This potted History of Jewelry starts with primitive Man who started wearing Jewelry way before women.
Jewelry goes back to the birth of civilization. Archeological sites prove that primitive man wore crude necklaces, made out of animal teeth and put together on vegetable fiber strings, to show off his hunting prowess. He also used simple shells and stones to bring good luck.
Table of Contents
Jewelry Precious Metals
However, the History of Jewelry as we know it today started with the discovery of Precious Metals.
The first metal to be mined was copper as far back as 9000 BCE. Later other precious metals such as gold and silver were discovered probably in or near Mesopotamia, often called the birthplace of civilization,3000 BC, which corresponds to modern-day Iran/Iraq.
Gold Jewelry-the game changer
The game-changer for jewelry was the discovery of gold because of its fantastic malleability which made it easier to transform the metal into new aesthetically pleasing shapes and sizes.
Gem engraving and cutting are also thought to have originated in this era. Ornate gold and silver rings, pins, crowns, and bracelets with stones such as Lapis have been found in archaeological digs such as the tombs in the city of Ur.
Gold and silver rings and brooches using the lost-wax technique were made not only for adornment but also to symbolize power, religion, and mythological figures and were also worn for their magical properties. Chains made of oval, round, or square rings have been found allowing artisans to hang all manner of decorative objects.
History of Jewelry: The Pharaohs
The Pharaohs ruled Egypt for 2500 years. Their artisans produced stunning jewels, in gold and copper.
Fortunately for us, the rulers of Egypt were buried with their best jewelry such as pectorals, necklaces, amulets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and pendants so they could be used in their afterlife.
The sensational discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb
The discovery of the Tutankhamun Tomb enabled us to see examples of the stunning treasures that were buried with the Pharaohs 1539-1292 BCE.
The ancient Egyptians wore amulets and talismans using insects such as the small beetle or Scarab and animals and birds to represent deities or rulers. The cobra represented Lower Egypt and the vulture was used to represent the patron of Upper Egypt. Just think these symbols are still in fashion today!
They were inlaid with gems and semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, onyx, and turquoise. Check out this beautifully embellished iconic Usekh collar which was a type of beaded broad necklace often depicted in images of the Egyptian elite with its clasps of gold.
History of Jewelry: Ancient Greece
In Ancient Greece, the ruling classes also believed that the deceased would travel with their jewelry to the afterlife. In the tombs of Micene, death masks in gold, elaborate signet rings, filigree earrings, and jewels embellished with enamels dating from approximately 1300 BCE were found in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann.
The Kings, from the Mycenaean civilization (1580-1500 BCE) were also buried with gold rings, necklaces, diadems, and bracelets.
Jewelry Making Techniques
They used even more sophisticated techniques such as granulation where tiny gold spheres are attached to form silhouettes and filigree, using fine gold wire, which is welded onto the surface of an object. Enamel, which is powdered glass colored with metal oxides was another technique used during this period by the Mycenaean artisans not to mention rings that were made using molds with the lost-wax technique which unbelievably is still used today.
Numerous treasures have been found such as this Mycenaean seal ring depicting two men fighting a lion.
The History of Jewelry: The Etruscan Civilisation
The Etruscans, who lived in central Italy, between the 8th and 3rd century BCE took advantage of the importation of jewels and refined the techniques even further using filigree, granulation, and inlaying techniques.
They made ornaments decorated with gold birds, flowers, and animals that stand out against the smooth gold surfaces. Artisans used geometric themes and symbols as well as figurative elements which had an oriental inspiration. Then, large, stunning grape cluster earrings became the fashion along with necklaces with important pendants.
Etruscan men and women seemed to have had more of an equal status than any other ancient culture. They were buried together in a family tomb with their worldly possessions.
Jewelry in The Roman Empire
Ancient Rome, too, became a center for goldsmiths’ workshops, and gold rings, which were worn by noblemen, senators, and diplomats, They started to be worn also by persons of lower rank such as soldiers. Of course, as the Roman empire grew so did the artistic influences from other countries and so one can find Greek geometric motifs and spirals as well as utilization of imported stones such as pearls, rubies, and sapphires. Freedmen traditionally wore silver; whereas, the iron ring became the mark of slavery. In the last years of the Republic, any citizen with a reputable vocation was allowed to wear gold rings. Check out this Roman ring:
The Middle Ages
In Europe, Jewelry in the Middle Ages was intrinsically linked to religious objects and the patronage of the Church where most important items of gold have been conserved.
The Renaissance Explosion
One has to wait for the Renaissance to see an explosion of jewelry in Europe, with the courts of England, France, Spain, and Italy trying to outdo each other. The Medici family in Florence surrounded themselves with famous artists such as Benvenuto Cellini, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Sandro Botticelli. They all served apprenticeships in the goldsmiths’ workshops.
Check out my post on this contemporary Maestro very much influenced by this period of history:
The Beginning of the English Renaissance
Henry VIII also had a great passion for jewels and had a set designed for him by Hans Holbein the Younger. You can admire them in his famous portrait of the King where you can see a magnificent necklace with a medallion.
The Sun King
During the 17th century, the fashion for male adornment started to decrease and the last King that made massive use of jewels was Louis XIV, the Sun King.
In the 18th century, diamonds and other precious stones seemed to have dominated the European scene. Much emphasis was given to the cutting and glorification of the stones rather than the gold or silver setting.
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century created a new market for jewelry as prices became to fall with mass production. New techniques such as electric gold-plating as well as the production of imitation stones. The jewels in the market were inspired by all the major artistic trends of the past and pampered to the taste of the new middle classes. The Fabergé company, from St.Petersburg, made objects in a great variety of styles and used many different precious and non-precious stones.
Check out this timeless vermeil ring influenced by a heritage rooted in Greek mythology.
The Art Nouveau Movement
The art nouveau movement started at the end of the century. It was a reaction against the imitation of ancient styles. It differed in that the value of the piece was not linked so much to the price of the raw material, but rather to the artistic perception.
Alfred Cartier started his company in 1898 and Charles Tiffany began his production of silver in 1851.Other famous companies which were formed in this period include Van Cleef &Arpels in Paris, Bulgari in Rome, Asprey in London, and the magnificent Lalique in Paris.
Check out this Art Deco style 14k white gold ring with round moissanite stones
Jewelry in the 20th Century
The 20th century saw new developments in the jewelry world linked to artistic movements such as Cubism, Futurism, and Avant-Garde.
Today, what amazes me, is that one can find jewelry on sale, linked to all these movements and artistic expressions from Etruscan to the Renaissance and the Minimalism of the last few decades. This is quite rare in the fashion panorama.
Origin of the word ‘Jewelry
The word ‘Jewelry’ itself is not so old and derives from the 14-c old French word ‘Jouel’ or jewel.
The History of Jewelry started with primitive Men who started wearing Jewelry way before women. Women soon caught up and for many centuries dominated the scene!
Today the line between sexes has become more blurred.
As a result, there are many brands making unisex Jewelry and gender-neutral Jewels.
sic transit gloria mundi
Check out these rings for everyone from Brilliant Earth:
For more History, check out my post: Paolo Penko, a Hidden Jewel in Renaissance Florence