A Lock on Love

Over the past few weeks I have seen several Tiffany advertisements posted around the Copley Square area, here in Boston. Among them was one which featured several padlocks in various shapes and sizes. They were of brushed or polished metals, some were engraved, some embellished with keyhole escutcheons in metals of contrasting colors and some were set with small diamonds. Yet again, proof there is nothing new under the sun. Jewelry in the shape of padlocks was quite popular during the Regency, particularly with romantic young ladies in love. But the various padlocks rendered in precious metals and gem-stones were more prevalent and more ornate than those which Tiffany conjured up for the 2011 gift-giving season.

How padlocks got a lock on love during the Regency …

The earliest known padlocks date back to Roman times, though there is evidence both the ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians also had forms of padlocks. They were primarily used to protect small items in moveable containers such as chests and traveling cases. Padlocks were very popular with itinerant merchants and others who transported valuable goods. Because they were small, portable and comparatively inexpensive, they were also sometimes used to secure doors or windows, or any other use for which their owners thought they were suited. The first padlocks looked nothing like those with which we are familiar today. Those shapes began to emerge in the later seventeenth century, and by the mid-eighteenth century most padlocks consisted of a body which enclosed the locking mechanism with a keyhole by which to insert a key to operate the mechanism and the shackle, also known as a shank, which was, typically, a curved or U-shaped bar of metal which fitted into the locking mechanism when the padlock was locked. These shackles might be permanently connected to the body of the lock on one side, but in many early locks, the shackle could be pulled completely free of the padlock body when unlocked.

In the last half of the eighteenth century, in England, there were a handful of innovative locksmiths who introduced refinements which significantly improved the security which padlocks could offer, expanding their use. It was also at about this same time that some padlock bodies were made in shapes which were very similar to a heart. Thus, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, many goldsmiths, particularly in England, were making diminutive padlocks in gold or silver, often with a tiny accompanying key, to the delight of their customers, particularly the ladies. As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, the growing Romantic movement solidified the padlock’s status as a symbol of love and commitment. Padlocks remained a fashionable motif in jewelry right through the Regency.

Lockets in the form of padlocks, particularly those with a heart shape, were very popular with lovers. They were very often given as a gift from the man to his beloved. The padlock-shaped locket was often accompanied by a tiny key, which was necessary to open the locket. Inside one might find the loved one’s lock of hair, their silhouette, or a miniature portrait. Such lockets might also conceal a "lover’s eye," that is, a tiny portrait of one of the loved one’s eyes. There is an excellent article, with illustrations, at Candice Hern’s web site, about these small, unique portraits, which were popular at this time. In some padlock lockets, one might find both a portrait and a lock of hair.

Jewelers also made many baubles in the form of padlocks which were not lockets. There were pendant padlocks, padlocks which were made as brooches or hair ornaments, as well as padlocks made as clasps for both bracelets and armlets. Tiny padlocks were made as charms which might be attached to other pieces of romantic or sentimental jewelry to add to the symbolism of love and commitment they represented. A favorite design was a jeweled heart which was secured, or "guarded," by an elegant padlock. Tiny key charms, which were associated with padlocks, were also used to embellish romantic jewelery.

The most expensive padlock jewelery was made of gold, with silver the next most used metal. Less costly pieces were made of silver-plate, pinchbeck or other less valuable metals. Deluxe padlock jewelery was made of gold or silver and embellished with pearls or a selection of precious gem-stones. Diamonds were especially popular. Some of the most extravagant padlocks even had small keys set with pearls or gems. More modest padlock trinkets might have enameled, engine-turned or filigreed exteriors. Reasonably priced padlocks were often set with clusters of seed pearls or small colored semi-precious stones. In some cases, the alphabet of gems was used to spell out the first name, pet name or initials of the loved one on the jeweled padlock.

Padlocks might also be engraved with names or initials, personal ciphers or with other private words or symbols of import to the couple. Alternatively, more universal but recognized symbolic motifs might also be engraved on the padlock’s surface. Hearts, or a pair of hands clasping a heart between them, were obvious expressions of romantic sentiment. More classical romantic symbols were the urn, the lyre, Cupid’s bow and quiver of arrows, or butterflies, which were an emblem of Cupid’s love, Psyche. Flowers, such as roses, pansies and forget-me-nots, might also be found engraved on padlock jewelery as well as laurel wreaths.

