Goldfields brooch with leafy border, c. 1855, maker unknown. Brooches of this type were made in Victoria and descriptions fitting this configuration have been assigned to brooches made in Bendigo. Notice the pistol at the bottom of the composition. Photo: MADE Ballarat

Chunky rings, miniature shovels and even brooches set with actual gold nuggets – money doesn’t always buy taste, even in the 19th century.

“It’s a bit bogan, isn’t it?” says Cash Brown, curator of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka in Ballarat where a new exhibition diving into the unexpected world of 19th century mining bling has just opened.

“To be going off and use your gold to be made in to jewellery and to send away is kind of like buying a Ferrari with your first pay cheque.”

Goldfields buckle ring, 1856, maker unknown. A rare piece of Australian colonial history, this ring is inscribed  "From the Break-O-Day Gold Mine, Bendigo, May 2nd, 1856 C.J. Brown". It is a hefty half an ounce of gold.

Goldfields buckle ring, 1856, maker unknown. A rare piece of Australian colonial history, this ring is inscribed “From the Break-O-Day Gold Mine, Bendigo, May 2nd, 1856 C.J. Brown”. It is a hefty half an ounce of gold. Photo: MADE Ballarat

Before her are dozens and dozens of items of precious jewellery: rings and cameos, brooches and bracelets, lockets and earrings.

“The ostentatiousness is really there, and it’s part of Victorian society too – conspicuous consumption. The more you can show off your wealth, the higher you can go up and the more respect you get. So it’s kind of a pathway to respectability,” she says.

Some of the pieces are fine, delicately wrought numbers with doves and other symbols of Christian faith intricately nestled among ivy leaves and semi-precious stones. Others, like the heavy, early gold brooches of the 1850s, are more clearly tied to the work of mining itself: scenes of miners winching buckets out of mineshafts, surrounded by the tools of their trade, occasionally the name of the mine itself etched in banners above or below.

Gold locket brooch with ambrotype, c. 1860, maker unknown. 18 carat gold locket brooch with foliate border containing a hand-coloured varnished ambrotype portrait of a man holding a large piece of gold-bearing quartz and wearing colonial gold rings.

Gold locket brooch with ambrotype, c. 1860, maker unknown. 18 carat gold locket brooch with foliate border containing a hand-coloured varnished ambrotype portrait of a man holding a large piece of gold-bearing quartz and wearing colonial gold rings. Photo: MADE Ballarat

These early brooches, mostly from when Victoria was in the first blush of its mining boom, are beautiful in their own garish way. But behind these pieces is the story of a nascent “digger pride” that would go on to influence the social history of Australia, says historian Linda Young.

“They are weird because you just don’t find the tools of labour, made in precious materials, presented as jewellery. Something pretty or glamorous is usually what jewellery is intended to mean,” she says.

“So this makes the digger brooches extremely significant, their message is clearly ‘my labour, my hard sweaty manual labour has produced a fortune’. It’s a statement of labouring pride.

Unusual goldfields brooch with two picks, c. 1900, maker unknown.

Unusual goldfields brooch with two picks, c. 1900, maker unknown. Photo: MADE Ballarat

“Now the irony of this is that a huge number of people who swarmed to Victoria were not working class people … what we’re finding is a new respect for labour and that is a democratising experience that all these diggers had.”

She quotes a gold rush-era poem by Mary Helen Fortune inspired by the new sense of freedom and unity experienced on the goldfields:

Hurrah for the free new land!

S.T. Gill's satirical "Improvident Diggers in Melbourne" illustration from 1869 shows two men, laden with gold, swaggering past the window of a gold jeweller.

S.T. Gill’s satirical “Improvident Diggers in Melbourne” illustration from 1869 shows two men, laden with gold, swaggering past the window of a gold jeweller. Photo: MADE Ballarat

And hurrah for the diggers bold!

And hurrah for the strong unfettered right

To search in the hills for gold.

MADE Ballarat curator Cash Brown is holding an Australian reversible gold and silver brooch with glass dome and cameo.

MADE Ballarat curator Cash Brown is holding an Australian reversible gold and silver brooch with glass dome and cameo. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer

Breathe for a moment, one glad breath;

Throw up the shadeless brow;

Where is the paid task-master’s eye?

We were never men till now!

The MADE exhibition also focuses on the whip-cracking burlesque performer Lola Montez’s huge popularity on the Victorian goldfields, where she was showered with nuggets at performances and was presented with eight brooches. Only one seems to have survived her selling them off on her return to California – a fate that befell much of the jewellery of the goldfields, making the early brooches particularly prized by collectors.

Sydney antique jeweller Anne Schofield is credited with sparking collector interest in 19th century Australian jewellery and a number of items in the MADE exhibition are pieces that she has sourced and sold to private owners over the years.

Apart from the pick axes, shovels and sluices that appear there are also some of the first depictions of Australia flora and fauna, including quandong seeds, gum leaves and possibly the first pairings of what would become the Australian coat of arms: the kangaroo and emu.

“Frankly, people think of jewellery as a fashion accessory,” Schofield says. “They don’t think of it as part of our social history.”

19th Century Bling |Goldfields Jewellery is at MADE Ballarat until July 4.