Authentic jewelry from antiquity is very rare and valuable. Many of these jewels reside in museums and state collections. If a quality antique piece does appear on the market, it demands high prices, especially if it features large gemstones or has an unusual history.
The history of jewelry design begins with some of the most advanced ancient civilizations, and we will follow their developments in order:
Ancient Jewelry from the Near East
The art of jewelry making—beyond the primitive use of items such as beads and shells—has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia some 4,000 years ago. Jewelry in ancient Mesopotamia was made to adorn the human body as well as statues of the gods. Although jewels were usually made from thin gold leaf, a variety of sophisticated metalworking techniques–such as cloisonné, engraving, granulation and filigree–were also used.
Jewelry was frequently set with large numbers of colored stones including agate, jasper, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. Typical motifs included cones and spirals, leaves and grapes. In a 20th century discovery heralded as the greatest find since the Tomb of King Tutankhamen, hundreds of burial sites were excavated near the ancient mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
A small group of the burial sites, dating from the 3rd millennium B.C. and containing valuable artifacts, are now known as the Royal Tombs of Ur. Among these, the tomb of the Sumerian Queen Puabi (or Shubad) created the greatest excitement. Not only was her body covered with a robe made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, and chalcedony, but she also wore a headdress, earrings, bracelets, and many rings made of gold.
Sumerian men as well as women were fond of jewelry. They wore bracelets, earrings, gold pectoral ornaments, rings, and necklaces. The Sumerian’s jewelry making techniques and design repertoire were inherited by the Babylonians and Assyrians, as well as the Scythians to the north, and the Hittites to the west.
During the 7th century B.C. the Assyrians created the first truly multicultural empire, which spanned from Egypt to the Persian Gulf and north into Turkey. The Assyrians built the first library, planned large cities, and developed aqueducts and paved roads–laying the foundations for the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Parthian empires to follow. In addition to these accomplishments, Assyrian jewelry was quite advanced. The men and women of ancient Assyria wore significant amounts of jewelry, including amulets, ankle bracelets, heavy multi-strand necklaces, and cylinder seals.
Excavations at the ancient city of Nimrud have yielded the remains of royal tombs containing a rich horde of artifacts. The tombs, which date from the 8th century B.C., contained more than 50 pounds of gold and semiprecious stones. A sealed sarcophagus found in one of the tombs contained the body of a woman wearing a collection of exquisite jewelry. Another sarcophagus contained the remains of two queen consorts buried together, both wrapped in embroidered linen and covered with jewels–including a crown, a mesh diadem, 79 earrings, 30 rings, 14 armlets, 4 anklets, 15 vessels, and many chains.
The Scythians were nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe who produced particularly fine art and jewelry from the 7th to the 3rd centuries B.C. As the Scythians came in contact with the Greeks, the art and jewelry of both cultures were mutually influenced. The Scythians had a taste for elaborate personal jewelry, ornamental weaponry, and horse-trappings.
Scythian gold jewelry is highly valued by museums and many of the most valuable artifacts can be found in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Scythian metalworking techniques included casting, engraving, gilding, inlaying, and stone setting. The images of fantastic animals–including griffins, sphinxes, and winged animals with human heads–has come to be known as the “Scythian animalistic” style.
Ancient Egyptian Jewelry and its Modern Revival
The Egyptian peoples were heavily influenced by the jewelry craftsmanship of the Sumerians. They applied Sumerian jewelry making techniques to create their own distinctive style, one that remains popular today. Egyptian jewelry is instantly recognizable because ancient motifs such as the ankh, kheper (scarab), and the eye of Horus are still widely used.
Egyptian jewelry was not exclusively ornamental. It was also valued for its religious symbolism, magical qualities, and healing properties. The kheper (scarab), the symbol of creation and reincarnation, was particularly popular, whether worn as a ring or as a pendant. Images of the gods were thought to give the wearer some of the deity’s powers and attributes.
Jewelry was extremely popular in ancient Egypt; the amount of jewelry worn by an individual indicated their social standing. Jewelry styles among the aristocracy included rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and anklets. Wealthy members of society were buried in their jewelry so they would be able to wear their finest in the afterlife.
Gold was central to early Egyptian aristocratic jewelry, but the lower classes were unable to afford the precious metal. For the common ancient Egyptian, bracelets and rings were made from the plants that grew along the banks of the Nile. Other simple jewelry items were made of bone or pottery. It was not until the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (1991–1783 B.C.), that gemstone jewelry gained prominence. Part of the reason for the delay in incorporating gemstones into jewelry was due to the fact that the early Egyptians lacked the means to work with the stones.
Gemstones were exceptionally prized because they were thought to house powerful genies that had been turned into stone. The Egyptians used beads of emerald, carnelian, agate, lapis lazuli, and amethyst in necklaces to protect the wearer from all manner of evil. Jeweled collars , such as the one depicted on the famous bust of Nefertiti (c. 1370-1330 B.C.), were very popular.
