights in this blog post. The items I have chosen demonstrate that in many ways, whilst jewellery styles have certainly changed in the past 2000 years, it is unquestionable that there are design elements that remain popular. 

Here are my highlights: 


COLEM: 1969.50.4; Snake Brooch


The snake is a motif that can be found in jewellery from ancient times to today. The small example above, which features an entwined looping snake, is made from jet. Jet has been used for jewellery since the Neolithic period, but it was particularly popular in the Victorian period. The highly polished variety (as seen in this brooch) was often used for mourning jewellery and favoured by Queen Victoria. The snake or serpent motif was also one favoured by Queen Victoria, her engagement ring from Prince Albert was a snake with an emerald head! The snake or serpent is a motif which is often seen in jewellery. There are several other examples of snakes in the exhibition including two striking Roman gold bangles, which would have wound their way up the arm. For many the snake or serpent is an incredibly symbolic design, in jewellery often seen to represent both eternal love and good luck. The twisted entwined body of this snake particularly suggests this. But why does this little brooch appeal to me? I have to say it is the tiny glass eyes that stare back at you.  


COLEM: 1957.712.2.2 ; Coral Earrings


These beautiful drop earrings are made from coral (or rather coral skeletons!). Coral is found in jewellery from pre-historic times to the present day, but these highly carved examples are Victorian. Coral, owing to its relative softness, is hard to carve and these earrings demonstrate real skill in their making. The fauna inspired design is incredibly detailed. This pair of earrings have an orangey tone to them, which you might typically expect to find from coral. However, coral can be found in all sorts of shades from a very pale peach blossom tone right through to a dark paprika colour. Coral, again, was a favourite of Queen Victoria! 


COLEM: 1969.49.2; Butterfly Brooch


And one last object. This piece is a very delicate and lightweight one, much like the animal it represents – a butterfly! This brooch is likely a late Victorian piece and is made from a white metal filigree. Filigree, as seen in this example, often has a lacey appearance to it. It is made from very fine pieces of metalsometimes as thin as the breadth of a hair, which are twisted and heated into the desired shape before being soldered together. In the Victorian period symbolism was incredibly important in terms of jewellery. The butterfly was a popular motif that was often seen in the period. Real (or rather dead!) butterflies were widely collected and butterflies were seen embroidered onto dresses and accessorising women’s outfits in various ways. For many, the butterfly was seen to represent the soul, as it was in Roman times, owing to the metamorphic life of the butterfly itself. 

These are just a few of my personal favourites from ‘Adorn: Jewellery the Human Story’. But do be sure to check out the exhibition and see the other wonderful examples of ancient to modern jewellery on display. 


Where will your adventure start?