The Sign of the Signet

Nicola here, and today I’m talking about a specific type of jewelry. Apparently, the signet ring is having a fashion moment. The popularity of TV shows such as One Day and Saltburn, where some of the main (male) characters have worn signet rings has drawn attention to it as a signifier of power and status, as well as an accessory.

The signet ring has been a considered a sign of wealth and status in British society for hundreds of years. A traditional one would be engraved with your coat of arms, family crest or initials. The picture shows the one that was given to me when I was born. I’m not an aristocrat but my parents thought it would be nice for me to have one. It’s tiny though, so it doesn’t fit me now, but it has a sentimental value.

The signet ring was originally designed not only to mark the wearer’s bloodline but also to seal documents with wax. The metal design would leave a permanent mark in soft wax or in clay and so was used on a multitude of legal documents. In its day, the stamp of a signet was considered more authentic than a signature, which could easily be forged. Seals were used as early as 3500BC and it was the Ancient Egyptians who attached a seal to a ring as a joint sign of prestige and legal power. The first signet rings were made from stone or from ivory but the Bronze Age was the beginning of the metal signet ring as we know it today. (The picture is an Egyptian Finger Ring from the Walters Museum.)

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Coffee Table Books

Christina here. During the Christmas holidays I’ve had a chance to relax a bit and do things I don’t normally have time for. One of them is to leaf through some of the many coffee table books I own – and I have to admit there are rather a lot of them!

I’m not sure why I have so many. They’re not exactly necessary and yet seem to accrue of their own accord. Many of them are from exhibitions I’ve attended, especially those of my favourite artists, while others are on subjects close to my heart. I’m never quite sure why I buy them as I don’t usually read them – I’ll only flick through the pages to look at the photos. Admittedly, most of them do have gorgeous pictures!

DuchessToday I thought I’d tell you about a few of the ones I love best, the ones I keep returning to and never tire of looking at, and why. Then I’d love for you to tell me about yours! (Even if that means my collection grows larger as you tempt me …)

My absolute favourite is The Duchess of Devonshire’s Ball by Sophia Murphy. On 2nd July 1897 the then Duchess of Devonshire held a fancy dress ball in her London mansion in Piccadilly, Devonshire House. It was a glittering occasion and a very special ball, but what made it unique is that the duchess had all her guests photographed as they arrived and then had the pictures put into a privately printed album for herself. The costumes are out of this world, and some of them must have cost an absolute fortune. Some of the guests look ridiculous, others uncomfortable, and one can only wonder how they managed to dance all night in their finery. For me, the guest that stood out the most was the Duchess of Portland who was so beautiful, she would have looked regal in a sack. I can readily imagine her as the heroine of a romantic novel as she must have had suitors in droves!

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A Norwegian Adventure

FlagChristina here and once again I’m going to take you all armchair travelling! A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to Norway on a research trip. My older daughter and I drove around the southern part of the country covering 1230 km in five days! Exhausting, but very rewarding.

We began our trip in the capital, Oslo, a beautiful town situated next to the Oslo fjord. In the city centre old houses mixed with new, overlooked by the royal castle up on a hill at one end of the famous Karl Johan Gate (street). Everything was within walking distance, including the cathedral, the harbour and Akershus, a medieval castle.

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Travels through my jewellery box

Some time ago, we wenches were talking jewellery (or jewelry depending on where you live.) It was inspired by this blog by Mary Jo.  And I mentioned some of the little pieces I was given in travels when I was a child.

ScottishBrooches

Mary Jo said: “Travels through my jewellery box” would be a fabulous blog! And so, since I'm scrambling to meet a deadline, and don't have time to do a research-heavy blog, here it is. 

I was very fortunate to travel quite widely as a child, and at many places we visited, I was given a little souvenir. Mostly they are cheap little things, but I've never equated monetary value with personal value, and these little items are precious to me.

PiskieDonkeyKellsI took the photos today, using a piece of plain white paper as a background. Bizarrely it turned out blue! No idea why. Sorry about that.