Emeralds were a very popular gemstone in ancient Egypt. They were mined in the region and green was considered to be a sacred color associated with the fertility of the land. In the earliest times, only the pharaohs were allowed to wear emeralds; they were known to be Cleopatra’s favorite gemstone. Some emeralds were set in rings, which were worn on the tips of the finger as opposed to the base. Egyptian kings were also buried with an emerald, a symbol of eternal life. A fine emerald necklace from the 14th century B.C. was reportedly found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
More than one Arab historian of the 9th century indicated that the mummy of Cheops (also known as Khufu, who reigned from 2589-2566 B.C.) was found buried with a large pectoral necklace and a precious gemstone, which may have been a ruby or garnet. According to Ebub Abd el-Holem:
“One saw beneath the summit of the pyramid a chamber with a hollow prison, in which was a statue of stone enclosing the body of a man, who had on the breast a pectoral of gold enriched by fine stones, and a sword of inestimable price, on the head a carbuncle [ruby or garnet] the size of an egg, brilliant as the sun, on which were characters no man could read.”
Egyptian motifs were used extensively in revival jewelry of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The spectacular horde unearthed from Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 provided inspiration to Art Deco designers who enthusiastically embraced Egyptian themes and motifs and enhanced them with a liberal use of colored gemstones.
The Role of the Seafaring Phoenicians
Phoenicia was an ancient civilization centered along the coastal regions of modern day Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. The Phoenicians were first and foremost entrepreneurs; they ran a major trade network in the Mediterranean region from 1550 to 300 B.C. During the 9th to 6th centuries B.C., the Phoenicians established both colonies and trade centers throughout the Mediterranean, from Cyprus in the east, to North Africa and Spain in the west. They grew rich trading precious metals, wine, olive oil, glass, slaves, and lumber. The Phoenicians also exported their alphabet, which became the ancestor of all modern alphabets due to its widespread use.
Through their extensive trade network, the Phoenicians traded with the Greeks, Egyptians, and Assyrians among others. The word “Phoenician” comes from the Greek word phoinikèia, meaning purple, because one of the Phoenician’s primary trade items was a purple fabric dye used by the Greek aristocracy.
Eclecticism is the key element of Phoenician art. The Phoenician culture is not known for creating original forms of art and jewelry, but it is credited with creating unusual combinations and modifications of motifs and designs from the multiple cultures with which it had contact.
Nevertheless, the Phoenicians are responsible for inventing the art of gold granulation, a technique in which small gold beads are fused onto a background. Although the Etruscans later perfected the technique, the Phoenicians invented the process and disseminated it around the world.
The Phoenicians also created new fashions for the wearing of jewelry, which they wore in great quantities. Phoenician women wore golden earrings with drop-shaped pendants along the rims of their ears. They also draped their necks with numerous necklaces and wore rings on the joints of nearly every finger.
As cultural middlemen, the Phoenicians disseminated jewelry traditions, motifs, and techniques to their trade partners throughout the Aegean. These gifts, along with many other intellectual ideas and pursuits, helped to launch a cultural revival in Greece, one which led to the “Golden Age” of Greece and the birth of Western civilization.
Classical Style and the Jewelry of Ancient Greece
Greece has a long history of decorative arts, which spans some 5000 years. The Minoan civilization, which was centered on the island of Crete, flourished between 2700-1450 B.C., after which it was supplanted by the Mycenaeans. The Minoans were known to wear gold jewelry in the form of pendants, rings, and earrings decorated with designs of animal figures.
Mycenaean Greece lasted from about 1600-1100 B.C. Although they adopted many of the designs and motifs of the Minoans, the Mycenaeans preferred abstract patterns and stylized designs. Common jewelry making techniques of the period included repoussé, filigree, enameling , and the use of gemstones and colored glass.
After a brief period known as the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1100-800 B.C.) comes the seminal period of Greek history known as the “Ancient” or “Classical” Greek period. It is during this time that the foundations of Western Civilization were developed. Although there are no fixed or universally agreed upon dates for the beginning or the end of the Ancient/Classical Greek period, traditionally, the period is considered to begin with the date of the first Olympic Games (776 B.C.) and to end with Roman domination (146 B.C.).
The art of Ancient Greece is usually divided into four periods–the Geometric, Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods–although there is no sharp transition from one period to another. However, it was during the Classical and Hellenistic Periods–from the 5th to the 2nd centuries B.C.—that Grecian jewelry achieved its highest pinnacle. The art of these periods is dominated by an intense interest in nature, which is often represented with a high level of realism.
