Jewellery and Adornments Worn by Residents of Vilnius in the 17th and 18th Centuries

By analysing various household items that belonged to city residents, including jewellery and other valuables, a historian can tell a lot about the living conditions in cities and about the difference between the richest and the poorest. Residents of Vilnius, just like their counterparts from Krakow in Poland and Danzig in Prussia, would accumulate sizeable capital in the form of jewellery. Various items of jewellery and adornments are documented in the post-mortem wealth registers and, to a lesser extent, in wills. The inventories of male owners usually concentrate on precious metals, while the property lists for women mostly feature precious metal jewellery. These types of valuables would usually be entered in columns titled “Gold”, “Silver” or “Jewellery and Adornments.” For example, the will of the burgomaster of Vilnius, S. L. Romanowicz, covers his real estate, gold, silver, tin, copper, brass and iron as well as garments, furniture, interior decorations, books, carts, carriages, and horses.

Adornment and an investment

Alongside its primary function, jewellery served as an indicator of the social status within the urban society. The jewellery owned by the wealthiest members of the elite would reach thousands of złotys in value. The burgomaster of Vilnius, P. Minkiewicz, owned various gold articles, pearls and other valuables worth a total of as much as 3,069 złotys. This included cash and articles made of precious metals other than gold. For example, the 1689 will of P. Kosobucki mentions tin, and specifies considerable quantities of tin bowls, plates made of English tin, and bottles. In addition to that, this wealthy resident of Vilnius had a bathtub made of brass. According to wills, children usually inherited silver spoons, goblets and plates. The children of J. Sztruńk inherited a dozen of silver spoons and two silver goblets each after his death in 1643.

On the other hand, many inventories of the city elite feature no items of jewellery or other valuables at all. This is true speaking of the property inventories of several city councillors who worked in Vilnius in the second half of the 17th century, including P. Tulkiewicz, J. Trojanowicz, J. Murmiński and S. Konstantynowicz. The 1675 will of Jakub Desaus says: “I leave no cash, no gold and no silver.” As a rule, wealthier residents of Vilnius would have some gold and silver, therefore in the rare cases of absence the fact had to be stated. For instance, a benchman, i.e. a member of the municipal court, M. Osipowicz, declares in his property inventory compiled in the wake of the 1706 fire that he has no pearls, all his gold has been put in pledge and all his silver has disappeared during the fire. It is worth noticing that the inventories could well serve as the “reality traps” because they would sometimes conceal the true state of things. It is understandable that certain people wished to hide their valuables or part of their property.

By analysing jewellery or other valuables, one can trace down the investment strategies employed by the residents of Vilnius. After retirement, investment would very often guarantee income for a merchant, a representative of the ruling elite or any other rich city dweller. In the 17th and 18th centuries, well-off residents of Vilnius would very often put his or her valuables in pledge.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

Jewellery constituted an important part of a dowry for a girl from a well-to-do family. Jewellery would also speak of a person’s social status.

Jewellery was a regular gift that grooms would present their brides during weddings.

This explains the fact that the female property inventories usually include more jewellery compared to the male ones. The 1731 inventory of the widow of a Vilnius merchant J. Burakiewicz features two bracelets of pure gold with rubies valued 234 złotys by the head of the city’s goldsmith guild. Two golden rings with diamonds were worth as much as 160 złotys. The heart-shaped ring featured a large diamond in the centre surrounded by nine smaller diamonds. The inventory also lists several other golden rings, one of which decorated with an emerald and six diamonds, while another one featured a large diamond encircled by eight rubies. Her silver cross decorated with six diamonds and a medallion, all on a golden chain, was valued by the goldsmith 72 złotys. The widow’s valuables also included several pairs of golden and silver earrings with diamonds, rubies and pearls. Filigree buttons decorated with diamonds and rubies were valued 88 złotys.

City women wore various rings including golden ones sometimes valued as much as 100 złotys. Richest women had several to several dozen rings, from small to large, some quite simple and some with diamonds, rubies or turquoise. Exquisite rings were considered important items of wealth. Wife of J. Bonfilius, the city councillor, kept a boy locked for several weeks because she suspected him of finding or stealing her ring.

The burgher jewellery according to the taste and the pocket

The lists of the bequeathed valuables also feature bracelets, golden neck chains and pearl necklaces. The burgomaster of Vilnius H. Mones had seven chainlets worth 250 złotys. The widow of another burgomaster, A. M. Senchilo, recalled during the compilation of his property inventory that her daughter had lost a pearl necklace she had received from her father. The inventories occasionally feature ruby roses, earrings with pear-shaped pearls, and hair brooches. Round plate-shaped hair brooches became widespread since the second quarter of the 17th century. Women in the eastern part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania also used coins from Moscow as part of their setoff.

Silver and gold buttons were abundant on almost every garment worn by the well-off residents of Vilnius.

The 1649 post-mortem property inventory of S. Liebiedziewicz lists several groups of silver buttons of which nine are made of gilded silver, eleven of different shapes and another two dozen of tiny buttons made of cast metal. The list also includes 18 hollow gilded buttons and 15 more undescribed ones.

Many men and women would sport golden or silver belts. An old belt made of gilded silver features the property lists of a wealthy city resident S. Liebiedziewicz (1649) and E. Kuszelina, a wife of a local merchant (1666). Occasionally the lists of golden and silver items also include crosses. A golden cross was among the valuables owned by a Vilnius lay judge S. Nowomiejski. The city councillor J. K. Jachimowicz had a reliquary in the second half of the 17th century, while the burgomaster P. U. Peyer owned a golden tobacco box. Medals with portraits, mostly made of silver, were rare; they first appear in the documents dating back to the second half of the 16th century. Stanisław Mrzygłod, the local goldsmith who also worked as a city councillor in Vilnius, and his wife Katarzyna were among the first city residents to possess that type of medals likely made by Stefan of Holland in 1561 when Mrzygłod was elected a city councillor for the first time. It was in the 17th century that the portrait medals and other similar items became more common in Vilnius where some outstanding goldsmiths, such as Johann Engelhart, worked.   

Literature: A. Ragauskas, Vilniaus miesto valdantysis elitas XVII a. antrojoje pusėje (1662–1702 m.), Vilnius, 2002, p. 404–405.

Aivas Ragauskas