Looking at a History of Jewellery
In tracing a history of jewellery we discover so much about human nature. Our fears, superstitions, myths and love are all woven into the development of items of jewellery which were carried and worn as a statement of hope, love, wealth and sometimes just plain showing off!
This blog post will attempt to cover how so much of human nature and insecurity is woven into the pieces of jewellery we have made and worn over the thousands of years and how we wear jewellery today for many of the same reasons it was worn since time immemorial.
So, in this post, we are going to walk you through a history of Jewellery.
We will talk about:
- When jewellery started being made.
- What was made
- How man discovered jewellery from ancient times
- Our reasons for wearing jewellery
- Materials used in jewellery over time
- Techniques used
- Jewellery trends and fashions throughout the ages
When did jewellery first appear in history?
- What was discovered and where
- What it was made of
- How was it discovered
What Jewellery did we Wear?
- What types of Jewellery did we wear?
Why do we wear Jewellery?
- Social Standing
- Religion and Rites of Passage
Our Underlying and Subconscious Reasons for Desiring to Wear Jewellery
- Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- Antony Robbin’s Six Human Needs
Materials and Techniques Developed Over Time
- The Evolution of Using Different Materials
- Craftsmanship and Tools and Techniques
Brief Histories of the Fashions in Different Periods of History
- Medieval Times
- Middle Ages
- 17th and 18th Centuries
- Modern Times
Jewellery is a Plaything!
We discovered that the word ‘jewellery’, originates from the Latin locale which means “plaything”.
Which we find rather wonderful. These are our grown-up toys, our playthings that we get great enjoyment from – we look at them, touch them, carry them with us, and put them away to play with another day.
The Definition of Jewellery
Cambridge Dictionary defines jewellery as “decorative objects worn on your clothes or body such as gold and silver and precious stones”.
That sums it up, doesn’t it? Well … yes and no, actually.
Whilst, yes, this does define what jewellery is in itself, jewellery is actually so much more than that.
Jewellery Captures the Intangible
Jewellery throughout history has reflected so much more to us than being merely decorative objects.
There are so many meanings and so much feeling wrapped up in those little packages of jewellery.
The reason why we desire jewellery and wear it (and why we desire those who wear it!), and have always done so, are the things that have shaped the history of jewellery. These are the intangible things that successful jewellery makers have worked to capture, within each piece that they crafted.
These desires have had such a strong influence on jewellery design and how and when we wore it, as we found out when we started investigating the history of jewellery.
Although ancient jewellery actually hasn’t changed a huge amount compared to modern-day jewellery, it is fascinating to see how it has changed.
Jewellery demand and designs have been influenced by numerous things. These include practical considerations such as better tools, the discovery of mixing materials to increase their malleability, along with more highly skilled craftsmanship, not to mention fashions and trends which have always been influenced by the powerful people of the day.
When Did Jewellery First Appear in History?
Jewellery is one of the most ancient archaeological findings. The oldest finding of jewellery is said to be a collection of 100,000 year-old beads made from shells, which were found near the base of Mount Carmel in Israel.
For a long time pierced shells found in caves in South Africa were thought to be the earliest jewellery finds, but later archaeological findings from Algeria and Morocco were dated to be from approximately 90,000 years ago and finally, the Mount Carmel slopes find were dated to before that.
What Was Discovered?
Man has been adorning him or herself with animal or fish teeth and bones, feathers, grasses and shells (not just seashells but also the shells of birds eggs, including ostrich) since ancient times. Pieces of jewellery from shell and stone have been found from prehistoric times and items made from mammoth tusk have been found in Russia.
How Was Early Jewellery Discovered?
Much was discovered about the history of jewellery from archaeological digs as many items of jewellery were found to have been buried with their owners as a way of travelling with their spirit into the afterlife. Of course, none more so than the famous discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb in 1922 in which each piece uncovered was found to have been gilded in gold.
What Jewellery Was Worn In Early History?
