I’ve been crushing on antique lover’s eye jewelry lately, and found myself curious about the meaning of the lovely eye miniatures. Apparently, lover’s eye jewelry was popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s when stylish aristocratic Englishmen and women often wore the miniature portraits depicting their spouse or lover. Because the tiny watercolors revealed only the eye, the subject’s identity could be kept secret. Typically painted on ivory, the portraits were fashioned as brooches, rings, pendants, and lockets. Below, learn more about the mysterious antique jewelry design. (Artwork: Alexis Zambrano)
It is believed that fewer than a thousand antique lover’s eyes remain today, making them a highly collectible. The pieces were originally referred to simply as “eye miniatures.” The term “lover’s eyes” was, in fact, coined much later by an American antique collector named Edith Weber. I love the turquoise stones on the antique brooch above. Circa 1820. (Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art)
The lover’s eye fashion trend is said to have been inspired by the rebellious Prince of Wales (who eventually became King George IV). In the 1780s, the Prince began a scandalous affair with a Catholic, Maria Fitzherbert, and had a miniaturist paint his eye and set it in a locket for her. Fitzherbert, in return, had her eyes painted for her Prince. Though the relationship was ill-fated, the miniature eye trend took off. The eyes above are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s collection. The piece dates back to 1840 and as was often the case, was made of watercolor on ivory. (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Pearls surrounding a lover’s eye often symbolized tears and meant the subject had passed away. This pearl brooch dates back to 1835-40 and depicts a brown left eye. The back of the brooch is inscribed with initials–perhaps, a hint as to the subject’s identity. (Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art)
Queen Victoria was also known to have been a fan of eye miniatures. She commissioned her Royal Miniaturist (goals!), Sir William Charles Ross, to paint various pieces as gifts. Above is a collection of lover’s eyes on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I love how they’ve mounted them on an emerald green background.
This stunning antique ring dates back to 1790 and depicts a brown left eye. Set in rose-gold, the miniature painting is surrounded by blue enamel, diamonds, and natural pearls. Diamonds were known to represent fortitude and longevity. (Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art)
An intricate pearl design surrounds this eye set in rose gold. Circa 1820. (Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art)
I love the faceted amethyst border on this antique brooch. Circa 1840. (Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art)
There’s something that feels wonderfully modern about this rose-gold brooch with it’s double row of pearls. (Photo: Birmingham Museum of Art)
I love the eye miniature (I believe this is a reproduction) and coral pendants on this necklace. It is said that coral protects the wearer from harm.
Since their heyday in the Victorian era, lover’s eyes have continued to inspire artists and jewelers alike. American painter Fatima Ronquillo often features eye miniatures in here work. Above, is one such example. Explore more of Ronquillo’s work here.
Another eye miniature painting by Ronquillo, this one commissioned by Gucci.
London-based artist Fee Greening also creates spectacular lover’s eye-inspired drawings. This original ink and watercolor piece by Greening is available at Partnership Editions. Read my interview with Fee here.
Another original piece by Fee Greening available at Partnership Editions. Stunning!
French embroidery artist Celeste Mogador makes beaded eye brooches that have become popular around the globe.
Another striking design by Mogador. I would love this pinned to the lapel of a colorful wool coat.
Above is a limited-edition art print by Alexis Zambrano. It’s right up my alley.
Artist Sarah Hendler paints reproduction eyes and places them in antique jewelry. This ring is one such example of her work.
Another piece by Sarah Hendler. She painted the eye and placed it in a Victorian enamel locket.
Do you admire lover’s eyes as much as I do? Would you wear one on your coat lapel or around your neck? I’d love to hear what you think!
Stacey Bewkes says
Great piece Katie!!
Katie Armour Taylor says
Stacey – Thanks so much! Hope you’re well!
Love this post! I saw the exhibition at the Birmingham (Alabama) Museum of Art called “The Look of Love” a few years back and it was truly fabulous!
Lovers eyes are such strange yet oddly seductive works of art! We have one in the museum where I work’s current exhibition and it is a visitor favorite!
Thanks for doing a deep dive into this subject.
Victoria Trainer says
This collection of eyes are so fabulous I cannot stand it….I now kick myself for passing them up ….not anymore. Thank you for this wonderful piece.
Dr. E. Lee Spence says
I am an underwater archaeologist and we recently salvaged a small locket from a late 1700s shipwreck. Although the center of the locket is missing, I strongly suspect it was a lover’s eye. It originally had about 25 tiny, but beautiful, almost iridescent, black pearls around it. Only 10 were left. I would love be to learn more about these.
I just came across a pin of a Lover’s Eye and was immediately taken by it. I’m now very interested in the subject matter. I would definitely wear such jewelry. As a matter of fact I may make a piece using a picture of my husband’s eye.