A c. 1860-80 Victorian owl pendant, with a head of pavé-set Persian turquoise and eyes of pearl-haloed garnets, embellished with rose-cut diamond ‘eyebrows’, and set within a frame of silver and solid 18k yellow gold. In Ancient Greece, the owl symbolized Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and was prolifically seen on Athenian coinage (the owl tetradrachm). Its significance suffered a sinister distortion beginning in the Medieval era, when the owl was believed to be a bird of ill-omen, a funerary monster of the night. For this reason, owl motifs are rarely found on jewelry and decorative arts made prior to the 19th century. Broader interest in classical antiquity and scientific naturalism (which included ornithology, the study of birds) had revived the owl as a popular motif during the Victorian era. Owls reclaimed their ancient association with wisdom, becoming a popular symbol of libraries and learning. It even made its way to popular nursery rhymes: in 1870, Edward Lear published “The Owl and the Pussy-cat”. Owls can be seen on Victorian ornaments of all kinds, from public architectural elements to private decorative objects. A very similar Victorian owl jewel, also set with pavé turquoise, was sold by Sotheby’s London (Important Jewel sale, 28 November 2007, lot 1). In general, British jewelry of the 1860-80s heavily favored bombe-type designs with a dense texture of pavé-set Persian turquoise. For examples, see Victoria & Albert Museum M.92A&B-1951 and M.92C-1951.
The present owl pendant could be further classified as a Victorian “novelty” jewel, described by scholars Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe as “ornaments intended to delight, amuse, or startle” (p. 190, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria). These pieces carried a youthful and playful quality, often featured amusing motifs (e.g. animals, informal everyday objects, jokes) or word-play themes, and became heavily favored by the broader British public, although the fashion originated from the royal family. In 1842, Prince Albert gifted Queen Victoria a gold bracelet in the form of a spider pursuing a fly, which was inspired by the popular nursery rhyme “The spider and the Fly” (written by Mary Howitt in 1828). The Prince of Wales’ purchase ledger was also full of insect jewels and pins with popular catchphrases.