"Dog collar": it seems a clunky, casual name for any piece of jewelry, let alone one featuring intricate metalwork, diamonds and pearls. Yet despite its inelegant title, this snug form of necklace flourished for nearly 50 years, reaching its zenith at the turn of the 20th century - the Belle Époque or Edwardian Era. In many ways it symbolizes that age.
A Bit of Background
The dog collar wasn't a new item. Chokers - short, snug necklaces worn high on the neck - have existed throughout jewelry history. But this version appeared in France around 1865, in the form of wide black (or dark blue) velvet chokers studded with diamonds or pearls. Called "colliers du chien", they were perhaps inspired by the black ribbons worn around the neck by ballet dancers, as depicted in Degas' paintings. But the pieces soon graduated to more precious materials. At the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, the jeweler Boucheron exhibited a dog collar with a floral swag in diamonds, colored stones and translucent enamel, made for Sarah Bernhardt, according to Jewellery: The International Era, Volume II, 1862-1910, by Shirley Bury.
By the 1880s, the dog collar - the literal translation of the French collier du chien - had crossed the Channel into England, where it had been adopted by Alexandra, Princess of Wales. The Princess was self-conscious about a scar on her long neck; to hide it, she began wearing wide necklaces - composed of velvet bands or rows of pearls - under her chin. Where Alexandra led, fashionable ladies followed, and soon the dog collar was adorning necks throughout England, Europe and the United States.
Different Breeds of Dog Collars
Dog collars came in four basic varieties.
- One was the wide band of fabric - it was usually a dark velvet, but might also be lace or silk satin; it had a central jeweled plaque or was encrusted all over with gems-usually diamonds, which were rapidly becoming the stone of choice in the late 19th century.
- The second type consisted of multiple strands of small, ungraduated pearls, sometimes a dozen or more, often separated by vertical diamond bars.
- Around 1900, two even more elaborate types emerged. One consisted of the strands of pearls decorated with a square or rectangular piece in the center. This plaque de cou featured diamonds or other gems.
- The fourth type consisted of an intricate metal band entirely set with gemstones, an elaborate style was made possible by platinum. The strength of this white metal, which jewelers started to use frequently at the turn of the century, meant that even a large necklace could be made with a relatively small amount of metal. The result was an ornate, yet lightweight, necklace.
Complementing these dog collars' literal lightness was a lightness in spirit. The necklaces were prime examples of the popular garland style, in which motifs of bows and flowers, leaves and swags predominated. Delicacy was the hallmark of the garland style: the metal would be shaped into a lacy or lattice background - always a pattern with plenty of openwork. The diamonds would often be in a millegrain setting, to add to the air of intricate frothiness. The garland style's inspiration lay in 18th century rococo patterns - even as the dog collar's forebears lay in chokers festooned with jeweled bows and flowers in the mid-1700s.
Whatever the type of dog collar, its elaborate, intricate patterns complemented the fashionable dress of the period. The lacy motifs of the metalwork echoed the lavish use of actual lace; the pearls and white diamonds blended with the creamy satins and pastel hues that dominated fabrics. The snug fit of the necklace echoed the tight, cinched-in waist of the Belle Époque beauty, for the ideal figure of the day formed a curvaceous hourglass. Both the clothing and the dog collar demonstrated an interesting tension between the delicacy of the materials and the tightness of the fit. Despite its exquisite ethereal patterns, the dog collar possessed an unmistakable sensuality, as it intimately embraced the throat.
The longer one's neck, the more strands one's dog-collar could contain. So a wide or multiple-strand dog-collar was a testimony to the wearer's beauty - not to mention her wealth.
Aimed at the Elite
The dog collar was definitely jewelry for the rich. The reason was not just due to the material. The key to the dog collar was that it fit properly around the neck - perfectly tight, with no sagging. This meant that the necklace would be custom-made for a client, who would come for a fitting, as she would with her dressmaker. Costume and ready-made dog collars did exist, but the wearer risked an imperfect fit. Then too, dog collars tended to suit more the lifestyle of the well-to-do, since they were usually worn with elegant evening wear, adorning the plunging décolletage of dinner dresses and ball gowns.
Ornate as it often was, the dog collar would not be the only necklace the lady wore - that would be too minimal a look for opulent Belle Époque tastes. It would be accompanied by several other neck ornaments of varying length: pendants, ropes of pearls, fringe necklaces, old-fashioned rivières and the new-style lavaliers.
Although it flourished as high-style jewelry, made by such establishment jewelers as Cartier and Boucheron, the dog collar was also taken up by artists working in the Art Nouveau style. The main difference usually resided in the plaque de cou: both Verver and Lalique designed several, using in enamel and gold, instead of the ubiquitous platinum and diamonds. Wolfers also designed dog collars, using colorful, semi-precious stones such as garnets and tourmalines.
End of an Era
The dog collar flourished for more than 30 years. But by 1910, it began to seem old-fashioned. Fashions were changing: simpler and more linear, featuring rich, vibrant colors and Oriental influences such as tunics, turbans and cummerbunds. Frothy, circumscribed elegance was out; loose-fitting, streamlined color was in. Collars of swags and garlands began to seem fussy and overly ornate when worn with this new tubular silhouette; elongated pieces, such as the sautoir, seemed more appropriate. By World War I, the dog collar's day - like that of the Belle Époque itself - had ended.