Small pieces were worn in much the same way as we wear the vast majority of jewellery today, affixed to clothing as in brooches, or on the body with necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings and pendants.
Why Do We Wear Jewellery?
There appears to be a number of reasons throughout the history of why humans have designed, made and worn jewellery. These include:
Jewels have been made, worn and evolved throughout history from functional pieces which served a purpose, such as a watch, hairpin or brooch, each becoming more decorative over time into ever-more elaborate pieces.
Portrait of Richard III, King of England wearing a gold chain, jewelled brooch and rings.
Looking good has always been important to humans. Men, as well as women, wore jewellery in ancient times, often displayed on breastplates attached to their garments, and on their sword sheaths.
Amulets and Symbols
Jewellery culture and symbolism has had a huge influence on the history of jewellery design. In early times great importance was placed on superstition and the power of carrying or wearing, talismans which were believed to offer protection or supernatural powers and items of jewellery were made to incorporate these powerful amulets.
One example is the Ankh which was used in ancient Egypt as a symbol of life and is still worn today.²
It wasn’t just the symbols that were said to carry special powers but the material itself. It was believed that the Egyptians valued gold so highly because they believed it was connected to the Sun God Ra and, as gold didn’t tarnish, it must be connected with everlasting life.
In a similar fashion, hunting trophies and catches were worn as jewellery such as the tooth of an animal as a display of strength or prowess, showing bravery in battle or hunting, much in the same way as an animal head hung on a wall or a skin of an animal. Wearing hunting trophy type jewellery stood as a warning to others, demanding respect and honour and was a display of dominance.
Social status appears right up there on the list of prime reasons we wear jewellery.
The wearing of certain pieces of jewellery in ancient times signified rank and hierarchical status. In ancient Rome only those of a certain rank were permitted to wear rings and, many times in history, social hierarchy was kept in check by laws which limited the use and wearing of certain things, including types of jewellery.
We still award medals for acts of valour in the line of duty.
The use of jewellery to help reinforce social hierarchy was often reflected in the rarity and the value of the material used. Gold, of course, is an obvious example due to its rarity. Those that couldn’t afford gold wore pewter or copper.
Different gemstones, too, inspired awe and respect.
Pearl jewellery was worn by nobility and demonstrated wealth and standing. The time it takes for a natural pearl to form inside the shell, makes them rare, special and expensive. Many old portraits show the ruling and upper classes wearing pearls, on their clothes and in their jewellery – and the bigger the better.
Whilst natural pearls of varying degrees of finesse still fetch a lot of money, nowadays cultured or farmed pearls means this process can be started artificially and so can be done on a mass scale and has brought the price down and almost anyone can enjoy wearing real pearls these days.
The Crown Jewels of a country signify the wealth, solidity and continuation of the monarchy. The most famous and exquisite Crown Jewels are those of the British Monarchy but many, many countries around the world have their own Crown Jewels. Even countries that are now republics, like Hungary, keep their Crown Jewels displayed in museums.
Crown Jewels are normally passed down, from generation to generation, although the British Crown Jewels have been through some terrible fates including being lost in quicksand by King John in 1216!
Religion and Rites of Passage
Items of jewellery often helped to display to others that we were part of a social or religious group, or is used to demonstrate a rite of passage.
Humans love rituals, they are very important to us and the give great meaning to our life and a feeling of belonging. Items that have been crafted to demonstrate the occasion of such a ritual become treasured items.
A Cross on a pendant or Star of David is a visible demonstration of a religious commitment – no words are needed, it is a statement to the world and a beautiful reminder to the wearer of the meaning behind the jewellery, the commitment they have taken. A wedding ring displays an equally clear message.
Even milestone birthday’s such as 16, 18 or 21 are celebrated in certain parts of the world and so jewellery has been designed to celebrate milestones like this.
