Sparkle & status: Scottish jewellery makers of the 16th century rivalled those of Renaissance Europe and encoded their work with secrets

Rare examples from National Museums Scotland and the Royal Collection offer a glimpse into power, status and allegiances during the period says Dr Anna Groundwater, the editor of new book Decoding the Jewels.

For millennia people have made, given and worn jewellery to express emotions or communicate status. It has marked key life events, sealed alliances and sent political signals. Decoding the Jewels: Renaissance Jewellery in Scotland unveils the meanings of a small but stellar collection of elite jewellery from 16th-century Scotland on display at the National Museum of Scotland and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Starting with the enigmatic messages of the finely enamelled imagery on the Fettercairn Jewel, this new book explores the lives of these exquisite Renaissance jewels.

And what lives they had. From their very beginnings, the jewels were on the move, from the mining of their precious metals and stones, to the roles of the maker, buyer and recipient. On the cusp of a global age, they travelled long distances: gold from the Americas, rubies from Burma or Sri Lanka, diamonds from India, and emeralds torn from the rocks of Colombia. From closer to home were pearls and gold plucked from Scottish riverbeds. These materials were transported across lands and oceans, passing through the hands of miners, waggoners, and merchants, the jewels finally coming together on the goldsmith’s workbench in Paris, Antwerp, London or Edinburgh, where they were combined by skilled artisans into miniature works of art. These pieces were multinational.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But several of them were also distinctively Scottish. This investigation of Renaissance jewellery reveals, as never before, the significance of gold-smithing and jewellery-making in Scotland in the era of Mary, Queen of Scots, that drew on its connections into a pan-European circulation of culture. While Scotland may be on the geographical periphery of Europe, the jewellery made here shows the filtration of the Renaissance ideas, originally from 14th-century Italy, which had spread through France and the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) into Scotland by the mid-1500s. Here they were newly interpreted by goldsmiths in Edinburgh whose names are captured in the Incorporation of Goldsmiths records. What this meant for the rich Scottish prince, noble or merchant was that where they had once gone to the great cities of Antwerp, Paris and Bruges for luxury items, they could acquire high quality jewellery, gold and silverware much closer to home.

The interior of the Darnley jewel. PIC: Royal Collection TrustThe interior of the Darnley jewel. PIC: Royal Collection Trust
The interior of the Darnley jewel. PIC: Royal Collection Trust

Perhaps the most well-known of these Edinburgh goldsmiths was George Heriot, royal jeweller to King James VI and I, and his wife Anna of Denmark, from the 1590s. Heriot’s accounts reveal eye-watering sums of money being spent on equally eye-watering jewellery by the court in Edinburgh, and, from 1603 following James’s succession to Elizabeth I’s throne, by the court in London.

His accounts also make mention of ‘tablets’ which are thought to refer to a particular type of jewelled locket that survives in a small grouping in the collections of National Museums Scotland. Two are in mint condition, framing portraits of a man and a woman thought to be Mary, Queen of Scots and a young King James VI.

The most famous of these is the Penicuik Jewels locket, which along with 14 fine gold filigree paternoster beads (now part of a necklace), was said to have been given to Gilles Mowbray, one of Mary’s attendants, shortly before the queen’s execution. The beads may have formed part of a rosary, although such beads were also known as pomanders – and indeed, traces of a perfumed resin have been found in one of the Penicuik Jewel beads. Perhaps we can imagine Mary smelling them to ward off the noxious smells of the dank English castles in which she was held captive? Whatever their original purpose, they are undeniably personal objects that suggest their use in the most intimate aspects of Mary’s daily life.

It is those features, Mary’s ownership and touch, that these jewels transmit across time. Objects like these connect current day audiences to a long dead queen, helping us to bridge the centuries. They keep the memory of those historical figures alive and relevant. Through Gilles Mowbray, the locket and necklace appear to have descended for over 300 years through a prominent Lowlands family, the Clerks of Penicuik. Successive generations of these Clerks have passed these jewels on, venerating them as mementoes or relics of this unfortunate queen. It is that priceless association with Mary that gives these jewels their uttermost meaning and has kept them preserved in all their 16th-century splendour.

Mary almost certainly gave pieces like the Penicuik Jewels to sustain her memory after she was gone, as well as to reward loyalty and service. Other lockets carried more coded messages whose meanings are more difficult to decipher. One such is the Fettercairn Jewel, an exquisitely made, small gold and enamel locket with a large deep red garnet on its front. While the colour of the stone may suggest either love or mourning, the core message is in the extremely fine enamelled image on the reverse of the locket. Here the Greek god Mercury, the messenger strides, surrounded by various flowers, bursting with fecundity from a vase, with exotic birds and butterflies, and a faithful white dog at his heels. What is the message he is intended to convey?

Perhaps Mercury’s movement suggested a transition, from one state in life to another, possibly to death, or from maidenhood into marriage as the jewellery historian Geoffrey Munn muses? But there is something missing to complete the picture: inside, a small wooden mount shows that there would originally have been a miniature portrait. If that remained, we might have a clue to the identity of the person being wooed or commemorated.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The message is perhaps clearer on an equally fine-enamelled locket at Holyroodhouse, the Darnley Jewel, also known as the Lennox Jewel. It is thought to have been commissioned by Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, to commemorate the assassinations of her son, Mary, Queen of Scots’s unreliable husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and of Margaret’s husband, Matthew, Regent Lennox. In the centre of the jewel's front is a winged heart surmounted by a crown, both of which open to reveal hidden devices. The heart shape denotes love, and the heart as the source of emotions, and of life itself; and in the case of Margaret, it was the heraldic device of her Douglas family recalling their service to Robert the Bruce. While proclaiming her sadness at the death of her loved ones, Margaret reminded all of her illustrious lineage.

So, jewels carried, and promoted status. They could also symbolise allegiance and show diplomatic realignments. One such example is the Great H, or Great Harry, a magnificent jewel constructed of large diamonds and a ruby in the form of an ‘H’, given to Mary, Queen of Scots by her French father-in-law Henri II. Over time, this jewel found its way into the hands of Mary’s son James VI and his wife, Anna of Denmark. In the 1590s Anna is pictured wearing the ‘H’ suspended from a pearl necklace. But in 1604, after James’s succession to the English throne, he was painted with the reconstructed jewel now a diamond-shaped hat pin and re-named the ‘Mirror of Great Britain’. From proclaiming the ‘auld alliance’ between Scotland and France, the repurposed jewel now symbolised Scotland’s new alliance with England in the Union of the Crowns.

Far from the uncivilised Scotland portrayed in too many films, the evidence of this collection of stellar Renaissance jewels suggests a Scotland that was home to skilled artisans working at the top of their trade. It suggests too those intimate connections with Europe that brought other luxury goods to our shores, and ultimately into the National Collection.

​Decoding the Jewels: Renaissance Jewellery in Scotland, edited by Dr Anna Groundwater, Acting Keeper of Scottish History and Archaeology at National Museums Scotland, is published by Sidestone Press on 2 May and is available to order at

Related topics: