Suzanne Belperron, Jeanne Poiret Boivin, Georgina Gaskin, Sybil Dunlop, Dorrie Nossiter. The list of famous female jewellery designs of the 20th century is a long one.
But as far as Victorian jewellery is concerned, only one name received significant prominence. And that was Mrs Newman.
Charlotte Isabella Newman, nee Gibbs (1836-1920), was by no means the first woman to work in the jewellery business, but she was a figure of change. At a time when it was still deemed inappropriate for a lady to work in a ‘trade’, she was a professional goldsmith and jewellery designer under her own name.
Born in London, educated at the Government School of Design and married to the artist and designer Philip Harry Newman in 1860, she began her career in the mid-1860s with the fashionable Covent Garden jeweller John Brogden. Her importance to the firm grew rapidly.
When in 1878 Brogdens displayed its range of archaeological revival, Japoniste and neo-Renaissance jewels at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, she was named as a designer. John Brogden received the Légion d’Honneur. Newman was awarded the Médaille d’honneur as a collaboratrice.
Of the 1593 designs for jewellery and other goldsmiths’ work in the so-called Brogden Album in the Victoria and Albert Museum, 74 bear Newman’s signature.
Following her employer’s death in 1884, Newman established her own business. She retained some of Brogden’s staff, his models and the clientele. However, by calling her shop Mrs Newman’s and signing her pieces Mrs N, she was able to advertise that this was something a little different. Her business card read Mrs Newman, Goldsmith and Court Jeweller.
Although the ‘lady goldsmith’ was barred from taking part in some artistic organisations, she did become the first woman admitted to the Jewellers Guild in London and attracted the interest of art journals, newspapers and women’s periodicals.
In 1884 she gave a lecture on the art of goldsmithing and was invited to speak at the International Congress of Women in London in 1899.
There she explained her craft in simple terms. “The making of jewels is a decided test of the artistic power of nations, for it means getting a very large amount of beauty in a very small space. It means making something exceedingly pleasant to look upon and something that shall appear indispensable to perfect the effect, and not merely to show that the wearer possesses it.”
Mrs Newman’s output was relatively small and not every piece was signed. Closer to the Arts & Crafts movement than commercial production, the firm very rarely made two pieces exactly alike. Even her shopfronts (first in Clifford Street, later in Saville Row) were kept deliberately sparse to prevent designs from being copied by competitors.
Based on Duke Street, her daughter and granddaughter continued the tradition until the business closed during the Second World War.
Nonetheless, as part of the much bigger story of the struggle for women’s rights and equality in the Victorian and Edwardian era, Charlotte Newman’s jewellery is becoming better known.
Four pieces by her were included in the influential exhibition Maker & Muse: Women and Early 20th Century Art Jewellery that ran first at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago from 2015-16, and then travelled to other venues throughout 2020.
Only a handful of pieces come to auction in a year, most of them priced akin to other Arts & Crafts jewels by named makers. Most recently Mallams’ (25% buyer’s premium) April 26-27 Jewellery, Watches and Silver sale in Oxford included an aquamarine fringe necklace by Mrs Newman, c.1890 (pictured top). It was estimated at £3000-5000 and sold at £4200.
This, and a selection of other pieces sold at auction in recent years, are pictured here.