Jewelry was made to look like natural objects and frequently featured birds, flowers, leaves, and animals as well as images of the gods including Aphrodite, Hermes, Perseus, Athena, Eros, and Nike. During this period, jewelry frequently featured filigree work and enameling. Gemstones were well known in Classical Greece and, like the Egyptians before them, the Greeks attributed talismanic and medicinal powers to them.
Men and women wore diadems and decorative headdresses embossed with gold and inlaid with gemstones. Earrings took on new shapes, which included anchors, grapes, pyramids, rams heads, and flowers. Jewelry was worn in great abundance although not everyone approved of conspicuous consumption. Evidently the Greek philosopher Plato disapproved of his student Aristotle’s tendency to adorn his hands with an excessive number of rings.
The ancient Greeks had a profound influence on the art, politics, and culture of many other civilizations throughout history. Not only did the Roman Empire assimilate many aspects of Greek culture, but Greek art and ideas also drove the Renaissance in Western Europe and neo-classical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today when we appreciate “Classical Art” or “ Classical Style ,” we are appreciating the cultural and artistic legacy given to us by the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
Etruscan and Roman Jewelry and Their Modern Revivals
Antiquities from Italy are exceedingly rare, but we do know that classical artisans were exceptional metalsmiths. By 600 B.C., Phoenician jewelry had permeated the culture of the Etruscans, a people who occupied northern and central Italy before the rise of the Roman Empire. The Etruscans spoke a language unrelated to either Latin or Greek, and they ruled Northern Italy from 616-509 B.C. With regard to their jewelry, the Etruscans elaborated on Phoenician, Greek, and Egyptian styles and techniques, and they are credited with perfecting granulation, the technique of fusing tiny gold beads onto a metal background.
The Etruscan style has been incorporated into many 19th and 20th century jewelry pieces. The Etruscans and Romans assimilated many aspects of Greek culture. Their art was naturalistic and figurative. Jewelry was made to look like natural objects and frequently featured flowers, leaves, and animals as well as images of the gods. As in ancient Egypt, the Romans valued gemstones for their healing and talismanic powers, as well as their beauty. Roman jewelry is characterized by the extensive use of engraved seals and gemstones including amethyst, agate, amber, pearls, sapphires, diamonds, jet, and emeralds.
In ancient Rome, children were protected by an amulet called a bulla. A bulla was worn around the neck and made of different materials depending upon the wealth of the family. Commoners frequently wore bullae of leather, but aristocrats had bullae of gold or silver. A girl would wear her bulla until the eve of her marriage, and boys wore them until they became Roman citizens. A boy’s bulla was carefully saved, however, and worn on special occasions when, as a man, he might require divine protection.
Given the Romans’ penchant for statesmanship, it is not surprising that laws were enacted to determine who was entitled to wear certain items of jewelry. The Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C.-37 A.D.) required that freed slaves be property owners before they could wear gold finger rings. Emperor Severus extended the right to wear gold finger rings–first to Roman soldiers and then to all free citizens. Legislation dictated that silver rings were appropriate for freedmen, and iron rings for slaves.
Although Roman men wore some jewelry pieces like rings or fibulae (brooches), Roman women wore a profusion of necklaces, rings, and other items. Lollia Paulina, the third wife of the Roman Emperor Caligula (12-41 A.D.), was remembered by Pliny for her ostentation, extravagance, and vanity. Pliny indicates that she arrived at a party bedecked with “alternating emeralds and pearls, which glittered all over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers.”
Hoop earrings are thought to be an invention of the Romans, with the first examples appearing around the 3rd century B.C. Roman bracelets were often fashioned into coiling snakes, the symbol of immortality. New jewelry techniques were also developed by Roman metalsmiths. Opus interrasile, a technique for perforating solid sheets of metal to create an open lattice-like design, became popular in the 2nd and 3rd century A.D.
The Romans also invented niello, a method of decorating metals with a black enamel made of silver and copper. There was renewed interest in classical themes and motifs during the Renaissance and the neoclassical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. More recently, increasing demand for classically inspired jewelry has spurred the production of contemporary granulation-based mountings, and modern goldsmiths are happily rediscovering this ancient art.
The Decorative Legacy of the Celts
The Celts were a diverse group of tribes from Iron Age Europe. By the later Iron Age (c. 3rd century B.C.), Celtic culture had expanded over a wide area — westward to Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, east into central Anatolia (Galatia), and north into Scotland. As a result of this great expansion, Celtic culture influenced and was influenced by the Etruscans, Greeks and Scythians. Later however, during the first several centuries A.D., Celtic culture was gradually restricted to the British Isles.
Celtic art is difficult to define precisely because it covers such a large extent of time, geography, and culture. Celtic art is typically ornamental and abstract, exhibiting a preference for arabesque shapes and lines and spare use of symmetry. The Celtic style is also built around patterns that suggest ropes, knots, and various complex braids, which have come to be known as “Celtic knots.” Animal motifs were imaginatively rendered and originally held magical symbolism.
