Acquired in 2017, this rare jewelled and enamelled locket conceals secrets which could shed new light on the Scottish Renaissance. Join us on a journey of discovery as our curators, conservators and scientists work to unravel its mysteries.
To be confirmed, but currently estimated to be c.1560-80
Currently unconfirmed, possibly Scottish
Gold, enamel, almandine garnet
Kingdom of the Scots gallery, Level 1, National Museum of Scotland
Did you know?
Mercury, who is featured on the reverse of the Fettercairn Jewel, is the god of eloquence, commerce and is a guide of souls to the underworld. Over time he came to be associated with messengers, poets, merchants and travellers.
The Fettercairn Jewel is an exceptionally rare Renaissance gold pendant locket. Set with a large almandine garnet, it features an elaborate scene in enamel on the back. The jewel is oval, with a fastening at the top to hold a gold ring, and, at the bottom, a smaller ring, that was originally a catch to hold the case shut. The case opens and would probably have contained a miniature portrait on vellum or ivory or some other personal memento. It would have been worn as a pendant on a chain or pinned to clothing, and it probably had a pearl or precious stone hanging beneath it.
The Fettercairn Jewel is one of a very small number of Renaissance jewels to have survived in the British Isles. Jewellery from such an early date has a very low survival rate, due to the historic recycling of precious stones and materials. This makes the survival of the Fettercairn Jewel remarkable.
Its Scottish provenance, and its potential relationship with other known jewels made for Scottish patrons, raise the possibility that the Fettercairn Jewel was made in Scotland or for a 16th-century Scottish patron. Our initial historical research is concentrating on these lines of enquiry.
The Fettercairn Jewel holds the potential to expand significantly our knowledge of the Scottish Renaissance, about the way in which a visually literate society communicated complex messages through objects, and to learn more about the quality and ambitions of 16th-century craftsmanship.
The large dark red stone on the front of the jewel is a garnet, which was reputed to have medicinal and healing properties.
On the reverse of the pendant the scene centres on a figure of Mercury, with his caduceus, or staff, resting on his outstretched right arm. He is wearing a winged helmet and classical armour, and holding something in his raised left hand.
To the right of Mercury sits a white dog looking upwards, possibly a symbol of fidelity. A vase of flowers stands to his left and more flowers appear elsewhere on the ground. The carefully delineated flowers, including cornflowers, wild roses, violets and marguerites, are all identifiable and many had specific symbolic meanings.
On the horizon are two groups of buildings and a large tree. On the buildings to the left sits a green bird resembling a parrot with its distinctive hooked beak, and on the right a smaller white bird. Above Mercury’s head flies another bird and two butterflies.
The dog, birds and flowers are not part of the usual iconography associated with Mercury, which suggests that the imagery has been designed with a particular meaning and patron in mind. Jewels of this sort often contained complex messages; could the animals and flowers have a heraldic association with the original owner of the Jewel? Is some more complex story hidden in its imagery? So far the Fettercairn Jewel retains its mystery.
Mercury was one of the most popular gods in Renaissance imagery. He was specifically associated at this time as the god of messengers and became closely associated with the officers of arms (the royal heralds) in 16th-century Scotland. An image from the Seton Armorial of c.1591 casts Lyon King of Arms, the king’s personal representative, as Mercury. This could suggest that the Fettercairn Jewel was crafted around the same time, and may indicate a connection to the Scottish court.
We are also trying to establish why the Fettercairn Jewel was made. One possibility links it to the extensive practice of royal court and noble household gift-giving: during the Scottish Renaissance, the royal family gave generous gifts of jewellery to courtiers and ambassadors, a practice common in other European courts of the period.
Alternatively, the Jewel may have been conceived as a token for a beloved family member or spouse. Jewels containing miniature portraits were often exchanged as keepsakes between loved ones, and would often be worn close to the heart.
The pendant came into the National Museums Scotland collection through an auction of over 400 works of art and artefacts from the private collection of the Forbes family, whose home was Fettercairn House in Aberdeenshire. The Forbes of Pitsligo descend from Sir William Forbes, brother of Alexander Forbes, first Lord Forbes. Both branches were prominent elite families in the sixteenth century. The first Lord Forbes married the granddaughter of King Robert II of Scotland and daughter of Douglas, Earl of Angus.
National Museums Scotland is investigating potential links between the Jewel and the Scottish royal court, and the possibility of its links to the Darnley Jewel, now in the Royal Collection. The Darnley Jewel was probably commissioned during the 1570s by Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, as a memorial for her husband Matthew Stewart, earl of Lennox and Regent of Scotland, and was later owned by both Horace Walpole and Queen Victoria. The Fettercairn Jewel shows similarities of design and technique with the Darnley Jewel, and their shared Scottish provenance merits further investigation.
The Fettercairn Jewel is currently on display in the Kingdom of the Scots gallery, near to the Penicuik Jewels, which are associated with Mary, Queen of Scots.
Acquired with support from the Art Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund.