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Body Adornment Throughout History

Updated on September 10, 2009

Religious Jewelry

Egyption Ankh
Egyption Ankh
Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross
Star of David
Star of David

Messages of Jewelry

For as long as human beings have existed, they have sought to adorn themselves with symbols of status, membership, and beauty. Dating back before recorded history, people have used movable ornaments such as jewelry and permanent markings like tattoos to enhance their appearances and to send messages to their societies. This is a look at the fascinating variations of human body adornments throughout history.

Jewelry has been worn for thousands of years, and by virtually every culture ever known. The people of India and China have been creating jewelry for at least 5000 years, and it has played an important symbolic role in every part of the world since then. Jewelry has had different significance in different times and places. It was (and is) frequently worn as a show of wealth and status. At times it was used as a form of portable currency. Jewelry is often symbolic, and can represent the wearer's allegiance to a particular group. Examples would of this usage would include wearing a Masonic ring or a signet ring with a family crest. Many pieces of jewelry are worn as expressions of faith or spirituality, like the Christian cross, the Jewish Star of David, or the Egyptian ankh (the hieroglyphic symbol for eternal life).

Byzantine Wedding Ring

Jewelry can be worn to indicate the wearer's status, such as the wedding band for a married man or woman. Another reason that people wear jewelry is for protection, as is the case with amulets or pieces like the St. Christopher's medal once worn by travelers. The origins of ornaments can also be functional, in the cases of brooches, hairpins, and jeweled shoe buckles. In every culture, decorative articles also carry with them connotations and associations widely understood by the general population. For instance, in Western culture, diamonds are seen as glamorous and pearls are viewed as being more pure, which is one of the reasons that pearls are popular as wedding jewelry and also are considered to be more appropriate for a young girl than diamonds. And of course, jewelry is often worn for no other reason than its artistry and beauty.

Some of the earliest jewelry was created on the Indian Subcontinent utilizing local materials like shells, clay, and beads. Bangle bracelets were popular in India thousands of years ago, just as they are today. Originally they were created from baked clay, although over time more durable materials began to be used, especially gold. Since the Indians are one of the few cultures to have a continuous jewelry making tradition spanning 5000 years, it is perhaps no accident that it is also has some of the most elaborate customs surrounding jewelry. This is particularly true in the case of Indian brides, whose suite of wedding jewelry will often contain a dozen or more lavish pieces crafted in 24 karat gold. Much of the jewelry worn by Indian women is symbolic of her marital status; the piercing of the left nostril is common practice for a married woman, as that part of the body is associated with fertility in Ayurvedic medicine. The traditions of Indian jewelry making eventually spread beyond their borders, with one of their most important exports being diamonds, which were first mined in India.

Ancient Jade Dragon Ornament

The Chinese have also being making jewelry for 5000 years. Many of their pieces were religious in nature, with Buddhist symbols abounding. The phoenix is a revered symbol of immortality that is prevalent throughout Chinese art and culture, and it was often used to decorate jewelry. Phoenixes were seen as female (yin) creatures, and were associated with the Empress. The most honored symbol of all in China is the dragon (the male yang to the yin of the phoenix), which represents auspicious powers, and therefore the Emperor. These motifs were common in Chinese jewelry, which was worn to show nobility and wealth. It was only over time that jewelry became as respected for its beauty as for its status.


Egyptian Gold Sake Armband

Egyptian Jewelry

Gold was very important in ancient Egypt, and was fashioned into a wide range of pieces. It was cherished for its rarity, untarnished glow in the color of the Sun, and its ease to craft. The Egyptians created gold bracelets, pendants, necklaces, rings, armlets, earrings, collars, head ornaments, pectoral ornaments and more. Jewelry was considered important enough that it was buried with the Pharaohs to join them in their journey to the afterlife. Pharaohs were even buried in gold leaf funerary masks, like the famous one found in King Tut's tomb. It was this abundance of riches that has made the Egyptian pyramids such a lure to tomb robbers.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also had strong jewelry making traditions. Amulets to ward off the evil eye were popular, as were beautifully worked pieces in gold and precious gems for those who could afford them. The Greeks artisans concentrated on gold designs showing items from nature, such as shells, flowers, and scarab beetles. Jewelry also had practical as well as protective and decorative purposes. Handsome brooches were used to secure clothing, and the rings worn by Roman men often featured a carved stone which could be pressed into a wax seal on official documents. In addition to precious metals, colorful gems like emeralds, garnets, and amethysts were used, as were pearls and enamel techniques