When ancient Greek and Roman texts refer to the Celts, they described cultures known to them as keltoi (“Celts”) and galli (“Gauls”). They were known for their distinctive dress—long sleeved shirts or tunics and long trousers—and for their fine jewelry, which included fibulae (brooches), bracelets, rings, armlets, and torcs.
A torc (also spelled torq or torque) is a circular necklace that is open at the front. The word comes from the Latin torqueo meaning “twist” because most torcs were made from intertwined and twisted metal strands of gold, bronze, and silver. The open ends of ancient torcs were usually embellished with spheres or animal heads. Torcs were not only worn as necklaces; smaller versions were made into bracelets.
The Celts were not the only culture to wear torcs, the Scythians, for example, favored them as well. In Celtic culture, however, a torc was a sign of nobility and status worn by both men and women. They were also awarded to warriors who distinguished themselves on the battlefield. Many of the Celtic gods are depicted wearing torcs.
Experts generally agree that Celtic art reached its apex in the early Middle Ages in Ireland and parts of Britain, when it is also referred to as “Insular art.” Most Insular art is related to the Celtic church, which used pagan designs and motifs (e.g., mythical animals and the Celtic knot) in Christian monuments and manuscripts such as the 8th century Book of Kells.
The legacy of Celtic art lives on today. Not only did it greatly influence European medieval art and jewelry, but it also formed the basis for the Celtic revivals of the late 18th and 19th centuries. While ancient Celtic jewelry was primarily made of gold, today’s designs are worked in a number of precious metals and incorporate colorful gemstones as well. In terms of jewelry fashion, torcs became popular once again in the 1960s and 70s, when they were worn not only as necklaces and bracelets, but also as rings.
Jewels of the Byzantine Empire
In 330 A.D. Constantine I, the first Christian Roman Emperor, moved the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, the site of present day Istanbul. This relocation was due to the fact that Rome was beset with continual economic problems, civil war, and barbarian invasions.
In 395 A.D., the Roman Empire was permanently split into two halves. The Eastern Roman Empire, called Byzantium by historians, survived the fall of its Western counterpart and waxed and waned in size over time. It finally fell to the Ottomans in 1543. During the more than one thousand years of its ascendancy, the Byzantine Empire served as a locus of Christianity and one of the key trade centers of the world. It preserved much of the literature and science of ancient Greece and Rome, and its laws, political system, and customs were exported to Medieval Europe and the Middle East.
In Byzantine art and jewelry, the classical style of the Romans is blended with elements from the Near East. The Byzantine Empire was awash in gold. The Emperor Anastasius, for example, was reported to have bequeathed a personal fortune of more than 320,000 pounds of gold in 518 A.D. Needless to say, this gave Byzantine goldsmiths ample material to work with.
The most common techniques for jewelry included filigree and enameling, and many creations were studded with gemstones and pearls. The jewelry of the period frequently incorporates Christian themes and motifs, and is primarily associated with clothing–taking the form of brooches, belt buckles, clasps, and buttons.
Byzantine-style jewelry is very popular today. This reflects modern tastes for colorful gemstones and thick, ornately detailed mountings. Linked chain with a complex rope-like texture is known today as “Byzantine chain” because its antecedents came from the Byzantine Empire. Another common form of jewelry, the crescent-shaped earring, was also created by Byzantine goldsmiths.
Varied Styles of the European Middle Ages
As mentioned earlier, in 330 A.D. emperor Constantine I moved the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, the site of present day Istanbul. This relocation was due to the fact that Rome was beset with continual economic problems, civil war, and barbarian invasions. In 395, the Roman Empire was permanently split into two halves, and although the Eastern half faired well, the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D., finally overcome by the “barbarian hordes.”
The “barbarians” as they are collectively called, were separate groups of semi-nomadic tribes that controlled various parts of Europe from approximately 400 to 800 A.D. Despite this appellation, the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Lombards and Anglo-Saxons were not at all uncivilized, and their jewelry and art provide ample evidence of this fact.
Most “barbarian” jewelry is practical in nature. It is frequently associated with clothing, and represented by fibulae , shoulder-clasps, belt buckles, and cloak pins. However, necklaces, and earrings have also been found. Goldsmiths worked in a number of different techniques, including repoussé, filigree, granulation, and enameling .
In 751, the rulers of the Franks, the Merovingians, were displaced by the Carolingians. The greatest of all Carolingian monarchs was Charlemagne, who was crowned in 800. Charlemagne’s empire, ostensibly a continuation of the Roman Empire, is referred to as the Carolingian Empire. And Charlemagne himself is known alternatively as the father of France, Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire.
