Historical Roots of Modern Jewelry

For so many women, the gift of a pearl necklace commemorates their wedding or the birth of a child. Few jewelry owners today realize how deeply rooted the gift of jewelry is in the human psyche. For example, some of the oldest evidence of human culture is the 2003 discovery of 75,000 year old shell beads from the Blombos cave on South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast.

Alison Brooks, an anthropology professor at George Washington University, is quoted in the Associated Press citing the beads as “an unequivocal argument that people are employing symbols to signify who they are.” Lead researcher for the discovery of the beads, Christopher Henshilwood (University of Bergen, Norway) has said “Beads are a serious matter in traditional societies, providing identification by gender, age, social class, and ethnic group.” These beads in particular indicate evidence for the early origin of modern human behavior and the ability to use language since it would have been essential for “sharing and transmitting the symbolic meaning of the beads…within and beyond the group.” Although, no specific date has been assigned to the first use of jewelry to proclaim a wearer’s wealth or social status, archeologists have established with the Blombos Cave discoveries that this modern activity began at the very earliest stages of human development.

Recognition of intrinsic and symbolic meaning in beautiful materials and natural minerals has led to their constant use from the earliest civilizations to the present time. Humanity has universally turned to jewelry to fulfill its profound desire for self-adornment in service to the expression of identity. Primitive civilizations, separated by vast barriers of time and geography, have consistently fashioned gold into finely crafted jewelry items for the expression of tribal identity.

Consequently, Jewelry has become one of humanities oldest and most contentious art forms. In ancient human society whether a jewel was chosen for its magical powers as a protective amulet, for its natural beauty, or for its indication of social status, it probably always had the quality of being available as currency in a pinch. Few forms of Art have had such a diverse and complex set of uses or such a long history.

The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Egypt, and the Greek isles have all left jewelry of sufficient quality and quantity to attest to the successful mastery of advanced techniques in jewelry manufacturing. From 3000 to 2000 B.C.E. the technically demanding processes of filigree, granulation, repossé, and enameling were employed in jewelry making.

The earliest introduction of metalsmithing in Northern Europe has been traced to around 2000 B.C.E. with a few splendid items, which would be contemporary with the construction of Stonehenge, still surviving today. Toward the year 1000 B.C.E. there is evidence of wide-spread disruption in the arts throughout the ancient world. Although the threads of direct connection have been broken, there is evidence of continued development and trade of jewelry in the Mediterranean, Western Asia, and Central Europe.

Skimming past 22 centuries of human creativity and virtually ignoring China, India, Japan, Africa, and the Americas, we find ourselves picking up the threads of jewelry history in Medieval Europe. In the Middle Ages of European history (1200-1500 A.D.) anyone privileged to work with precious metals was know as a goldsmith. The term, which comes form the Latin word “Auriflex” (auri=gold, flex=to work) referred to craftspeople who were engaged in the creation of a wide range of precious objects. Large civic and religious items such as altars, gilded gates, jeweled manuscript covers, platters and chalices were at one end of the spectrum with smaller personal ornaments such as rings, chains, snuff boxes, and garment clasps at the other.

The June 1995 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine quoted the curator of the Renwick Gallery, Michael Monroe as saying, “In the early Renaissance, at the top of the hierarchy of artist was the goldsmith.”

During this period there was little separation between fine artists and craftspeople. The growth of the trade guilds in the late Renaissance led to the delegation of specific tasks, which eventually created a separation between the fine artists and the artisan/craftsman. This hierarchal delineation between art and craft continues to plague true artisans in the jewelry medium to this very day.

It was, however, the gem-cutters of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe who would attain historical prominence by completely transforming the appearance of jewelry for centuries to come. They discovered how the imported gemstones from India and Burma could be elaborately cut with facets. Previously, color in jewelry had been incorporated through the use of enameling, painted miniatures and cabochon gemstones. Faceted gemstones created a dazzling effect as light reflected off the many surfaces, giving jewelry the gemstone centered look that is still dominant in commercial jewelry today.

Throughout the centuries particular styles of jewelry and techniques of making jewelry have increased and diminished in popularity based on the availability of materials, the cost of labor, and the fashion of the time. Amazingly, granulation, which was the height of fashion in the Mediterranean in 700 B.C.E., again became popular in Europe during the 1850s A.D. mostly due to archeological discoveries. This trend continues today with the cable bracelets by designer David Yurman being similar to the bracelets worn by Roman noblewomen back in 100 B.C.E. Discovering the archeological and anthropological roots of jewelry design creates a connection to our collective ancient past and provides both the maker and the wearer with a greater admiration for the jewelry they have chosen.

This article first appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of “Jeweler’s Quarterly” magazine. I am happy to update the information presented and bring this article home to my own website. — Nanz Aalund

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