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The History Behind … eye miniatures

By Michelle Graff

August 21, 2014


Some eye miniatures also were mourning jewelry, such as this brooch. The black enamel with gray seed pearls symbolize tears, and the clouds painted around the eye symbolize a passage to heaven, which mark this as a mourning piece.

Click through this slideshow to see five eye miniatures.

New York--People generally have one of two reactions when they see an eye miniature staring back at them. 

“People either love them or think they are just beautiful, or people think they are creepy,” says Cathy Gordon, an antique jewelry collector and a co-author of Miriam Haskell Jewelry. “People will see them and say, ‘That is very strange.’” 

Eye miniatures first began appearing in artists’ logbooks in the 1770s and retained their popularity for nearly 100 years. 

In this second installment of The History Behind … , National Jeweler explores the when, where and why of eye miniatures with Gordon, who supports her antique jewelry collecting “habit” by working at Google. 

What are eye miniatures? Members of the upper class, first in France then in the U.K., commissioned artists to paint portraits of a loved one’s eye only and had them set into brooches, pendants or rings, sometimes surrounded by gemstones.

Eye miniatures also were put onto toothpick cases and patch boxes (when eye miniatures were popular, many members of the upper class carried small decals with them, which sometimes were used to hide smallpox scars), Gordon says. 

These pieces also are known as miniature eye portraits or “Lover’s Eye” jewelry, though Gordon notes the latter is a misnomer, as these portraits weren’t always necessarily of one’s lover. They could depict the eye of a family member or someone else close to the wearer. 

When were they popular? The earliest eye miniatures recorded in artists’ log books surfaced in the 1770s and their popularity continued until the 1850s, ceasing as photography became more widespread and the public’s fascination with these eye-only paintings began to wane. “It was a fad, to some extent,” Gordon says. 

She adds that the eye miniature did enjoy a very brief revival during the Arts and Crafts movement (about 1880 to 1930), as she has a miniature of a man’s eye dated 1903 in her collection.  

Why did people wear eye miniatures? Part of the broader category of sentimental jewelry, the wealthy wore eye miniatures to emphasize friendships or alliances, ease the absence of a loved one who was far away and serve as a reminder of those who had died. 

Eye miniature mourning pieces are recognizable by engraved and dated inscriptions; the eye surrounded by clouds (signifying a passage into heaven) or by black or white enamel; symbols of mourning such as a funerary urn; and in some instances, pearls (symbolizing tears).

What materials were used for these pieces? Here’s where eye miniatures pose a problem for collectors today: they typically were painted on either velum or Asian elephant ivory. 

Because of federal ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory, Gordon says it is extremely difficult to import eye miniatures painted on ivory into the United States today, even when there is appropriate certification and engraved dates on the piece proving it is an antique.  

(According to the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, pieces that existed in the U.S. prior to the ban, which took effect in April, may be sold across state lines except in New York and New Jersey, which have banned the sale of elephant ivory. Under these state laws, antiques comprised of less than 20 percent elephant ivory can be sold but it requires the proper permit and proof of provenance.)   

Pearls were the most commonly used stone for eye miniatures. Garnets and amethysts also were popular, as were coral and turquoise. Diamonds were used but rarely, Gordon says. 

How much are eye miniatures worth? Retail prices range from $2,500 for a more simple miniature to $10,000 for pieces that have more sophisticated portraits and/or more gemstones. 

How can a retailer add eye miniatures to their antique jewelry offerings? Given the complex laws surrounding ivory and the existence of fakes, Gordon gives advice for retailers that is good to follow across all product categories: find a trusted supplier. 

Two Gordon recommends are Lenore Dailey and The Three Graces.

“There are many, many fakes out there,” she cautions. 

She says some are portraits that have been generated on very high-quality, modern printers while others were cut out from full-sized portraits and remounted falsely as eye miniatures. One word of advice: if there’s a nose, it’s an indication that it’s probably not a genuine miniature but, rather, was part of a larger portrait at one time. 

The History Behind … is a new monthly feature for National Jeweler that aims to educate readers on antique jewelry. The September feature will focus on Georgian-era mourning jewelry.