Having evolved from crude pieces made from shells and bone to extravagant works of craftsmanship and art, jewelry has held great significance to people since the dawn of man.
The jewelry that we wear and appreciate today is the result of many different advancements in styles and techniques that started before humans even existed.
Starting with the Prehistoric Era, let us look at the history of jewelry throughout the ages.
The oldest examples of jewelry that have been discovered predate humans, which means that Neanderthals created and wore jewelry. A stone bracelet that was carved from marble was found in the Russian region of Siberia back in 2008 and was scientifically determined to have been hidden in soil for upwards of 40,000 years.
Prehistoric jewelry has also been discovered in the caves of Cueva de los Aviones in southeastern Spain. The cave jewelry that was unearthed made use of perforated seashells in a similar fashion to how beads are used today. Scientists believe that the jewelry discovered in the Spanish cave could have been made as far back as 110,000 years ago.
After the Neanderthals, early modern humans made jewelry as well and they commonly used string and sinew to create pieces that were decorated with bone, teeth, and shells.
Jewelry making continued through the era known as “ancient history” and was a well-documented activity around the world in places like Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East.
Ancient Egypt’s jewelry culture is particularly worth noting as it is perhaps the earliest example of jewelry being used to symbolize power. The wealthiest Egyptians frequently wore gold jewelry and they were often buried with their jewelry, as they believed that the objects that they were buried with could be used and enjoyed in the next life.
In Greece, jewelers used ornamentation to make elaborate pieces of jewelry which depicted a wide variety of things such as flora and fauna and different Greek gods and goddesses. One interesting aspect of Greek jewelry culture was that pieces of jewelry were often seen as family heirlooms which were passed down from one generation to the next.
In Mesopotamia, a region that we now call the Middle East, almost all citizens wore some form of jewelry, with some of the more widely-worn pieces being ankle bracelets, earrings, pendants, and pieces that were worn in the hair. Although the region of Mesopotamia did not have vast resources of precious metals and gemstones, they sourced and imported these raw materials from as far away as India.
One of the most important breakthroughs in jewelry during this time came from the Varna civilization. The Varna people lived in modern-day Bulgaria, on the coast of the Black Sea. Scientists have concluded that the Varna were among the first civilizations in history to develop sophisticated goldsmithing techniques. This was concluded thanks to a 1972 archaeological dig that unearthed over 3000 gold artifacts that dated back to between 4,600 and 4,200 BC. The golden artifacts found in Bulgaria are said to be the oldest gold found on planet Earth.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages saw several interesting changes in the world of jewelry, mainly in the purpose that the pieces served and the materials from which the pieces were made. In addition to the traditional gold jewelry worn to signify status and wealth, people in the Middle Ages commonly used jewelry for more practical purposes with pieces that acted as fasteners, belt buckles, buttons, and fittings.
Silver was also widely used to make jewelry in this period as it was much easier to come by for jewelers in Europe than gold, as gold tended to be scarce with most golden pieces being made from recycled jewelry.
The practice of crafting jewelry was also utilized during this time by the Vikings, who largely worked with silver and began creating incredibly intricate designs that depicted things from nature, akin to early Greek jewelry.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the expansion of commerce and trading made it so that jewelry was much more plentiful and affordable to the average person. However, laws were passed in some societies that limited the type and amount of jewelry that commoners could wear. Royalty and nobility were permitted to wear gold and silver, while those who were not lucky enough to be born into royalty wore jewelry made mostly of base metals like copper and pewter.
The Renaissance Age
The Renaissance Age marked the beginning of a new era in art, which was also reflected in the popular styles of jewelry at the time. A good portion of Renaissance artists started their careers by learning techniques in goldsmith’s workshops, which helped them hone their artistic skills significantly. These close bonds formed between painters and jewelers/goldsmiths can be seen through the Renaissance Period’s many painted portraits which prominently feature spectacular depictions of the age’s jewelry.
One interesting facet about jewelry in the Renaissance Age is that it was often used as payment by the wealthy monarchs of Europe to fund their wars.
Unfortunately, there are not a great deal of surviving pieces from this age of jewelry as people commonly re-set their gemstones and jewelry from this era into newer designs.
The Romantic Age
The Romantic Age corresponded with the Industrial Revolution, which had a long-lasting impact on the jewelry industry. The Industrial Revolution improved economic conditions for many, which led to a middle class that could afford jewelry.
Advances in technology stemming from the Industrial Revolution were of great benefit to jewelers. Thanks to new technology, jewelers were able to utilize machines to help them cut and stamp their materials, drastically reducing the amount of time it took to make a piece of jewelry.
In addition to technological advances, the Romantic Age also oversaw the development of costume jewelry. Costume jewelry became quite popular during the Romantic age because it made use of cheaper metals and gem substitutes, making it significantly more affordable for the average person.
One noteworthy trend from Romantic Age jewelry is the popularity of pieces made in the classical styles of the Greeks and Romans. Despite being thousands of years removed from the two societies, goldsmiths used the ancient techniques of the Greeks and Romans to make jewelry imitating classical styles.
Common themes in jewelry from this time included depictions of nature such as flowers and fruits.
During the Romantic period, some of the most famous jewelry brands in the world were founded. These include the likes of Tiffany & Co. in the United States, Cartier in France, and Bulgari in Italy. Other notable pieces of jewelry from this period include Carl Fabergé’s famous eggs, which he created for the relatives of the Russian Tsars.
In the late 19th century, there was a growing movement in jewelry that was dubbed the “Arts and Crafts” movement. The Arts and Crafts movement went against the popular trends of the previous era, where most jewelry was made at least in part by machines. Arts and Crafts jewelry was hand-crafted by expert jewelers who provided one-of-a-kind creations.
Another famous movement in recent jewelry was the Art Deco movement, which took place during the 1920s and 1930s. The Art Deco movement was based on streamlined forms and basic shapes, and it incorporated the use of new materials for jewelry such as aluminum and various plastics. One hallmark of the Art Deco style is that it often utilized dense concentrations of gemstones.
In the late part of the 20th century, we saw a drastic shift where the wealthy and famous greatly favored pieces of jewelry that doubled as “wearable art”. This is perhaps the most noticeable in the extravagant chains and pendants worn as status symbols by musicians and athletes, which were colloquially referred to as “bling-bling” jewelry. Some of the more interesting pieces from this era of jewelry included bedazzled pendants of cartoon characters, clocks, and pieces that resembled photographs of the person wearing the jewelry.