In this photo at the top left, there's a little brass Cockington Piskie—yes, that's the correct spelling—from Cockington Forge in Devon. Ugly little fellow, isn't he, but he's supposed to be lucky. I vividly remember visiting that big dark old forge.

Next to it is the letter A from the Book of Kells which is in Dublin. Beautiful, isn't it? I used to wear this on my  favourite blue jumper until the jumper fell to bits. I visited the Book of Kells later on as an adult, and fell in love with it all over again.

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A Passion for Pearls

HOUSE OF SHADOWS webNicola here, and today I'm talking about pearls. It's two months until my first timeslip novel, House of Shadows, makes its debut in the US and I've been having a wonderful time reminding myself of the themes and inspiration for the book and browsing through the amazing portrait collection at Ashdown House which gave me so many ideas for the story.

 

The mirror and the pearl that feature in House of Shadows are imaginary historical artefacts but like so many aspects of the book they are inspired by historical fact. The idea of the pearl came from the Craven portrait collection which features a number of 17th century paintings that Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen, bequeathed to William Craven on her death. Included are paintings of four of her daughters, Princes Elizabeth, Princess Louise Hollandine, Princess Sophie and Princess Henrietta Maria. In all of these pictures and in the portrait of Elizabeth herself, the ladies wear a single strand pearl necklace with beautiful big and lustrous pearls. 

 

A jewellery historian who came to Ashdown specifically to see the pearls in the portraits Louise Hollandine told me that they were part of a necklace of seven strings that belonged to Elizabeth and had originally been Medici pearls inherited by Mary, Queen of Scots and passed down to Elizabeth via her father James I. Elizabeth would pawn this necklace and indeed her other jewellery, furniture and anything else she could lay her hands on when she was particularly short of money during her exile, and then buy the items back if she had a special state occasion to attend. On those occasions she would assemble all seven strands of the necklace to wear together, and very impressive it would have looked too.

 

On her death Elizabeth left one string of pearls to each of her daughters but eventually, as a result of inheritance, six of the strings came back together again. The exception to this was the string that had been given to Princess Henrietta Maria on her marriage to the Prince of Transylvania in 1651. When she died only 6 months later she was buried in her bridal gown, wearing the pearls.

 

The possession of the necklace was hotly disputed between the British Royal Family and the House of Hanover, both of whom were descended from Elizabeth and both of whom wanted the necklace. Not only did Queen Victoria quarrel with her German cousins over whom it should belong to but she also caused a diplomatic incident when she contacted the authorities in Romania and asked that the tomb of Henrietta Maria be opened to extract the extra string! When her request was refused she was not amused!

 

Elizabeth Princess PalatineThis picture shows Elizabeth's eldest daughter, also called Elizabeth, wearing her strand. This Elizabeth was considered one of the greatest beauties of the age and was known as "The Star of the North." She was also a great philosopher and correspondent of Descartes. It is said that the large drop pearl in this portrait is "The Bretheren" a famous pearl that brings bad luck to the wearer. Elizabeth of Bohemia was, arguably, a very unlucky Queen but it is easy with the benefit of hindsight to attribute this to her poor choice of jewellery!

 

Cursed pearls are not unusual and range from the story of the Roseate Pearl, said to have caused the sinking of the ship Koombana off Australia in 1912 to “La Peregrina”, which was discovered in the 16th century, belonged to Mary I of England and was bought in 1969 by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor. Whether or not there is any truth in the stories of bad luck that cling to these famous jewels they are certainly great inspiration for a writer!

 

I was lucky enough to inherit a lovely little strand of pearls from my grandmother with, Golden pearls as far as I know, no curse attached! I'm not really a pearl girl although I do think they can look gorgeous.  Of course pearls are not the only jewellery to have tall stories attached. Many famous jewels seem to have an air of mystery that attracts tall tales! Do you like pearls or do you have a preference for other precious stones – or quite different sorts of jewellery?