The Design Process

History, stories and bold design. All these are common threads familiar to my design aesthetic and my latest collection Modern Vintage is no exception. As designers, we are drawn to the same familiar types of influences based on things we’re interested in and naturally drawn to in life, and these are mine.

I was a costume designer for film, tv and theatre for many years and have always been interested in fashion, antiques and accessories and that goes hand in hand with being an avid collector. Many years spent trawling through antique and op shops, car boot sales and flea markets in London, Dublin and New York on travels and working holidays as well as sourcing for operas, films and tv costumes led me to acquire many pieces of jewellery that eventually evolved into designing my own pieces and starting Cathy Pope Jewellery.

I’m not a very structured designer and being self-taught I’m never quite sure what the ‘right’ process is. Still recovering from' imposter syndrome', I’ve learnt to enjoy the organic and intuitive way I create. Ideas often start from pieces of old jewellery I’ve inherited or collected and not until years later do I see them through different lenses and they spark ideas into life. Research frequently leads me down rabbit holes on the internet or social media, exploring designers, materials and styles. I often get lost and can’t find my way back to the start, ideas can lie dormant, the good ones germinate and so it begins…

Modern Vintage began by working on two main factors; the season I was designing for, winter and the most popular gemstone in my almost 10 years of creating jewellery, onyx. This gemstone is most commonly found in black and is easy to source and manufacture. It’s also relatively affordable and accessible making it a great choice for jewellery. I’ve also know that NZ women love to wear black. Black is timeless, it’s mysterious, its strong and elegant. As a colour it holds strong symbolism and dates back centuries. In the Roman Empire, it became the colour of mourning, and over the centuries it was frequently associated with death, evil, witches and magic.

This led me down the path of research where I stumbled across Victorian mourning jewellery and the use of onyx in the 1800s. Modern Vintage takes cues from this style of jewellery. Mourning jewellery was used as a tribute or memento to remind the wearer about their love for the person they had lost. Death was a regular occurrence in Victorian times, thanks to pervasive diseases like cholera and scarlet fever. It commonly featured intricate paintings and motifs set against a deep black background of jet, onyx or resin. The tradition dates back to the 1600s but gained huge popularity in the 1800s when Queen Victoria mourned the death of her beloved husband Albert.

The Victorian Era

My impression of the 19th century Victorian era has always been one of stiffness and formality, corsets, bonnets, top hats, bustles and petticoats. Women's fashion during the Victorian period was largely dominated by full skirts, which gradually moved to the back of the silhouette creating an almost painful looking and unnatural S shape.

It isn’t my favourite era in costume and fashion as I much prefer the Edwardian period that followed, where corsets were replaced with a higher waistline starting under the bust, looser skirts and more comfort for both men and women. We’ll get to that soon…

But the accessories of the Victorian period and their symbolism fascinate me. Unlike many royal marriages, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s union was a real-life love story. The happy couple (who were in fact first cousins) idealised family life with nine children and were innovators in educational reforms and new technology.


Victorian Mourning Jewellery

As famous royals Victoria and Albert had immense influence over households of regular families. From the introduction of new technologies like photography and its use in lockets, bracelets and rings to the customs and colours of dress, their union was the definition of what style was in the 19th century.

Albert died in 1861, effectively locking Victoria in a period of perpetual mourning. The effect of this was felt within jewellery design, resulting in a very static period for jewellery design in the remaining century. Queen Victoria was the one to popularise mourning following the death of Albert in 1861 when she famously wore black for the next forty years of her life.


However, before Albert died he had a jet, agate and diamond locket, commissioned for his wife to mark the loss of her mother (below). Inside is a lock of her mother’s hair which began her collection of sentimental and famous jewellery to mark the death and memory of loved ones.

A striking enamel and diamond cross with an onyx heart with the words ‘Alice’ emblazoned under a coronet, and another onyx and seed pearl button holding a miniature portrait of the Princess mark the death of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Alice who died in 1878 aged 35, after catching diphtheria from her son. She was the first child of Queen Victoria to pass away.

After Albert’s death, Victoria had commissioned a memorial ring in gold and black enamel, the bezel containing a tiny photograph of Prince Albert in 1861. The cypher linking the initials ‘V’ and ‘A’ in white enamel is set into the shanks on either side of the bezel .

