History of Jewelry

Some 75,000 years ago, in a Stone Age cave overlooking the ocean, someone collected shells and bored holes in them, producing the oldest known evidence that humans had fashioned an ornament. In 2004 discovery of a set of beads at Blombos cave on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast pushed back by some 30,000 years the first indications of the ability to make and use such symbolic materials, and provided well-dated evidence of human's using symbolic items. The 41 Blombos cave beads were made from the shells of a type of mollusk. Holes were bored in the shells, each less than a half-inch across. The beads show wear marks indicating rubbing against thread, string or fabric, the researchers say, and contain traces of red color, either from decoration or from rubbing against colored materials. They were found in groups of up to 17 beads.

Some researchers have argued that the ability to use symbolism did not arrive until later in human development, after people had migrated from Africa to the Middle East and Europe. The previously oldest known human ornaments are perforated teeth and eggshell beads from Bulgaria and Turkey, dated 41,000 to 43,000 years old, and 40,000 year old ostrich shell beads from Kenya.

Ancient Egypt

In ancient times, the Egyptians, who were familiar with most of the processes of ornamentating metal that are still practiced today, produced skillfully chased, engraved, soldered, repousse, and inlaid jewelry. They commonly worked in gold and silver inlaying with semiprecious stones such as carnelian, jasper, amethyst, and lapis lazuli. Their jewelry included diadems, necklaces, pectorals, bracelets, and rings. any Egyptians wore two bracelets, one on each arm, one on the wrist and one above the elbow. The most popular ornament was by far the signet ring, usually carved in the form of a scarab and engraved with the owner's emblem.

Babylonia and Assyria

Jewelry found in the Babylonian and Assyrian tombs in the 3rd and 2nd millennia B.C. includes headdresses, necklaces, earrings, and animal figurines in gold, sliver and precious stones.

The Phoenicians as international traders from approximately 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C. were active in carrying foreign jewelry from country to country. They also produced native work based largely on Egyptian and Assyrian forms. An example of their work is the sculptured bust known as the "Lady of Elche" that bears an elaborate diadem and three necklaces carrying urn shaped pendants.

Ancient Greece

The ancient pre-Greek jewelers from Crete and Troy produced earrings, bracelets, and necklaces of a common type that persisted from approximately 2500 B.C. to 500 B.C. Typical work consisted of thin coils and chains of linked and plaited wire and thin foil decorated in petals and rosettes. Free use was made of gold granulation, or the decorating of surfaces with microscopic grains of gold. Stamping and enameling were common, yet stone inlay was rare.

Archaic Greek jewelry and Etruscan and other Italian jewelry made in the period between 700 and 500 B.C. was almost entirely inspired by Egyptian and Assyrian examples imported by Phoenician merchants.

In the Greek classical period in the 5th and 4th centuries granulation disappeared, enamel reappeared, and filigree became important. The style was one of delicacy and refinement. Plaited necklaces bore flowers and tassels, and hoop earrings with filigree disks and rosettes became popular. At the same time an important innovation was the introduction of colored stones, especially garnets at the center of designs. This technique was further developed by the Romans who multiplied the variety of stones and set them in rows bordered with pearls. Cameos, rings and jewelry with fly embedded amber were popular with the Romans. Toward the end of the Roman Empire from the 3rd century on, necklaces and bracelets were formed of gold coins set in elaborate mountings of arcaded patterns.

The Byzantine Era

Byzantine jewelry was often worn in lavish profusion as can be seen in the 6th century portrait of Empress Theodora. The dress is encrusted with gold and gemstones, gold pendants are worn at the neck and shoulders and hang in festoons from the temples to the breast. Along with garments earrings, cross pendants, rings bearing Christian symbology were popular. Enamel work was developed to a high point in Byzantine culture and had a strong influence on European jewelry.

Ancient Rome

Throughout the Roman territories, even after the fall of the empire, common forms and techniques remained in general use. Gold filigree persisted, and the Roman fibula or safety pin was elaborated into complicated brooches. The most important development, adopted all over Europe from the 3rd to the 8th century was the use of garnet slices set into metal cells. Both Roman and Byzantine traditions fused in the work of the barbarian jewelers, who also introduced native variations. Among the distinct local styles developed from the 5th to the 11th centuries are the Ostrogothic, Visigothic, Frankish, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic. A remarkable example of the work in this period is the 7th century crown of Reccesvinthus, King of the Visigoths.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, beginning in the 12th century, the jeweler's art, which was at first dominated by the church patronage, became part of secular life with the foundation of town guilds. The most typical ornament was the brooch, which took the form of a ring with a pin held in place by the cloth through which it passed. By the 14th and 15th centuries jewelry became more and more an integral part of dress. It was attached to clothes and used to decorate belts and hairnets. A famous example of medieval jewelry is the 12th century Eagle Brooch.

The Renaissance

In the latter half of the 15th century during the Renaissance, jewelry received a new stimulus from the patronage of nobility. In Italy, especially, goldsmith jewelers worked not only communally as guild members, but independently, often in ducal households. The jewelry of the period is characterized by rich color and by designs strongly sculptural or architectural in character. Religious subjects, prevalent in medieval jewelry, were gradually replaced by classical or naturalistic themes. Typical of the period is the sculptural pendant in which irregular pearls, enameling, and colored gems were combined.