It’s that time of year again! When we celebrate the Fourth of July, I always try to tell stories that have a uniquely American perspective. And so today, I have been thinking about American jewelry. Like, is there such a thing? Are there pieces out there that people can look at and say yes, that’s an American necklace.
So, as it turns out, not really….. What a bummer, right? But it turns out that’s the case only with modern jewelry. Not so in the past! I was able to dig up some intel that showed there really was such a thing as American jewelry, back when our little America was just a baby.
TV inspires me
I must confess to you all that I have been a bit obsessed with the tv show, Turn: Washington’s Spies. If you’re not familiar, it’s an AMC series about a spy ring during the Revolutionary War. (It’s a great series, if you need something to put in your binge-watching queue, I highly recommend it.) Anyway, that tv obsession got me looking into jewelry in colonial and early America. And it turns out that was the time period where there truly was an American jewelry style.
This is the actress who played Peggy Shippen in Turn. She marries Benedict Arnold, notorious traitor. She always had the best clothes and jewelry in the show.
I know that my own history of early America is rather rusty, and I bet yours is too. So here's a quick refresher to understand why the jewelry was so significant.
Before the war
Before the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the cries of “no taxation without representation,” there was the evil Stamp Act of 1765. This was a direct tax only for colonists on items like newspapers, wills, deeds, and even playing cards and dice. American colonists were absolutely infuriated with it, and maintained it was unconstitutional. Perhaps. It was so unpopular that the British repealed it that very next year. But, (and this is important!) they maintained they had the authority to tax whatever they wanted. See, they were heavily in debt after the fighting with the French for seven years and wanted revenue from all their colonies.
The Americans were not interested in raising money for the British Empire to fight more wars, or pay debts from past wars. They wanted their taxes to go for their needs, in their communities. They were eager to forge their own path, and not be dependent on the British for anything.
First Lady Martha Washington's garnets and seed pearl jewelry.
That included jewelry. Before, much of the jewelry had been brought over from London or Paris. During this period, you started to see American jewelers have an interest in creating their own pieces, although the materials still sometimes came from abroad.