Charlemagne’s rule is also associated with the Carolingian Renaissance e, a revival of art, religion, and culture through the medium of the Catholic Church. With rare exceptions, during this period the services of goldsmiths were monopolized by the Church, and little jewelry was worn. The jewelry we do have from this period, mainly brooches and rings, shows a complete dedication to color in the form of rich enamels and a profusion of colored gemstones. Stylistically, the pieces are a mix of the Barbaric and Classical styles.
Gemstones were widely believed to have curative or talismanic powers. To Charlemagne and his contemporaries, sapphires symbolized heaven and the promise of eternal salvation. Charlemagne owned a sacred amulet in which a relic of the True Cross was placed between two sapphires.
Romanesque art refers to the art and architecture of Western Europe from approximately 1000 A.D. to the rise of the Gothic style in the 13th century. During the Romanesque period, Europe became more prosperous, and art and jewelry were no longer confined to court and monastic circles as they had been in the Carolingian period.
Romanesque jewelry and art built on the Carolingian style, but also incorporated Byzantine influences. During this period, the crusaders brought jewelry and jewelry designs back to Europe from both Africa and the Middle East.
The Late Middle Ages is associated with numerous calamities and upheavals including serious famines, the Black Death, and endemic warfare. It was also a time when the Catholic Church was increasingly divided against itself. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Gothic era, there appears to have been an increase in jewelry production and consumption.
It was also during this period that the gem and jewelry industry became increasingly regulated through a variety of laws and regulations. People were beginning to experiment with different kinds of clothing, and the ideas of “fashion” and “tailoring” were beginning to emerge.
In 1331, an edict was passed in Paris against the use of paste gems. In 1355, jewelers were forbidden to put tinted foil under gemstones to improve their color. Although regulatory laws mandated that precious gems be reserved for the clergy or aristocracy, the use of jewelry and the amount worn increases throughout the period.
In 1363, Edward III of England decreed that craftsmen, yeomen, their wives, and their children were not permitted to wear articles of gold or silver. Knights were not allowed to wear rings or brooches made of gold or set with precious stones. Only merchants, owners of land, and their families were allowed to wear clothes and headdresses adorned with silver and precious stones.
Court jewelry, crowns, hats, and other head ornaments were encrusted with fine stones, including emeralds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, and diamonds. Men wore jewel-encrusted clothes, necklaces, and belts. In the late 14th century women’s hair was padded over the ears and held in place with heavily jeweled gold hairnets. Jeweled reliquaries were worn around the neck and a variety of brooches and badges were worn on dresses with low necklines that were embroidered with silk and sewn with jewels.
The Elaborate Jewels of the European Renaissance
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the general period known as the Renaissance, the European population embraced elegance in both clothes and jewelry. Garment design throughout the period changed radically, due to a new interest in tailoring and fashion. A new middle class, with desires for self-adornment, also emerged.
In a continuation of the style of the 14th century, women’s headdresses in the early Renaissance were completed with elaborate hairnets studded with jewels and pearls. Headdress fashions during the remainder of the Renaissance changed considerably, and had regional variants—the one constant being the continual use of jewels.
Although Henry VIII wore as many jewels as his many wives, it is safe to say, that by the end of the Renaissance, women’s apparel and jewelry became far more elaborate than men’s—although many men still wore heavily embroidered clothes. During the Renaissance, metalsmithing and stone cutting in Europe made great strides. New means were found to cut diamonds and intaglio -cut gemstones of all varieties were very popular.
In this age of exploration and conquest, new gemstones were being discovered and they quickly found their way into the elaborate jewelry of the period. A fascinating example of this new focus on exotic gems is provided by the “Cheapside Hoard,” a jeweler’s stock, which was hidden in London sometime during the 17th century and not found again until 1912. The Hoard contained emeralds from Colombia, amazonite from Brazil, chrysoberyl from Sri Lanka, ruby from India, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, turquoise from Persia, peridot from Egypt, as well as opal, garnet, and amethyst from Bohemia and Hungary.
Famed artists such as Benvenuto Cellini, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Hans Collaert, worked with goldsmiths to produce elaborate confections made from enamel, gemstones, baroque pearls, and precious metals. To satisfy the needs of those with lesser means, gem and jewelry simulants and substitutes were also produced in great abundance.
Jewelry with Christian motifs continued to be worn through the European Renaissance, but the classical styling of Greek and Roman jewelry also began to reemerge. Renaissance jewelry borrowed heavily from classical motifs found in sculpture; and a whole series of themes, including nymphs, seahorses, birds, ships, acanthus leaves, centaurs, griffins, satyrs, were incorporated into jewelry pieces.
Elaborate pendants gradually overtook the popularity of the traditional brooch for women’s jewelry during the Renaissance. However, throughout the period, men frequently decorated their headpieces with brooches, known as hat badges or hatpins. Necklaces and belts of gold chains were worn in multiples by both men and women. Earrings and bracelets were not as prominent in this period as they had been in others, although they were occasionally worn by both sexes. However, rings were especially prized, and came in a profusion of new forms and designs.
