The Lover’s Eye, the Perfect Ornament for Any Love Affair
In 18th century England, jewelry bearing reproductions of the eyes of the beloved was all the rage. Only the bearer and the one portrayed knew the secret message within these strange and precious objects.
Despite its excessive use and the allusion’s obviousness, the metaphor defining the eyes as the “windows of the soul” is still considered essential. The metaphor might even be taken to a whole other level: the eyes are the person (that is, a part stands in for the whole). During the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, secret lovers wore jewelry bearing reproductions of their lovers’ eyes, a wink which could be understood only by these two people. A fetishistic fashion, the practice established a coded language of love and one frequently accompanying clandestine relationships.
Some say that this type of ornament began to be worn in France, but the more widely told version has it that the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV of England, used such an ornament for the first time. Known for his extravagant lifestyle and his many romances, at 21, the sovereign fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic woman, six years his senior and twice widowed. The laws of the kingdom forbade an heir to the throne to marry anyone without the king’s approval, and much less a Catholic, because Protestantism was the official religion. After unsuccessfully courting her, George is said to have faked a suicide attempt and sent Maria a small portrait of his eye. She finally agreed to marry him in 1785, but the marriage was soon annulled, and he had to marry his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The tale of the romance began a wider craze for possessing and carrying, even symbolically, one’s lover’s eyes.
Jewelry bearing the portrait of a loved one (usually in a reliquary or locket) was common in Europe at that time. It was even customary to wear strands of hair of the lover or the beloved, but a portrait of the eye alone represented a totally novel custom known as “eye miniatures.” The small reproductions were placed on brooches, earrings, bracelets, charms, and rings, and were painstakingly painted with watercolor over ivory. Carried on the wrist or near the heart, the tactile closeness reflected a sentimental proximity. Distinguished in their discretion, only the wearer and his or her lover ever knew the true meaning of the gesture, an intimate and profound experience of the romantic.
Over time the practice spread and close family members were also included. If it was a lover or loved one who’d died, the miniature eyes might be adorned with pearls symbolizing tears shed over the loss. Thus, lover’s eyes developed an aesthetic all their own, eccentric and suggestive.
Today, only about 1,000 of these precious miniatures survive, nearly all of them produced between 1780 and 1830 in Western Europe, Russia and, to a lesser extent, in the United States. The charming discretion of the jewelry has survived though. Even today, it’s almost impossible to determine whose eyes appear in these miniature portraits. Their particular beauty reminds us of the undeniable power of the eye and its elemental symbolism, speaking their own intuitive, enigmatic language.
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