Padlock lockets or pendants were often worn on a chain. Chains during the Regency were available in a wide variety of ornate link patterns, usually in gold or silver. However, records show that some of the more upscale padlock lockets or pendants were suspended from gold chains studded with diamonds or other precious gem-stones, others from chains made of pearls. These chains might be relatively short, so that the padlock lay above the bodice. But during the Regency, it was fashionable to hang padlocks and other trinkets from very long chains which fell down below the bodice to the natural waist or a bit lower. Padlocks might also be hung from ribbons, either to achieve a special effect, or because a chain was too expensive. It should be pointed out that some men wore padlocks, often padlock lockets. Men wore these pieces either as a fob, or on a plain, simple chain around their neck, in most cases under their clothing.

During the Regency, both bracelets and armlets were fashionable, particularly for evening wear. Bracelets were worn at the wrist, over gloves, while armlets were typically worn on the upper arm, above the top of long gloves. Oftentimes during this period, the largest and most ornate part of a bracelet or armlet was the clasp. Clasps in the form of padlocks were considered quite stylish and were embellished in much the same manner as padlock lockets or pendants. Padlock hair ornaments and brooches would have received similar decorative treatments.

Love continues to be associated with padlocks into the twenty-first century. There is a curious practice, now making its way to the United States, which involves padlocks and love. This concept appears to have arisen in Europe at the turn of this century, though it was popular in China long before that. These Love Locks are padlocks on which a couple puts their names or initials, they secure the lock to some public object, often a bridge, then throw away the keys as a symbol of their life-long committment to one another.

Our Regency ancestors did not lock their padlocks to public structures, but jewelery with padlock motifs was very popular with them as a symbol of love and romance. Fortunately, their padlocks were often heart-shaped, adding to the sentimental theme. Though they might be more secure, our modern-day padlocks are aesthetically rather humdrum in appearance and I doubt there are many people today who would think they are a likely jewelry motif with which to represent love. Tiffany apparently agrees, as the padlocks which I saw on their advertising posters are in the shape of old-fashioned padlocks.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to A Lock on Love

  1. Pingback: The Jeweled Serpent | The Regency Redingote

  2. Pingback: Love Symbols of the Regency | The Regency Redingote

  3. skrizzolo says:

    Fascinating post that I am so glad to have found. I had to look up “pinchbeck”–interesting word. On a slightly different topic: do you know, Kat, whether it would have been possible for a woman to possess a string of genuine pearls during the Regency? I read that mostly the “pearls” were glass beads because of the expense, but I had a particular reason for wanting my protagonist (upper class but not an aristocrat) to have the real thing.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Yes, it was quite possible for a woman to have a string of real pearls during the Regency. However, few if any of them would have been perfectly round since that is a feature of cultured pearls, a process which was not developed until a century later. Natural pearls were not perfect spheres, but there were many who thought that added to their charm.

      A Regency woman might have a necklace of either saltwater or freshwater pearls. Freshwater pearls were less expensive, since at that time, there were still a couple of rivers in Scotland where freshwater pearls were harvested. Saltwater pearls were more expensive, but there was a thriving trade in them during the Regency as there had been for well over a century, so they were readily available to anyone who could afford them.

      Keep in mind that these costs could be managed by those who thought ahead. It was common practice when a daughter of an upper class, but not aristocratic, family was born, for one or more family members or friends to begin purchasing pearls each year, one or two at a time, often as birthday gifts. These pearls would either be kept by the little girl in her own jewel box, or more often, by her mother in the family jewel case. In most cases, it was the little girl’s grandmother or godmother who did this, to ensure she would have a string of pearls for her come-out. Pearls were considered a symbol of purity and the most appropriate gem for a debutante, so those who wished to give her the best send-off would want to be sure she was properly outfitted.

      Your protagonist sounds like the perfect candidate to gradually acquire a set of pearls which would be strung for her when she becomes a young lady.

      Hope that helps.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. skrizzolo says:

    That is wonderfully helpful, thank you! I had already said (in a previously published book) that the protagonist’s Sicilian mother had given her a string of pearls, so I was afraid I had made a mistake. Now, I can adapt your suggestions to my current work. Best wishes to you, and thanks again.

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