From the ornate necklaces of ancient Egypt to the minimalist earrings of modern-day fashion, jewellery has played a significant role in human history. The history of jewellery is rich and fascinating, showcasing the creativity and ingenuity of countless cultures and civilizations throughout time. Whether used as a symbol of status, a means of adornment, or a form of currency, jewellery has been treasured and revered by people all over the world for centuries. In this blog, a two-part series, we’ll delve into the captivating history of jewellery, exploring its origins, evolution, and enduring significance.
Jewellery refers to objects that are used for personal adornment and are valued for the craftsmanship that goes into their creation, as well as for the materials they are made from, and has been worn by people for thousands of years. Materials used in the jewellery craft have varied throughout history and across cultures, ranging from simple items like shells and bones to precious metals, gemstones, pearls, and ceramics. Sometimes, the emphasis of jewellery-making is placed more on the aesthetic function of the materials rather than their intrinsic value.
In addition to its decorative function, jewellery has also been used historically to denote social rank and as a talisman to ward off evil and bring good luck – these titbits from the history of jewellery are as fascinating as they are strange. For instance, during the Middle Ages, a ruby ring was believed to bring its owner lands and titles, virtue, protection against seduction, and the prevention of effervescence in water, but only if worn on the left hand.
History of Jewellery from the Paleolithic to the Ancient Roman Period
Prior to 2015, the oldest known objects that were thought to have served a decorative purpose for the human body dated back to the middle Paleolithic period, around 110,000 years ago. These were drilled shell beads discovered in a cave in Morocco, although their exact function is unknown.
However, recent research by Davorka Radovcic, David Frayer, Ankica Oros Srsen, and Jakov Radovcic, suggest that the history of jewellery could have existed for an additional 20,000 years – they recently discovered a set of eagle talons that they believe were used for adornment by Neanderthals. Why is this so important? Well, eagle talons are a rare discovery in prehistoric European sites, and usually, only a single element is found. However, at the Krapina Neanderthal site, eight talons have been discovered, which is the only known instance of multiple talon findings. If not used for bodily adornment, at the very least, these talons indicate that this band of Neanderthals experienced sentimentality and perhaps understood the value of keepsakes.
Other discoveries from the middle and upper Paleolithic periods also indicate continued use of organic materials for body decoration, such as a polished pendant crafted from the finger bone of a bear cuscus and, more recently, 120,000-year-old shells strung on a necklace as beads.
Unfortunately, due to the organic nature of the materials used, we have limited knowledge about jewellery during this time period as weathering and decay have resulted in the destruction of most of these items over time. However, it is interesting to ponder what motivated the use of jewellery as an adornment during this ancient era.
History of Jewellery: Neolithic Period
As the Neolithic Period progressed, stoneworking techniques advanced to the point where certain stones could be drilled and chip carving of softer materials like bone, wood, and horn when the use of stone chisels became more sophisticated. The emergence of a vast exchange network during this time allowed for products that were abundant or unique to one locality to be traded among neighboring tribes, leading to a dispersion of desirable products over vast areas. This trade led to increased contact between different tribes and cultures, resulting in the spread of new techniques and innovations, making life easier due to the development of more useful tools and more efficient methods of farming, fishing, and hunting.
However, this increasing complexity also led to greater differentiation between people’s social statuses. With improved farming techniques, the population of tribes increased, leading to a growing amount of specialisation, and the emergence of more pronounced social differences. To distinguish oneself, wearing the biggest, most beautiful, and most unique pieces of jewellery became a way to express one’s status, in addition to serving as a decorative feature or amulet.
History of jewellery: Bronze and Iron Ages
During the Neolithic Period, societies were relatively simple and focused on agriculture, animal husbandry, and hunting and gathering. However, the advent of metalworking marked the transition to the Bronze Age, which saw a marked increase in long-distance trade, specialization, and social differentiation. This led to immense societal growth, the emergence of the first cities ruled by kings in Mesopotamia around 3000-2500BC, and the development of professions like full-time farmers and craftsmen.
Jewellery has played a significant role in Sumerian history, as the Sumerians were the first to use advanced techniques like filigree and granulation to create gold and silver jewellery in combination with precious stones. The Sumerian artisans utilised precious metals such as gold and silver in conjunction with gemstones such as agate, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. The jewellery made by the Sumerians encompassed a variety of items including earrings made from cut sheet gold, intricate gold chains and necklaces, and even finger rings adorned with inlaid stones.
Jewellery production techniques spread from Mesopotamia to present-day Turkey, Greece, and Crete. Jewellery also played an important role in ancient Egyptian culture, with the development of substitutes for precious stones like faience and glass beads. The Minoan civilization on Crete developed filigree, granulation, and repoussé techniques, which influenced mainland Greece’s jewellery making.
Northern Europe entered the Bronze Age around 2000 BC, with tribes in the region using tin, gold, and amber to trade with Mediterranean cultures. The Celtic culture, which encompassed a wide variety of cultures living in northern Europe, developed red enamel techniques in their jewellery making, both cloisonné and champlevé on bronze. Philostratus, 2nd century CE, describes a boar hunt at which the riders appear with horse trappings ornamented in bright colours, writes:
“It is said that the barbarians in the ocean [i.e., the Celtic tribes] pour these colours into bronze moulds, that the colours become as hard as stone, preserving the designs”.
The above photo is a late Iron Age bronze ‘Eared’ mount from a horse harness. The front face of the mount has champleve enamel decoration, the main elements of which are two opposed crescents of red enamel. Each crescent contains a la tene style scrolling foliate motif with terminals in the form of petals and three roundels inlaid with blue glass. There are four further areas of red enamel and two perforations of identical shape. The enamel inlay is complimented by finely engraved curvelinear decoration. On the reverse are a pair of rectangular loops for attachment to the straps. This style of decoration is seen on two other examples from South-East England, from London and from Ken.
Another noteworthy fact from this era in the history of jewellery is that the Celt goldsmiths also used repoussé: a technique where sheet metal is shaped using various types of chisel to push the metal from the inside out to make a decorative relief, as seen in the below torc (neck ring).
The Snettisham Great Torc is one of the most elaborate golden objects from the ancient world. It is made from an alloy of gold, silver and copper, and weighs over 1 kg. The neck-ring is made from 64 wires in eight separate coils. The ends are elaborately decorated with swirling motifs.
Phoenician traders established colonies around the Mediterranean from around 800 BC, connecting the traditions of Egypt and Mesopotamia with the ‘new’ civilizations in Greece and Italy. The Greeks perfected the art of glyptography, with intaglios and cameos becoming increasingly popular.
The Etruscans, who were influenced by Greek culture, perfected gold working techniques and used colored stones in their jewellery, with the Romans adopting the Etruscan style in their art and jewellery. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, new civilizations emerged, marking the end of the ancient world’s jewellery-making tradition.
Jewellery has a long and fascinating history that spans thousands of years and countless civilizations. From the earliest known examples of body adornment in the Paleolithic period to the intricate designs of the Sumerians and beyond, jewellery has been valued for its beauty, craftsmanship, and cultural significance. Throughout history, jewellery has served many purposes, including denoting social status, providing protection, and warding off evil spirits. The evolution of jewellery has mirrored the development of society itself, with advancements in metalworking and trade leading to the emergence of new techniques and styles. Despite the changing times, jewellery remains a cherished and timeless symbol of human creativity and artistry.