During the Renaissance vast quantities of gold, silver, and emeralds began to flow into Europe from the New World. The conquistadors scoured the New World for emeralds and other plunder, fueled in part by fabulous legends of great wealth. Joseph d’Acosta wrote that the ship that returned him to Spain in 1587 carried at least two hundred pounds of emeralds.
Initially, emeralds from the New World were worn exclusively by members of the Spanish royalty. The fashion in Castile in the 16th century was for dark clothes with white lace collars or ruffs so tall that only the face and hands were exposed.
Emerald jewelry helped to brighten the drab attire. By the end of the 16th century, this style had spread to nearly all the European courts, as did the craving for emeralds.
In England, the height of the English Renaissance is known as the Elizabethan Era, a period associated with Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603). A golden age in English history, it is associated with the flowering of poetry and literature.
And, like elsewhere in Europe, it was also a time of high fashion and elaborate jewelry. The Queen herself was known for extravagant jewels and her clothes were made of fabrics studded with gemstones.
Gemology and Jewelry of the Indian Subcontinent
There is ample evidence that the cultures of the Indian subcontinent studied gems for millennia. Ancient texts contain references for the use of gemstones in ceremonies and everyday life. The Manasara, a 5,000 year-old architectural manual, shows that Indian architects used gemstones to decorate and protect the palaces of kings. The Vedas, the oldest Indian scriptures, contain many references to the origin and use of gems. According to one tale from the Puranas, gemstones originated when a demon named Vala destroyed himself.
Sacred Hindu texts reveal that gifting precious metals and gemstones to the gods insured good fortune. The Rig Veda states that “by giving gold, the giver receives a life of light and glory.” In a similar vein, another text, called the Haiti Smriti, reveals that:
“Coral in worship will subdue all the three worlds. He who worships Krishna with rubies will be reborn as a powerful emperor; if with a small ruby, he will be born a king. Offering emeralds will produce Gyana or Knowledge of the Soul and of the Eternal. If he worships with a diamond, even the impossible, or Nirvana, that is Eternal Life in the highest Heaven, will be secured.”
The Vedas also describe the powers of precious gemstones to influence subtle energies and connect the earth to the rest of the universe. In India, gemstones have a longstanding association with astrology; they are thought to retain the astral influences of the planets and stars longer than any other substance. For this reason, according to Kuntz (1913), “The influence over human fortunes ascribed by astrology to the heavenly bodies is conceived to be strengthened by wearing the gem appropriate to certain planets or signs, for a subtle emanation has passed into the stone and radiates from it.”
In customs that carry to the present day, gemstones are used in India to influence destiny and to heal the sick. To have an effect, they are usually worn on the body as amulets. Of all Indian amulets, the Navaratna (sometimes called a Naoratna) is probably the most famous. They are commonly worn today. The Navaratna, which means “nine gems,” is an amulet set with a single emerald, ruby, diamond, pearl, blue sapphire, topaz (or yellow sapphire), cat’s eye, coral, and zircon (or hessonite).
Each of these gems is associated with a celestial planet or deity, and all of the gems are said to influence the destiny of the wearer in either a positive or negative way. In the past, no Maharaja was ever without a Navaratna or an astrologer to advise him on how to use his gems for maximum personal benefit.
The Manusmriti is an ancient work of Hindu law which dates to about the 1st century A.D. In George Bühler’s translation (Laws of Manu, Sacred Books of the East, Volume 25), there are several items pertaining to the care and use of gems:
Cleaning of gems: Chapter 5: 111.
“The wise ordain that all (objects) made of metal, gems, and anything made of stone are to be cleansed with ashes, earth, and water.”
Punishment for stealing gems: Chapter 8: 323.
“For stealing men of noble family and especially women and the most precious gems, (the offender) deserves corporal (or capital) punishment.”
Fines for improperly cutting gems: Chapter 9: 286.
“For adulterating unadulterated commodities, and for breaking gems or for improperly boring (them), the fine is the first (or lowest) amercement.”
One of the most famous Indian works on gemology is S.M. Tagore’s “Mani-Mala” or “Treatise on Gems.” Although it was written at the end of the 19th century, it drew heavily on the Puranas, which were written and compiled from 400 to 1000 A.D. In this work, the properties of the different gemstones are described as well as their healing and magical qualities.
Although indigenous Indian kingdoms had strong jewelry traditions, ironically, the best recognized and most collectible of all antique Indian jewelry was developed by foreign conquerors called the Mughals. During the Mughal period, from 1504 to 1707, the Muslim imperial courts that dominated northern India were awash in opulent personal ornaments. Mughal jewelry mixes colored stones and diamonds in elaborate, abstract patterns.
