A History of Jewellery
In tracing the history of jewellery we discover so much about human nature.
Our fears, superstitions, myths and love are all woven into the development of trinkets of jewellery which were carried and worn as a statement of hope, passion, wealth and also just plain showing off!
This article will attempt to walk you through a history of jewellery and cover how so much of human nature and hope is woven into the pieces of jewellery we have made and worn over the thousands of years.
We talk about how we wear jewellery today for many of the same reasons they were worn since time immemorial.
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
What Is Jewellery?
- The Definition of Jewellery
- A Plaything
- What Jewellery Captures
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
The Definition of Jewellery
Cambridge Dictionary defines jewellery (or jewelry as it is spelt in American-English) as “decorative objects worn on your clothes or body such as gold and silver and precious stones”.
But does that sum it up? Well … yes and no, actually.
Jewellery is actually so much more than that.
Jewellery is a Plaything!
The word ‘jewellery’, originates from the Latin locale which means “plaything”.
These are our grown-up toys, our playthings that we get great enjoyment from – we love to collect them, look at them, touch them, carry them with us, and put them away to play with another day.
Jewellery Captures the Intangible
Whilst this may seem like a frivolous desire, it actually has a much deeper meaning.
It indicates something that we see every day in our shop – that jewellery connects us to and often holds real meaning for us.
We believe this is what has driven the fascination and love of the charm bead brands like Trollbeads or Pandora – people love and collect them in a very meaningful way.
Jewellery throughout history has reflected so much more to us than being merely decorative objects.
There are so many symbols which have been incorporated in jewellery designs.
The designs carry meanings and so much feeling wrapped up in those little packages of jewellery. When we gift these symbolic jewellery designs to those we care about, they carry the message we wish to convey.
The reason why we desire jewellery and wear it (and why we desire those who wear it!) 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.
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 this is ever-evolving skills and 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.
Exciting recent discoveries indicate that before the Neanderthals died out 40,000 years ago early humans who moved to Europe may have taught them how to make pendants made out of bear teeth. 6
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.
Many items of jewellery were found to have been buried with their owners as a way of travelling with their spirit into the afterlife.
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 of jewellery were worn in much the same way as we wear 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 history of why humans have designed, made and worn jewellery. These include:
Jewels have been made, worn and evolved throughout history initially as functional pieces which served a purpose. They would hold clothing together or keep hair or hats in place, such as with a hairpin or brooch, which gradually became more decorative over time.
Looking good has always been important to humans.
Men as well as women wore jewellery in ancient times, often displayed on breast plates 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.
Great importance was placed on pleasing the gods. There was great superstition around the believed power of carrying talismans which were believed to offer protection or supernatural powers.
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.
This demonstrated 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.
The ritual of awarding medals for acts of valour in the line of duty continues today.
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 types of jewellery.
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, 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
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 and need rituals, they are deeply important to us and the give great meaning to our life and our need to belong. Items that have been crafted to demonstrate the occasion of such a ritual become treasured items.
A cross 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 of commitment to another.
Rites of passage and milestones are also marked by tokens to concretise the occassion. 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 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!
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 to Holland by King Charles I’s wife!³
But even in previous times, gold and other jewellery were bartered or traded and kept to ward against currency deflations.
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 investment and buy it, therefore pushing the price up.
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 suspended from chains and necklaces to accentuate the décolleté, jewellery was sewn into bodices to accentuate nipped-in waists and maybe this later led to decorative belts.
Animals and birds also collect items to take to their mate as gifts much like we do with trinkets of jewellery which have become more valuable to more we wanted to impress our feelings.
The Subconscious Reasons for Wearing Jewellery
1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
All these reasons for wearing jewellery comes down to our basic human needs.
Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs” in 1943 shows, in an easy-to-understand pyramid, what 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)
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.
We are always looking for meaning in life and jewellery is another way of making us feel safe and secure.
During times when honouring a certain religion was banned, people would take huge risks in concealing a symbol of their religion within the folds of their clothes.
Even in recent times, 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, for instance, a Cross.
How many of us feel bereft if we lose an item of jewellery? They often hold significant meaning for us!
Anthony Robbin's Six Human Needs
– 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 instantly form an impression about 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 – 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 using 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.
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. Welsh gold, known as the rarest gold in the world, has developed its own niche within the industry helped by being favoured by the British Royal Family.
As we’ve made discoveries of different gemstones in our progress at exploring the world we live in, so they have been used and added to 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 use of ivory was used in jewellery, which is now such a repugnant idea.
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 also been developed, both to create wonderful pieces of jewellery but also used in the items, including fasteners, rivets, etc and perfected over time. The art of making chains – and the different shapes of links involved – grew very quickly as tools and training developed.
Trades grew around the people who developed these skills.
Silversmiths, Goldsmiths, (craftspeople who craft items from silver or gold).
Gemcutters (artisans who specialise in the cutting and polishing of stones).
Lapiadairists (a craftsperson who forms gems or stones into decorative pieces) all studied and developed in their respective trades.
The Introduction of Birthstones
It is said that birthstones can be traced back to the Bible when Aaron, the high priest of the Hebrews had a breastplate made, on the instruction of Moses, which contains 12 precious gemstones.
The twelve gems represented the twelve tribes of Israel which had a connection with the twelve months and the twelve zodiac signs.
Jewellery Fashions in Different Periods of History
Medieval Times (1200-1500)
During the Medieval Times 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. 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. Symbols such as the evil eye and the hamsa hand offered the wearer protection.
We still, of course, wear items of jewellery like this today. A St Christopher 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.
The 1600's and 1700's
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).
During the 17th and 18th Centuries, stunning jewellery items were created. Stone cutting became better and better, and diamonds could sparkle in the 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.
Increased trade with far-flung lands meant the trade in gemstones flourished. Some very beautiful pieces of jewellery were made at this time, including detailed enamelled scenes.
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 (excuse the pun!), 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 phenomenon (although it took nearly 20 years to really take) was the introduction in 1976 by Trollbeads of modern 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.
A silver core is added and these slide on to the bracelet. Whilst Trollbeads created the technique, this type of jewellery gained in popularity after Pandora started making similar charm beads and spent a substantial amount of money on the advertising of the brand until it became 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.
There is also a trend for body piercings and body jewellery during the last few decades.
Bling-Bling is a slang term given to those that wear ostentatious amounts of jewellery, a term coined during the hip-hop era.
As with most other industries in recent times, modern-day jewellery creations have very much leaned toward “brands”.
This has tapped into that hierarchical desire all over again – where many feel owning a particular brand gives them status.
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.
If there is anything else we should add to the list, please let us know in the comments below.
- Image by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa-2.0-fr [CC BY-SA w.0 fr] https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)] Tomb of Téviec. Dated between – 6740 and – 5680 BP (Mesolithic). Two skeletons of young women between 25 and 35 years, believed to have died a violent death, with several head injuries and impacts of arrows. One woman was believed to have been buried alive. The two bodies were buried with great care in a pit protected by antler roof. The grave goods include flint and bone and funeral jewellery which is made of marine shells drilled and assembled into necklaces, bracelets and ankle rings. Some of them have a few bone objects with engraved lines. Recovered in 1938 and reconstituted 2010. Museum of Toulouse.
5. V& A Museum –The History of Jewellery
- 6. New Scientist, Neanderthals may have learned jewellery making from us. May 2020.