They’re so mysterious that no one but the original wearer knows whose eye they display, and that’s kind of the point.
These tiny eye paintings started as a fad in the late 1700s. Their purpose? To carry a piece of a loved one at all times without revealing their identity.
It’s a true token of a love affair, and fodder for a story of romance.
The alleged beginning of these “lover’s eyes” comes from the prince of Wales, later King George IV, who once became determined to court a Catholic, twice-widowed woman named Maria Fitzherbert. The court frowned upon this courting and at first Maria Fitzherbert was not particularly impressed either. Finally, she reluctantly agreed to marry him, though their marriage would not be officially recognized since George III had not approved it.
Some accounts say that Maria came to her senses before the marriage and fled to America. But the prince did not give up. He sent her a locket with a miniature painting of his eye inside and the note, “P.S. I send you a parcel, and I send you at the same time an eye. If you have not totally forgotten the whole countenance, I think the likeness will strike you.” Whether it was the portrait or his letter, Maria decided to give in and marry George. Rumors say that George kept a portrait of Maria’s eye as well.
The whole event sparked an interest in miniature eye portraits. Worn not only by lovers and spouses, but also close family members and friends, they were the perfect way to openly wear special jewelry without having to worry about anyone knowing who was being represented.
Miniaturists like Richard Cosway and George Engleheart were some of the first to paint these pieces.
Some say these trinkets were a French invention, though no one knows for sure. Lady Eleanor Butler wrote in her diary at the time of the fad, “an Eye, done in Paris and set in a ring – a true French idea.”
Only limited amounts of eye miniatures from the 18th and 19th centuries exist today. The estimated number is under 1,000.
You can find the eyes most often set in lockets, brooches and rings, often surrounded by jewels or pearls. The biggest currently known collection is owned by the Skiers of Birmingham, Alabama, who have been collecting these pieces for decades.