Mughal patrons favored the colors red, green, and white, so rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls were the predominant gems. In many cases, precious stones were accompanied by intricate and colorful enamel work. Complex gold settings were worked in a uniquely Indian style called the kundan technique.
During the Mughal period, men wore as much jewelry as women. Mughal jewels included rings, necklaces, and earrings, as well as elaborate bejeweled sword hilts, scabbards, aigrettes, brow pendants, anklets, and nose ornaments. Even furniture and the interiors of palaces were adorned with precious gems. The great production center for Mughal jewelry was the beautiful “Pink City” of Jaïpur in Rajasthan, which even now remains a major hub for Indian jewelry manufacturing.
Authentic Mughal jewelry is rare and extremely valuable. When it does enter the market, it is typically sold through a major auction house. A great deal of modern Indian jewelry is made to imitate the Mughal style, which has grown in popularity outside of India as well. India has a thriving indigenous jewelry market, and a large percentage of a family’s accumulated wealth is sequestered in the gold ornaments of the women.
17th Century Baroque Jewels
In the arts, the Baroque period began around the beginning of the 17th century in Italy. However, it is perhaps best exemplified by the elegance of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. The period is known for the drama and grandeur–some would say excess–of its sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music.
In the fashion of the period, women replaced the stiff dress and abundant ornaments that had characterized the Renaissance style with softer draperies and simpler jewels. The ruff was replaced by broad lace or linen collars early in the period. Men’s fashions began the period with flamboyant, often military styles, which were replaced by more sober garments toward the end of the period.
Baroque jewelry almost exclusively uses faceted gemstones, floral themes, and ribbons created in highly symmetrical designs. Diamonds were increasingly popular, in part due to improved techniques and equipment for cutting them, and because of discoveries of new deposits in South America.
Fashioned gemstones became the primary focus of most jewels. Both coral and pearls were also extremely popular. Bejeweled medallions and enameled portraits worn as brooches and lockets were frequently seen. Bracelets and earrings were highly fashionable and watches proliferated as they became more reliable as timepieces.
Although the jewelry of the Baroque period was highly ornate, in general, less of it was worn by both sexes, especially men. Men wore elaborate buckles on shoes, at the waist, and to fasten bands of velvet or embroidered cloth around the neck and the wrists. Gold belts were still in vogue and at times they were worn slung over one shoulder and across the chest. Little jewelry from this period survives because the valuable gemstones were often reused in the jewels of subsequent eras.
18th Century Opulence
French influence on European art, architecture, and fashion continued during the 18th century. Although trends changed rapidly during this period, three distinct styles characterize the century: Rococo, Neoclassic, and Gothic revival.
The term Rococo comes from the French rocaille, for shell, and Italian barocco, or Baroque . The Rococo style is typically ornate and decorative like the Baroque, but there is a new interest in asymmetry. Typical motifs include shells, flowers, foliage, and scrollwork. The style developed in France under Louis XV and was adapted throughout Europe, although to a lesser extent in England.
In England, the period from about 1714 to about 1830 is known as the Georgian Era, because it covers the reigns of Kings George I to George IV (including the sub-period of the Regency, defined by the Regency of George IV during the illness of his father George III). As in France, the Georgian period is identified by distinctive fashions, politics, and culture.
Fashionable dress changed considerably during the 18th century. While color choices and fabrics in the early part of the period remained relatively subdued, after mid-century, they gradually became more bold and exuberant. By the latter half of the century, in France in particular, fashion reached a new height of fantasy and abundant ornamentation.
Garments were decorated with elaborate ribbons, bows, lace, and rosettes. Skirts were worn over small, domed hoops in the 1730s and early 1740s, but these were replaced later in the century by wide side hoops, called panniers, which could extend up to three feet on either side of a proper lady at the French court of Marie Antoinette.
As applied to jewelry, the Rococo style utilized the elaborate floral motifs and ribbons of the preceding Baroque period, but Rococo designs were not strictly regular or symmetrical. Famous Rococo jewelry designers included Venturi, Flach, Albini, and Taute. Popular jewelry trends included chandelier earrings, collar necklaces, and multi-stranded festoon necklaces.
By the 18th century, the brilliant cut had been invented by Vicenzo Peruzzi, and fashioned gemstones, especially diamonds, became increasingly popular. Diamonds were undoubtedly the gem of choice in the early part of the century, but by mid-century colored stones were back in style. Emeralds, rubies, and sapphires were featured in jewelry along with new stones like topaz, amethyst, chrysoberyl, coral, ivory, pearls, and garnets.
In general, women preferred wearing diamonds to reflect candlelight at night and colored stones during the day. To accommodate burgeoning demand among the lower classes, paste copies of real gems were produced, as was a substitute for gold called “pinchbeck.” Because diamonds were so popular, rock crystal and cut steel were increasingly used as sophisticated simulants .
