Antique Jewelry: “Lover’s Eyes” Georgian Watercolor Miniatures

July 28th, 2010 by

In 1784 the widow Maria Fitzherbert was introduced to The Prince of Wales– who would later become George IV– at a gathering in London. The two began a secret affair that would continue until their controversial wedding in the drawing room of her home a year and a half later. In the interim, in order to carry a keepsake of his paramour while keeping her identity hidden, the prince had a miniature watercolor created of her—but not of her entire face. Her eye—just one of them—was drawn on a tiny piece of ivory which the prince carried around like a locket. The effect was charming, whimsical and mysterious, and “lover’s eyes” soon took off as a trend among members of London high society.

Between 1790 and about 1825, it became a popular custom to have a miniature watercolor of the eye of a lover, friend, or sister painted, and then sealed under glass and ornamentally framed in a ring, brooch, or pendant. Sometimes the portrait extended as far as the eyebrow, and some portraits contained hints of sideburns or soft curls of hair. The rings and lockets were designed for men as well as women, though most pieces feature portraits of women no matter which gender wore or carried them.

Though the practice of keeping a lover’s eye was persistent, it never quite became universal. The custom continued for a quarter of a century, but less than a thousand or so of these tiny portraits exist in the world today. Because of their scarcity, lover’s eyes are now considered extremely valuable and coveted pieces of antique jewelry.

It’s difficult to adequately describe the weird beauty of an authentic Georgian lover’s eye. When set in antique rings especially, these portraits are not at all out of place in the most elegant vintage antique jewelry collections. But they also call to mind a curiously modern and playful steampunk style– half ornamentation, half secret code, and suggestive of a different form of Georgian art, the anatomical sketch. True lover’s eyes are utterly mesmerizing specimens of antique jewelry, and their high appraisal value only adds to their elusively.

Even more so than with other forms of antique jewelry, forgeries of lover’s eyes abound. With modern scanning technology, the portraits have become easy to replicate, and of course high demand only increases the temptation to counterfeiters. If you own a lover’s eye, take the proper precautions before you part with it. And if you plan to invest in one, be aware that lover’s eyes represent a foray into what is considered high–risk collecting. Even skilled antique jewelry appraisers can mistake authenticity, and the sheer beauty of a piece for its own sake can be fatally alluring.

Remember: there are very, very few of these in the world. If the cost a lover’s eye seems too good to be true, it probably is. Appreciate the artistry and the history of the piece, but be cautious.

By Erin Sweeney