Only The Rich Allowed To Wear Jewelry

One of the most important reasons to wear jewelry has always been to show status. So critical was this function, that in the 13th Century, Sumptuary Laws were created to restrict the wearing of jewelry to those of noble status. It was an effort to keep the noble classes set above the rising mercantile and artisans, who were becoming able to afford decorative jewels of their own. These laws, though not always very effective, were on the books in parts of Europe into the 17th Century. Even the fledgling American colonies took a brief shot at limiting the ways in which people could adorn themselves. In Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, there was a short lived Sumptuary Law which limited the wearing of gold or silver buttons to persons with fortunes of at least two hundred pounds. Even where there was not an official aristocracy, there was still a desire among the well off to limit the symbols of privilege to the established ruling class.

By the 17th Century, Europeans were adorning themselves with more jewelry than ever. Jaquin of Paris invented a method of coating glass beads with iridescent fish scales to create convincing faux pearls. This was very helpful, as the fashions of the day dictated that a woman must be covered with loads of pearls to be in style. "Paste" or imitation diamonds were also very commonly worn at this time. Women of means would wear their faux pearls and diamonds by day and the real gemstones at night. The fashionable 17th Century lady was lavished ornamented with sparkling stomachers (jeweled pieces attached to the midsection of garments), shoe buckles, brooches, and buttons, in addition to the usual earrings, necklaces, and bracelets.

Victorian Mourning Brooch

Mourning Jewelry

The highly sentimental Victorian era saw the introduction of special jewelry worn in memory of a loved one. The strictly defined etiquette of the Victorians forbade the wearing of jewelry during mourning, as it was deemed too festive and frivolous for such a somber event. However, this rule could be circumvented by the wearing of mourning jewelry, which was popularized by Queen Victoria after the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert. The jewelry was all black, usually created from carved pieces of jet, and normally featured a lock of hair from the deceased. This allowed the wearer to show proper respect to the customs of mourning, while still adorning herself with something beautiful.

Fake Jewelry Becomes Popular

The meaning of jewelry took an interesting turn with the rise of costume jewelry in the 1920s and 1930s. "Paste", which was previously seen as being in poor taste, began to be promoted by influential fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaperelli, both of whom advised their wealthy clients to boldly mix fabulous fakes in with their real gemstones and pearls. By the 1930s, companies were mass producing high quality costume jewelry that was perfect for the Hollywood glamor that informed the fashions of the era. As precious metals became restricted to war usage during WWII, the appeal of costume jewelry grew, and continued well into the 1950s. No longer costly, jewelry could be enjoyed purely for its value as an accessory to fashion.

Men Started The Pierced Ear Fad

It is important to note that even in European countries, the current customs are not representative of the ways in which jewelry has been used. Ear piercing, for instance, now more popular for women, was actually more common for men during the Roman Empire, who followed the lead of Julius Caesar. Even the Bible made reference to men with pierced ears, as one may be surprised to learn. Ear piercing remained in vogue for men through the Elizabethan period, when such famous figures as William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh wore the popular male status symbol.

In tribal societies, ear piercing is also popular with men as well as women. It can also be a key part of coming of age rituals. In Borneo, for example, when a boy becomes a teenager, his mother and father will each pierce one of his ears as part of a rite of passage. More extreme forms of ear piercing have historically been practiced in some tribal societies, particularly the stretching of holes in the ear lobes by the use of increasingly larger plates. This type of ear stretching has caught on among certain groups of young Westerners in recent years.


Temporary Henna Tattoo For Bride


One of the most popular and ancient forms of body adornment other than jewelry also originated with ancient and tribal cultures before spreading into European society. This is the ancient practice of tattoo, in which needles are used to create a permanent design on the skin in ink. Less permanent forms of skin decoration also have cultural significance, such as the Mehndi ceremony performed on Indian brides. Elaborate designs, often featuring the initials of her betrothed, are created on the bride-to-be's hands in henna in the days preceding the wedding ceremony.

