Early History of Jewelry: Ancient Times to the 17th Century
An early history of gems and jewelry, highlighting different cultures and their varied beliefs about the powers of gems and precious rocks.
9 Minute Read
It seems that every person between the ages of 8 and 18 knows the story of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Frodo the hobbit and his journey through the Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings. Gemstones and jewelry have been a part of mankind since before history was written.
It began when time began and man first walked on Earth. Of course, the jewelry they wore in the old days was not made like we make it today. The ancient people wore jewelry made of feathers, bones, shells, and colored pebbles. These colored pebbles were gems and gems have been admired for their beauty and durability and made into adornments. Diamonds were not popular until people learned how to cut them to show their brilliance, which began in Europe sometime around the 1300. Many types of jewelry items still made today began as functional objects. Pins and brooches originated from the clasps that held clothing together. Rings and pendants were used for early seals and signs of identification, rank, and authority.
The earliest finding of jewelry was dated around 25,000 years ago. This simple necklace made of fish bones was found in a cave in Monaco. What did this necklace signify? Was it for the chief of the village or a witch doctor? Maybe a princess wore it as a trophy her husband gave her for having a boy child. We might never know the real reason for the making of the gift but we can use our imagination and try to understand the way people thought in those days.
The need to feel accepted, to belong, can be as important as the needs we fulfill in caring for our bodies. A sense of identity and self-esteem is not a frill, so belonging reflects a need, too. The first adornments were derived from the hunt; teeth, claws, horns, and bones. Hunters believed that wearing trophies would bring them good luck for the next hunt. Remember, the village lived day to day by the virtue of a good hunter and this person deserved respect and privileges. Of course, the best hunter wanted to show they had courage and prowess.
In early societies, jewelry was worn as amulets to protect against bad luck and illness. The silver vest of the elfin princess protected Frodo from harm in the stories of his adventure through Middle Earth. Even today, we hear the tales and adventures of people long ago who somehow found luck and fortune because of gemstones and jewelry. From these myths evolves jewelry made into symbols thought to give the wearer control over fertility, wealth and love. Jewelry was worn for its magical properties.
Jewelry later came to denote human connection and commitment. Slaves were made to wear bracelets to show who they belonged to. Wedding rings symbolized the commitment two people had for each other. At one time in Europe only the wealthy and high-ranking church officials were allowed to wear gemstones. This was a sign of wealth and power. The commoners wishing to mimic them would wear less expensive jewelry to add color and flash to their festive costumes. Some African tribes today still wear enormous lip plugs and distort the mouth of its wearer. This is to make the men look more fearsome in battle and women so ugly that the other tribes wouldn't want to steal them. Have you seen the women in Africa with the long necks? This is done by adding a new ring every year from childhood. This deforms the upper body and makes the neck appear longer.
In following the trail or evolution of jewelry from the ancient worlds of Africa to the Mediterranean then Europe and finally the United States, we can see how jewelry evolved over time and is found in jewelry stores today.
Iran and the Mediterranean
The earliest traces of jewelry can be traced to the civilizations that bloomed in the Mediterranean and what is now called Iran around 3,000 to 400 BC. These were usually simple stone amulets and seals. Many of these amulets and seals carried spiritual meanings, stars, and floral designs. Jewelry was offered to the gods and was used to dress up statues. The Royal Tombs in ancient Sumner, dating back to 3000 BC, delivered to us the greatest collect of all times. There they found mummies encrusted with every imaginable type of jewelry worn, headdresses, necklaces, earrings, rings, crowns, and pins.
Then there are the ancient Egyptians; they too wore amulets and talismans. Everyone has seen the scarab in Mummy movies; it is a carving of a small beetle. Another common motif was the ankh, the symbol of life. A popular piece of jewelry, and one which is even finding fashion again, is the multiple strains of beads of various colors. The Egyptians made bracelets of multiple strains of colored gemstones. You have probably heard these names, as they are still common today; amethyst, carnelian, green feldspar, and turquoise.
The Egyptians used symbols to show territorial pride, the vulture represented Nekhbet, patron of the Upper Egypt and the cobra stood for Lower Egypt. The royal jewelers used gold, silver, turquoise, chalcedony, amethyst, and lapis lazuli. Lapis Lazuli was traded with miners from Afghanistan. The Egyptians were also famous for faience, a glass like glaze on clay and glass inlays.
The Egyptians believed strongly that color reflects aspects of our personalities, and as a result, color symbolism was important to the ancient Egyptians. Yellow and gold were associated with the sun and were always used in crowns and ornaments for the pharaoh and his priests. A green stone was put in the mouths of the pharaohs to restore speech in the other world. The red AB or heart amulet was believed to preserve the soul. The golden Udjat provided health and protection.