The Development of Birthstones
This can be extrapolated to explain the fascination we have with birthstones. Most of us know what their birthstone is, and a gift of a piece of jewellery which features the recipient’s birthstone of the wearer set within it is a thoughtful and treasured gift.
Currency and Investment
Throughout history, the coffers from a country’s Royal jewels have ensured the wealth of its country and helped to fight wars. Indeed, the British Crown Jewels were twice pawned – once to pay the troops during wartime and once by King Charles I’s wife to Holland!³
The price of gold still fluctuates today but more so due to the level of confidence in the economy – if the World economy looks a little unpredictable then investor’s will see gold as a safer bet and buy it, therefore pushing the price up. But even in previous times, gold and other jewellery were bartered or traded and kept to ward against currency deflations.
Today many watches and items of jewellery are treasured by loved ones of a relative who has passed away and can be considered a sound investment.
In much the same way a male bird ruffles his beautifully coloured feathers to attract a mate, so too have humans dressed up and preened ourselves to attract the perfect mate. Pieces of jewellery draw the beholder’s eye to areas which emphasised erogenous zones ( for instance, earrings to the ear lobes) or seductive areas of the body – pendants and necklaces to the décolleté, jewellery was sewn into bodices to accentuate nipped-in waists and maybe this later led to decorative belts.
The Underlying and Subconscious Reasons for Wearing Jewellery
1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
All these reasons for wearing jewellery come down to our basic human needs. Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs” in 1943 shows, in an easy to understand pyramid, what us humans need and crave to make us feel whole and fulfilled. He stated that inherent human needs, arranged in a hierarchy of importance, drive us and motivate us.
The most basic of these needs is to feel safe with food, water, shelter, warmth, along with safety and security.
This is followed by psychological needs such as the need to be accepted, to belong, to feel you have achieved something.
It has been said that the wearing of jewellery falls into the area of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs of fulfilling our psychological needs after our basic safety needs have been met helping us to feel that we belong and are part of a group. (5) We argue that the role jewellery played in helping us psychologically feel safe was an important part of our lives and our history. Huge importance was placed on amulets and symbols carried and worn which the wearer believed would help keep him or herself safe in battle and drew great strength from. Even in recent years, people have been prepared to lose their job rather than give up wearing a pendant or similar piece of jewellery displaying their commitment to their faith. How many of us feel bereft if we lose an item of jewellery? They often hold significant meaning for us!
Religious history demonstrates that we have always looked to powers greater than ourself to help us through life and we have carried and held close to our symbols and keepsakes, including jewellery, which both reminds us of that power and which, often, we feel actually carries that power within it.
Greek Necklace with Butterfly Pendant. Artist Unknown. 2nd-1st Century BC.
Elaborate diadems or necklaces featuring centrepieces of inlaid stones, pendants, and beaded chains go back to 3rd- and 2nd-century Greek jewellery. This necklace was found on the neck of the deceased; as the symbol of the soul, the butterfly was an appropriate motif for a burial gift.
Talisman type jewellery and jewellery with meaning has made a massive revival in recent years – brands such as Trollbeads, the Danish brand that started the modern Charm Bead phenomena in 1976, have meanings attributed to all of their beads.
The modern relatively modern fashion of getting body tattoos fulfils a more permanent body adornment?
2. Antony Robbin’s Six Human Needs
Jewellery used in this way demonstrates the human need to be accepted and loved as part of a social group. Continuing where Maslow left off, Antony Robbins, who has studied human behaviour, psychology and motivation for decades, has formulated his own list of “Six Human Needs”(4) which states that a human’s innate, unconscious needs are:
Love and Connection
Jewellery could be said to help us to “fit in” with our peer group and feel significant to those who we want to matter to.