Chatelaines were the most important pieces of daytime jewelry for women. The chatelaine was an ornamental hook hung on a belt or a pocket and adorned with a miscellaneous assortment of small objects in elaborate enamel and metal cases. Not only were chatelaines used to wear a watch, but also an etui, or pendant case, containing useful items such as a sewing kit and thimble.
This utilitarian item was also called an “equipage.” The popularity of chatelaines began to fade once women no longer thought it necessary or fashionable to carry the symbols of their position as head of the household.
Understated Elegance from 1795-1820
It can be said that the 19th century began with the social upheaval of the French Revolution. The world of fashion also experienced dramatic change at this time, and Empress Joséphine, the first wife of Napoléon, provides us with a good example of the clothing and jewelry fashions of the day.
From just after the French Revolution until about 1820, no one in France wanted to look like an aristocrat. The fashions of the day highlighted informal styles over the stiff profiles so popular during the earlier part of the 18th century. Women abandoned the corset and adopted clothing based on classical styles, which included the empire-waist gown.
Jewelry also changed to suit the new clothing styles. Large pendants and heavy festoon necklaces were in vogue. Parures, sets of matching jewelry, were also in vogue, and both Empress Joséphine and her successor, Empress Marie-Louise, had notable ones made of rubies, diamonds, and emeralds.
The period is characterized by romanticism and a Gothic revival. Napoléon’s Algerian campaigns also influenced European jewelry, and elaborate knots and tassels were incorporated into designs for earrings, brooches, pendants, and hairpins.
The Victorian period follows the reign of Queen Victoria in Great Britain from 1836 to 1901. The Victorian era can be broken into three distinct periods: the Early Victorian or Romantic period (1837-1860), the Mid Victorian or Grand period (1860-1885), and the Late Victorian or Aesthetic period (1885-1901).
In the early 19th century, the ideal woman was a decorative showpiece, the vessel on which the wealth and prosperity of the family was prominently displayed. Jewelry was regarded as an essential component of the dress of the middle and upper classes. Among those classes, it was traditional for the groom to present the bride with a casket of jewels, called a corbeille, as part of the marriage agreement.
A demand for superior craftsmanship emerged along with a taste for the exotic, which was spurred through contact with the cultures of the British colonies. During Queen Victoria’s long reign, jewelry featured intricate metalwork, fabulous stones, and Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Middle Eastern motifs. Garnets, amethysts, corals, turquoise, and seed pearls were in style. Opals became increasingly popular and Queen Victoria was said to adore them. New diamond discoveries in South Africa fueled the diamond craze of this period.
The Victorians love of gemstones was demonstrated in their fondness for “acrostic” jewelry, where gemstones were used to spell out words. For example, a ring set with a Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst and Ruby would spell “DEAR,” or Lapis, Opal, Vermeil (a Victorian name for hessonite garnet), and Emerald would spell “LOVE.” Acrostic pieces might also spell out the wearer’s name.
In the Early Victorian or Romantic period, the inspiration for jewelry came from nature. Birds, serpents, grapes, and flowers were popular motifs. Themes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were also very popular. Bracelets were a favorite accessory, and many were worn on each arm. Larger, more ornate necklaces dominated eveningwear, but demure lockets were worn during the day.
By the end of the Romantic Period, brooches and pendants containing polished agate gemstones called “Scottish pebble jewelry” had become very popular. By the Mid Victorian or Grand period, jewelry design had become bolder and more flamboyant. Greek, Etruscan, and Egyptian themes became popular, due to exciting new archeological finds. Because this period corresponded with the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, morning jewelry, featuring jet, onyx, and garnet also became popular. Queen Victoria herself was often seen wearing jet jewelry.
Mourning jewelry often took the form of a small receptacle designed to contain the tresses of a loved one. Locks of hair were braided or woven into elaborate designs and mounted under glass in pins, brooches, and bracelets. Other jewels typical of the period included jewelry with tiny mosaics or enamel portraits, cameos, and stickpins. Glass or paste gemstone simulants with colored foil backings were also used extensively.
By the Late Victorian or Aesthetic period, when more women were enrolling in university and agitating for the right to vote, fashion changed once again. Women began to limit their displays of jewelry. Coral and semi-precious stones could be worn by day, but precious metals and gemstones were reserved for formal evening attire. Colorless gemstones were the rage, fueled in part by the fabulous new diamonds coming from South Africa.
Victorian jewelry also began to lose the somberness of the Grand period. The Arts and Crafts movement , Anglo-Japanese style, and Art Nouveau all have their beginnings in the Late Victorian period. Elaborate and often rather formal, High Victorian jewelry is popular among antique collectors. Jewelry that mimics the Victorian style is also widely manufactured and sold today.
Following the era of antique jewelry, we next explore Vintage Jewelry | An Overview of Techniques, Designs and Settings.