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(A Brief History of Jewelry)
Jewelry has been around nearly as long as human beings. The ability to trace the history of jewelry is due primarily to the custom, beginning with the earliest peoples, of burying the dead with their most valuable possessions. As far back as the Old Stone Age, people made and wore jewelry. Using their primitive tools, they fashioned necklaces of bones, animal teeth, pebbles, feathers, shells and leather. Although some were probably worn as adornments, others may have been worn to ward off dangers, evil spirits or sickness. Jewelry made of gold and silver is believed to have made its first appearance with the ancient Egyptians. Gold was used because of its warm, glowing color and its ease to work, being relatively soft and pliable.
The Egyptians were among the first to use precious stones in their jewelry using turquoise and lapis lazuli. Many tomb paintings show Egyptians wearing bracelets, brooches, headdresses, pendants and rings made of gold, silver and precious gemstones. Ancient Greek jewelry is noted for its elegance and grace. Many designs were used, but their specialty were adornments made from gold filigree of wire openwork in the naturalistic shapes of flowers, leaves and animals. Likewise, the Romans loved jewelry. As a means to show social status and wealth, rings made of gold, jet, and other materials were worn by both sexes. Sometimes many rings were worn on the same finger just as many people do today.
During the Middle Ages, styles and income levels rather discouraged the wearing of most jewelry. Brooches, however, became an important part of the wardrobe since they were practical in holding up tunics and cloaks. During this period rings were commonly worn by every social class. Rings were made of iron, copper, silver or gold with the metal often denoting the wearer's social standing.
During the Renaissance period more skin was shown with the new fashions and consequently more jewelry was worn. It was during this period that jewelry making truly became an art. Many Italian sculptors trained as goldsmiths and created stunning ornaments. Necklaces began to appear in large numbers and were worn by both sexes. Men's necklaces tended to be more like chains, while women's were more complicated with twists and beads added. It was the Elizabethan era where pearls became the rage. Earrings made their first appearance in Europe, where the most common were single pearl drops worn with a simple matching pearl choker.
The Georgian period of jewelry production began during the years when Great Britain was ruled by the four Georges, thus the name. The Georgian period encompassed most of the eighteenth century and into the first part of the nineteenth, through the American and French revolutions, and the development of a distinctive British identity after the Napoleonic Wars. Jewelry of the period was entirely handmade and consequently quite individualistic. Both men and women wore heavy, richly-jeweled chains, rings, shoe buckles, and hair ornaments, buttons and brooches. Gemstones were sewn onto clothing in an ostentatious display of wealth. Jewelry settings were designed to display the color and sparkle of the gemstones, particularly diamonds. The primary theme of the period was inspired by nature, including flowers, leafs, insects, birds and feathers.
The art of jewelry-making was refined during the Victorian period in Europe, and exquisite pieces such as lockets and cameos made their first appearance. Jewelry was being worn by nearly everyone by the middle of the nineteenth century. But, instead of being individually crafted, quality pieces could be stamped out and molded. Rather than unique pieces, jewelry could be created to a standard that was able to be duplicated. The new affordability brought quality jewelry to the middle-class consumer for the first time. Platinum came onto the jewelry scene at the end of the 20th century. During the early 20th century, industrialization, increasing job opportunities and rising family incomes brought jewelry within reach of the middle class. Large scale firms, created by jewelers such as Carl Faberge and Louis Tiffany achieved great success and amassed great wealth by making fine pieces for the newly wealthy.
The Roaring Twenties has been portrayed as a decadent era: the time of prohibition, gangsters, speakeasies and the Charleston. Women won the right to vote in 1920, and they asserted their new equality with radical fashion changes. Long dangling earrings, long strands of pearls or beads, diamond watches cocktail rings, and multiple bracelets on both upper and lower arms became rage. Platinum and precious stones, particularly diamonds, were wildly popular during this Art Deco period.
The Thirties were a decade of economic depression, both in the U.S. and Europe, and the Forties brought World War II. It was in the 1940's that flamboyant curves and bows in large pieces of jewelry became known as Retro Modern. Yellow gold regained prominence during these years, since wartime restrictions made platinum unavailable to the industry. Semi-precious stones and man-made rubies and sapphires became more popular due to the high wartime luxury taxes. Cocktail rings, bracelets, watches and necklaces were massive. Many of today's consumers would consider this style to be quite gaudy and flashy.
Platinum made an enormous comeback in the early 1990's and such pieces as the tennis bracelet and the diamond solitaire pendant made their first appearance at this time. Men began to wear bracelets, necklaces and even earrings in larger numbers as the Twentieth century drew to a close.
Today, jewelry is increasingly worn by both men and women. From bracelets and toe rings, to necklaces and tongue studs, jewelry continues to be a popular adornment for the human race and most body parts have been pierced to allow for the wearing of such.
About the Author:
Larry Denton is a retired history teacher having taught 33 years at Hobson High School in Hobson, Montana. He is currently Vice President of Elfin Enterprises, Inc., an Internet business dedicated to providing valuable and accurate information and resources on a variety of topics.