How we look, how we dress and appear to others matters to most of us. This was found, in studies, to be true even of young children. On a subconscious level, we sum people up in the first few seconds of meeting them. It was proved that we even make broad judgements about someone, in as little as three seconds, from just the clothes they are wearing. This was discovered to be so even when their facial expressions had been pixellated so this couldn’t influence the findings.¹
Most of us can easily imagine the perceived difference in a person who wears a simple, delicate-looking pendant on a chain, compared to someone who wears multiple heavy chains with stone-encrusted skull pendants hanging, even without meaning to judge in any way, most of us will perceive one person to be different from the other – an extreme example but you get the drift! Jewellery is making a statement about us to others, whether we like it or not.
Materials and Techniques Developed Over Time
The Evolution of Using Different Materials
As more and more materials were found that could be crafted and used in jewellery making, so jewellery making methods progressed.
Gemstones were set into precious metals, such as gold. Alloys of metals (a combination of metals mixed together often to help make the material more malleable or workable) were increasingly used. Most modern jewellery is made in alloys of precious metals, including the gold and silver we wear today (the subject of another blog!). Nearly every known metal alloy has been used in jewellery making.
Jewellery making materials seem to go through fashions or phases.
Copper was used in jewellery from an early date, as it is one of the metals which is malleable and can, therefore, be shaped easily. It is still used in alloys for silver and gold soldering today. Bronze was used extensively in jewellery making, especially during Roman times.
Gold, silver, white gold, titanium, copper, palladium, tungsten, wood, enamel, pearls, glass and every gemstone ever discovered have, at some point, being used in jewellery.
Precious stones (rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds) and semi-precious stones (amethyst, opal, lapis lazuli, topaz, to name but a few) have been discovered, mined, polished and cut since the earliest times. Even the, now taboo and repugnant, the use of ivory was used in jewellery.
Beads were frequently used in jewellery. African countries specialised in using the smallest of beads, called Seed Beads, to create wonderful, colourful pieces.
Some African cultures wore jewellery around their ankles and in their nose, and this idea was introduced into European cultures and western jewellery much later in history. The same is true of wider, heavier pieces such as wide neck bangles and torque bangles, which were later introduced into European jewellery design.
Craftsmanship, Tools and Techniques
Jewellery making methods and tools were developed and perfected. From hammering to smoothing and polishing metals and stones, to the intricate art of stone-cutting which often added to the value of a piece. Methods such as soldering, polishing, cutting, beating, forging and casting, to name a few were developed. Many tools have been developed, both to create wonderful pieces of jewellery but also used in the items, including fasteners, rivets, etc and perfected over time.
Silversmiths, Goldsmiths, (craftspeople who craft items from silver or gold), Gemcutters (artisans who specialise in the cutting and polishing of stones), Lapiadairists (an craftsperson who forms gems or stones into decorative pieces) all studied and developed in their respective trades.
A Brief History of the Fashions in Different Periods in the History of Jewellery
17th and 18th Centuries
During the Medieval Times (1200-1500) stones were often polished, as cutting of stones hadn’t yet been invented. Therefore, during this period it was the size and colour of the stones that were noticed and revered.
Enamelling, although invented centuries earlier, had suddenly gained in popularity and use. This is where ground coloured glass was fired at high temperatures onto metal, to produce the beautiful colours and smooth finish of enamel jewellery.
It was during this time that there was a strong emphasis on jewellery been worn as protective emblems and many pieces of jewellery had inscriptions which were supposed to carry power to protect the wearer. We still, of course, wear items of jewellery like this today, for instance, the St Christopher pendant is worn to help protect and keep travellers safe
During the Renaissance, jewellery became even more extravagant.
Gem cutting had just been invented, where the gemstones were cut in such a way to add to their brilliance, in the way the light refracted through the stone. As artistry and tools developed, intricate carvings and engraving were carried out on metals and gemstones, including many portraits.
The importance and display of religion and mythology ruled during this period and was often incorporated into jewellery design.
Marie Louise Diadem (credit: spakattacks CC BY 2.0 Flickr)
Napoleon gave this diadem to his second wife, Marie Louise, as a wedding present in 1810. The crown originally had emeralds, but they were removed and sold individually in the 1950’s and the owner replaced the emeralds with turquoise. It was purchased for the Smithsonian in 1971 and is on display in the National Museum of Natural History.