For her grandchildren, Victoria wore a bracelet of fifteen oval painted photographs, set in gold, with the names of the children on the reverse. Being later in the 19th century when photography had overtaken other methods of memorials due to their low cost and ability to capture the sitter nearly instantly, this bracelet shows Victoria’s adaptation for change in sentimentality. It is fashionable, but still retains the quality of a love token that she had in her youth.

In the late 1700s throughout the 1800s, more generic jewellery was also designed for the masses. Pieces including an “in memory of” inscription in the motif or engraved on the back was intended for mourning wear. Generic items were purchased at shops specializing in attire for the bereaved. Mourning pieces were also passed down in families and worn again and again making personalizing many of them less desirable.

Black jewellery that was inspired by this tradition became popular as a fashion statement in the mid- to late-1800s. So while mourning jewellery was worn to ascribe to a code of conduct, other black jewellery was simply in style at the time. Wearing less expensive French jet, which is actually very dark red or black glass, along with a naturally mined jet, which is more durable since it is made of carbon (see below). In an industry that grew through the union of Albert and Victoria, there soon became demand for mourning objects which funded the lives of artists and industry to create these pieces. 

Seed pearls were also another material widely used and I have incorporated these in my Modern Vintage cufflink earrings. Below are some examples, round or baroque in shape, that usually measure less than 2mm across. Natural seed pearls were often used to represent tears in Victorian mourning jewellery.

The Edwardian Period and Art Nouveau

Hot on the heels of the Victorian era was the Edwardian era where design and fashions became more fluid and relaxed. Art Nouveau (“new art”) jewellery was created in France between about 1895 and 1910 and creating a striking contrast to the mainstream designs of that time. Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic lines and was employed most often in architecture, interior design, jewellery and glass design, posters, and illustration.

Art Nouveau pieces made during the late-Victorian era are all about the curves and this style grew from the Arts & Crafts and Aesthetic movements and looked to nature for much of its inspiration.

Art nouveau emphasises flowing lines and ethereal beauty incorporating natural elements such as flowers and vines whether literal or stylized. Animals and insects, both real and imagined, decorate many pieces with bats, dragons, birds, and dragonflies as popular motifs.

Style had remained largely consistent with little movement since the 1860s, though women’s clothing had lost the heavier crinolines, bold mourning jewels remained bold and prominent. The Art Nouveau movement emerged as a breath of fresh air, with its opulent, organic, styles. Jet was not conducive to this new art movement and did not adapt were often onyx or coloured glass was used instead. 

Cufflink Earrings

Another accessory that has always fascinated me is cufflinks. Over the years I've collected many different cufflinks (mostly antique) and attached an earlier making them earrings. Cufflinks have always been in fashion. Just like a button-down shirt or navy suit, they're timeless and deserve to take pride of place in every accessory collection.

Coloured cufflinks made from gemstones were initially only worn by men with a great deal of self-confidence. This situation changed when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, popularised colourful Fabergé cufflinks in the 19th century. During this time cufflinks became fashion accessories and one of the few acceptable items of jewellery for men in Britain and the U.S.

Cufflinks themselves have been popular for centuries, first emerging in the late 17th Century, under the reign of King Louis XIV of France. The history of the cufflink is inextricable from the history of the shirt; traditionally the shirt was considered an undergarment, and so to show a shirtsleeve would be considered improper, but over time this attitude changed, and there developed a need to fasten shirt cuffs. 

The industrial revolution during the 19th century led to the rise in production, and also the process of electroplating precious metals, which meant that the general population could wear cufflinks. By the mid 1800s, the bourgeoisie and working class were large enough to create demand for a manufactured product, and shirtsleeves had become stiffer with the introduction of starch, making a new form of fastening necessary. In the 1840s, cufflinks now took a form that we would recognise today – gold, silver, or pearl buttons held together by a brass chain.

It was not only men who wore cufflinks, but also women, as very few shirts were made with buttons attached. In the 1920s, however, a sport shirt was developed and the return of the unstarched cuff meant that cufflinks were no longer necessary. Despite this, cufflinks remained popular with men, with manufacturers producing cufflinks for men of all social classes during the years of the Great Depression and World War II.

I hope you enjoy my new collection Modern Vintage as much as I did designing and manufacturing it for you. I hope this background has been interesting and gives you an understanding of the thought process behind each piece and these become special in your life or the people you gift them to. 


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