Elaborately set with diamonds and gemstones, or sweet and simple, bow motifs have been a popular and desirable look throughout the history of jewelry collecting from the antique to modern age. Its well known curves, flowing lines and geometric knots can be found in all categories of jewelry, from necklaces and brooches to tiaras and tie tacks. For centuries famous makers and jewelry houses have fashioned bow motifs that range in stylistic elements reflecting the times, politics and social settings of society in each era.
During the 18th century in the French court of Louis XIV, bow brooches were used as “ribbon language” to communicate one’s availability for matrimony. Typically they were delicately shaped metal and diamond bow brooches called Sévignés, named after the Marquise de Sévigné whose famous French writings spoke of ladies with strategically placed bow brooches and necklaces. A bow worn over the heart indicated the woman was taken and had found true love, a bow dangling around the neck indicated that she was in between loves, and a bow over the décolletage was an invitation for new love suitors.
Jewelry during the 19th century from the Napoleon era through the Victorian age was filled with flowers, garlands, crescent moons, memorial hair and bow motifs. Bows were commonly found on the top of gold and silver ornaments suspending drops of diamonds, gemstones and enamel works. Jewelry could be simple like a starburst brooch or quite elaborate like the parures de corsages, which typically were bow motif tops vertically suspending three brooches of floral design set with diamonds. These were removable and able to be dismantled to be worn together or apart. Long pendant earrings were in popular fashion and showcased elaborate bow tops suspending natural pearl drops, highlighting the feminine and romantic themes of the 19th century.
During the first decade of the 20th century, jewelry stayed true to the large, fluid ribbon bows of the past century, but as 1910 approached and women’s clothing moved away from bodice style dresses, more delicate, geometric two dimensional, rigid bows came into fashion. Through the Edwardian and Art Deco eras piercing, pave and millegrain settings of white gold and platinum metal work techniques brought forth new styles that showcased bow brooches. These were not just top motifs, but rather the entire subject matter suspending articulated diamond drop tassels and fringe edges. In this era jewelry houses like Cartier and Chaumet created important and iconic bow pendants, necklaces and brooches that become widely popular in Europe and the Americas.
In the mid 1930s fashion took a turn stylistically away from strict white metals to include yellow, rose and green colored golds with three dimensional designs. Bows became larger, sculptural and free flowing. The 1940s continued on this pattern with bow motifs often becoming asymmetrical and twisted in design showcasing volume and grandeur. Bow and fan motif earclips were in high fashion, which although had big looks were often light in weight and easy to wear. With the impact of World War II, bow motifs continued to be set with diamonds, sapphires and rubies, but also with semi-precious stones such as citrines, peridots and amethysts.
From the 1950s on to the modern age, bows continued to be ever present, popular and part of jewelry fashion. We currently witnessing a re-emergence of antique bow styles in the media with such popular shows as Game of Thrones, Mad Men and Board Walk Empire. Jewelry houses like Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany & Co. continue each year to create new lines of pendants and rings with bow imagery.
Bows are a timeless motif that will continue to evolve and reflect the times we live in. Whether adding to an existing bow collection or just starting one, the collector will find that the bow is a fantastic, varied jewelry motif with myriad elements and styles that span the centuries.