There are 1006 diamonds and 79 Persian turquoise stones on the crown.
The 1600’s and 1700’s
During the 17th and 18th Centuries, stunning jewellery items were created. Stone cutting became better and better, and diamonds could sparkle in candlelight. Colours were used more and more. Often the largest stones were used in breastplates, for both males and females, which were sewn onto the bodice of clothing. Smaller stones were worn as items of jewellery on the wearer.
Credit: Z.1685 by Uncle Catherine on Flickr. CC BY 2.0.
Mourning Brooch or Pendant, ca. 1857, Gold, hair, pearls, glass, 2 3/8 x 2 x 1/4 in. ( 6 x 5.1 x 0.6 cm ). New-York Historical Society, Z.1685.
Increased trade with far-flung countries meant that the trade in gemstones was flourishing. Some very beautiful pieces of jewellery were made at this time, including beautiful enamelled scenes.
The 1800’s Onwards
During the 19th Century jewellery craftsmen often tried to recreate many ancient pieces using their more advanced methods and a few well-know jewellery makers worked in archaeological sites.
It was an era of poets and prose and this influence rippled out into jewellery design. Flowers, which were given as a symbol of friendship and love, were a huge influence in jewellery design and the popularity of poetry created many nature-led designs. Flowers are still frequently used within jewellery design, including jewellery which encapsulate real flowers within each piece, such as with this flower jewellery.
This was also a period of huge industrial change and machines were developed to deal with many jewellery making techniques. There was a very sure movement away from men wearing jewellery at this time and most pieces were worn by women – this was with the exception of Wedding Rings for men which were introduced in the 20th century and became increasingly popular. Engagement rings for men, on the other hand (see what we did there!), were also introduced at this time which proved to be a big flop (engagement rings for women had been around since the 1400’s and they stayed in fashion).
As we move into modern times, there was a rejection of the mass-made jewellery and a calling to go back to great craftsmanship in jewellery and beautiful pieces were, once again, created and worn.
There were many design-led trends in jewellery making including the Arts and Crafts era, the Art Nouveau era, all the way to the present day trends.
A recent jewellery phenomena (although it took nearly 20 years to really take off and then when it did it became a jewellery phenomena) was the introduction in 1976 by Trollbeads of Charm Bead jewellery, a composable system of jewellery where the wearer starts with a bracelet and lock then gradually, over time, add more and more charm beads to the bracelet (or necklace). Each bracelet is unique to that person.
A new technique was developed and perfected by Trollbeads called lampworking, where coloured glass is melted at high temperatures around a rod to create glass beads, with different patterns, shapes and colours, although you can see examples of beads worn on chains from ancient times. A silver core is added and these slide on to the bracelet.
This type of jewellery gained in popularity after Pandora jewellery started making similar charm beads and took out large-scale advertising of their brand until the brand succeeded in becoming a household name.
Men are wearing jewellery once again and modern metals including Stainless Steel which is used a lot in modern, brand-led jewellery. Tungsten Carbide is becoming a hugely successful material in men’s jewellery, particularly tungsten rings. There is also a trend for body piercings and body jewellery during the last few decades.
Notable modern-day jewellery creations have very much leaned toward “brands” and have created a hierarchical desire all over again – many feel they have to own a particular brand as a way of fitting-in or being part of the same group as their peers.
Bling-Bling is a slang term given to those that wear ostentatious amounts of jewellery, a term coined during the hip-hop era.
We hope you have liked our history of jewellery. We would love to hear your comments or any more you think could be added to this blog.
In researching it, we have discovered so much more we would love to look further into. For instance, the Crown Jewels and the pieces that make them up, Egyptian jewellery and materials used and developed over time which we have found fascinating. If there is anything else we should add to the list, please let us know in the comments below.