Bahrain is a flat island in the Persian Gulf, located off the coast of Saudi Arabia. This was an island, not of nobility and wealth. but an island of commoners where 170,000 burial sites have been discovered. The most ancient are nearly 4,000 years old while some are as recent as 300 BC. These were everyday people who actually had a high standard of living. Archeologists have flocked to Bahrain trying to discover how these people lived. They found bronze axe heads, javelins and they even found a 4,000 year old pot traced to ancient Oman. But their real find was a 4000-year-old pearl and gold earring, the oldest ever found.
The Greeks were prolific writers and they often talked about jewelry and its impact on their day-to-day lives. As far back as 1200 BC, Greek jewelry was rich and varied and reflected the prosperity of the society. At first, the Greeks copied Eastern Motifs but then later developed their own style following their beliefs in the gods and symbols. Greek jewelry included crowns, earrings, bracelets, rings, hairpins, necklaces, and brooches. Greek women sometimes wore necklaces with 75 or more dangling miniature vases. Their jewelry combined the Eastern taste for gemstones and the Etruscan use of gold. The Etruscan perfected a method for making tiny gold beads called granulation.
By the Roman era most gem stones that we use today had already been discovered. Myth and magic was the rule of the day and gemstones were treated with respect. They also had a second purpose; the Roman women would were hairpins that were long enough to be used in self-defense! The Romans had also loved the cameo and cherished it for its beauty. Bracelets for the wrist and upper arms as well as necklaces became popular, as did jewelry made from gold coins.
The Byzantine Empire
No empire had demonstrated a richer tradition in jewelry than the Byzantines. The Byzantines inherited this prestige's position after the Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople in 330 AD. This empire merged the greatness and richness of Greece, Egypt, the Near East, and parts of Russia and North Africa. The combination of influences of this melting pot lead to the use of rich colors, oriental symbolism, and it lasted through the Middle Ages. Their designs were carried west into Europe by trade, marriage, and war. The art of cloisonné enameling, where glass glaze is poured, set into pre-soldered patterns or cells, and then fired at a high temperature to melt the glaze into a permanent design, flourished during the Byzantine period.
When Rome fell, darkness fell over the lands that they ruled. Life was hard and luxuries like jewelry all but disappeared from European life. At this time, most of the wealth laid in the hands of the church. In the tenth century, the sacred world enjoyed such finery as gem-studded altars, chalices, and icon missals, (books used during mass.) During the Crusades, bands of solders traveled to the holy land and returned with a great booty of gemstones and jewelry. The Church benefited most by the looting but there was many pieces not delivered to the church and found its way amount the common people.
The Crusades were the first real trade between East and West in several centuries and this opened up a new world of trade and communications. It exposed the Europeans to new products and ideas. From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, few peasants wore jewelry, except sometimes a brooch or hatpin was seen.
In the Middle Ages the royal family and churches frowned on commoners wearing jewelry or trying to copy their clothes or manners. The nobility considered this a special privilege only for them to enjoy. To enforce this idea Sumptuary Laws were initiated. Such laws were meant to curb opulence and promote thrift by regulating what people were allowed to wear. Rings that were worn carried a meaning and a purpose. There were four main categories or purposes:
- Ecclesiastical rings, worn by clergy and laymen as sacred emblems.
- Curative rings, meant to cure ailments and diseases.
- Rings of romance, the wedding ring on the left second finger because of its closeness to the heart.
- Gadget rings, including brass knuckles, compass rings, pipe stuffers.
Although the French set fashion trends in the sixteenth century, England royalty Henry VIII wore the most extravagant of clothing. He boasted at least 234 rings, 324 brooches, diamond and pearl studded necklets. His daughter, Elizabeth I, loved pearls so much that she had over 2000 dresses made, each weighted down with pearls and gemstones. Elisabeth's clothing was typical of this period. The Queen of Spain also wore dresses heavily jeweled and embroidered with pearls.
King Louis XIV of France endeared the fact that his court would be the most magnificent through out the land. During his reign (1642-1715), more large diamonds were imported from India than at any other time in history. Ever hear of the blue Hope Diamond? It is believed that it was bought from Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and was to be set in a necklace by the Royal Jewelers Le Grand. This necklace was to be given to his grandson as a wedding gift for Marie Antiquette, but instead it was stolen.
The seventeenth century was the era of baroque design. (The term baroque comes possibly from the Portuguese baroca for a misshapen pearl.) Color gemstones lost favor and next it was diamonds that commanded the jewelry industry.
Douglas S. LeGrand, GG
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