Studio Beus

The Lover's Eye of the Beholder

By Saga Beus

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Last Valentine’s Day I gifted my husband a print of my right eye in the grand but short-lived tradition of Regency era Lover’s Eye jewelry. This one-off print spawned a collection of interchangeable carved eyes and eyebrows, meant to be combined to create “customized” Lover’s Eye prints, complete with 3D-printed frames.

I don’t remember the first time I saw one these strange eye miniatures, which could take the form of a brooch, ring, or pendant, but the one that epitomizes the medium to me is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s an oval brooch with a blue eye looking intently off to the side, below a slightly square arched eyebrow, in a very pale face. This tiny partial portrait is set in a halo of pearls and features two crystals as tear drops. Eye miniatures like this one were usually commemorative mourning jewelry, commissioned in remembrance of a family member. While this particular piece served as a memorial, eye miniatures were also popular amongst the elite as tokens of romantic love. In fact, one of the most famous exchanges of eye miniatures occurred between the young Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) and the recently widowed Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, whom he was forbidden to marry on account of her being widowed and Catholic. This public display of affection in 1785 helped launch the trend of Lover’s Eye jewelry, which lasted from the 1780s to the 1830s.

The focus on such a tiny section of the face, usually just an eye and eyebrow and maybe a wisp of hair, lends the eye miniature a sense of mystery and private affection that a more conventional miniature portrait lacks. In addition, the centrality of the eye as a representation of the lover’s gaze inverts the normal function of a portrait as an object to be gazed at. Here the viewer becomes the object, and the painted eye the beholder. In “Treasuring the Gaze: Eye Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision” Hanneke Grootenboer describes this unique aspect of Lover’s Eye jewelry in the context of 18th century “gazing games,” a social performance of seeing and being seen in high society, which danced between private and public spheres. Grootenboer borrows the term “gazing game” from Marcia Pointon’s “‘Surrounded with Brilliants’: Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth-Century England,” where she discusses the social implications of wearing and gifting miniature portraits. They turned an object that was normally presented only in private spaces like one’s home into a piece of statement jewelry that invited the public to observe one’s personal attachment and devotion to another. This could be an expression of intimate emotion or a declaration of loyalty and support, but the intent was always to be looked at, and in the case of Lover’s Eye miniatures for the portrait to also be an active participant in the “gazing.”

While Lover’s Eye jewelry was a very short-lived trend, it speaks to some very long-lived norms of human social interaction: the need to see and be seen, the social currency of family connections and marital status, and the intricacies of traversing the line between public and private spaces. The last point in particular stands out to me in the age of social media. As I was sharing images of my finished Lover’s Eye prints on Instagram I was struck by how well they resonated with contemporary “gazing games,” where we invite others to look into our personal lives while peering into the lives of others. Social media is a strange space that is by its nature public but is largely made up of the personal, which renders the line between the two increasingly tenuous. The contradictions inherent in Lover’s Eye miniatures are in part why I find them so intriguing. In addition to toeing the line between private and public, they are simultaneously very romantic and touching tokens of affection and slightly creepy in the way they suggest watchfulness and surveillance. For all the hand-wringing about the artifice of social media, the impulses that drive these platforms are neither new nor any more complicated nor performative than they have been throughout history. What is different though, is that we have more individual freedom in what we choose to share and express about ourselves in these strange spaces where our private lives intersect with the public.


Gotthardt, Alexxa. “The Mysterious History of Lover's Eye Jewelry.” Artsy. 4 Jan. 2019.

Grootenboer, Hanneke. “Treasuring the Gaze: Eye Miniature Portraits and the Intimacy of Vision.” The Art Bulletin 88, no. 3 (2006): 496–507.

Pointon, Marcia. “‘Surrounded with Brilliants’: Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth-Century England.” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): 48–71.

Silver, Carly. “19th-Century 'Lover's Eye' Jewelry Was the Perfect Accessory for Secret Affairs.” Atlas Obscura. 15 Sept. 2017. lovers-eye-jewelry.