The practice of tattooing dates back at least 5000 years. In fact, simple tattoos have been found on icemen from the 4th or 5th Century, BC. Tattooed Egyptian mummies from the 2nd Century, BC have also been discovered, which shows that the practice was followed in widely separated parts of the globe. It appears that just as the instinct to adorn the body with jewelry was spontaneously invented by unrelated cultures around the world, so was the practice of decorating the skin with tattoos (although it was certainly not as ubiquitous as jewelry making).

Many native or tribal populations had traditions of facial tattoos. Some of these included the Ainu (the indigenous people of Japan), the Berbers of North Africa, the Atayal of Taiwan, and perhaps most famously, the Maori tribesmen of New Zealand. Tattooing was also very popular among many of the Polynesian Islanders, as well as in parts of South America. The concept of decorating oneself with body art was first brought to Europe by sailors who had learned of the practice while traveling through Polynesia.


Tatoos For Monks And Chiefs

Se Asian Yantric tatoos
Se Asian Yantric tatoos
Drawing Of Maori Chief
Drawing Of Maori Chief

Magical Tattoos And Signatures

Just as with jewelry, tattoos convey meaning. In Cambodia and Thailand, there is a sacred form called Yantric tattooing, in which Buddhist monks or Brahmin priests apply designs which are intended to protect the wearer. The Yantric designs are believed to have magical powers which can ward off evil and hardship. The idea of a tattoo as a form of protection or an amulet is a part of the custom in certain tribes in the Philippines, as well. Tattoos in that region can also be used to show rank or achievements. In a gruesome way, this is exactly what the American prisoner who has a teardrop tattooed by his eye to show that he has murdered someone is doing.

Tattoos have other purposes, as well. Maori chiefs sometimes drew their moko (facial tattoos) on documents as their signatures, not unlike the way in which the Romans used their rings to make wax seals on important letters. The British sailors who adopted the practice of tattoos after seeing them in Polynesia used them in part as a form of identification, should they drown at sea. (Interestingly enough, one of the reasons why naval men wore earrings was as a type of burial insurance; if their bodies were to wash up somewhere, the idea was that the jewelry would pay for them to have a proper burial.)

Knights of Malta Ahead Of The Bloods And Crips

One of the biggest reasons to have a tattoo is to indicate membership in a particular group or subculture. It could be to indicate that a person belonged to a certain tribe. Tattoos were generally not popular in early Christian Europe, but they were worn by the Knights of St. John of Malta to show their membership in that group. Ever since the first British sailors, tattoos have been common among military men, especially in the naval services. Each branch of the military has their own unique symbols; the traditional anchor, for instance, would differentiate a sailor from a member in another branch of the armed forces. Tattoos are frequently used to show allegiance to less noble causes, as well. They are widely used in gang initiations, and are often seen on members of the Russian mafia.

Though not common in Christian Europe, tattoos were not expressly forbidden as a form of adornment. This was not the case in Judaism, however, which does ban the use of tattoos per Leviticus 19:28 in the Torah. A more contemporary reason why tattoos are not common among Jewish people is their association with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Sunni Islam also forbids the practice of tattooing, going so far as to curse both the tattoo artist and wearer for defiling Allah's creation. Tattoos are not banned in the Shi'a branch of Islam, and are actually worn routinely by Muslims in Northern Africa.

In modern society, tattoos have become associated with subcultures, particularly in the more extreme forms, such as arms covered in tattoo "sleeves" or facial ink; yet at the same time, discreet tattoos are increasingly acceptable among mainstream Americans and Europeans. Often placed in areas that can be covered for purposes of employment, many young men and young women now view tattoos as no more shocking a form of body adornment than a simple pair of earrings. Their body art is chosen for its personal meaning or just in appreciation for an artistic design.

The impulse to adorn oneself to enhance beauty, prove allegiance, and show off wealth or status has been a part of human societies for as long as there have been humans. While subject to whims of fashion just like any other decorative art form, body adornments always remain popular in some form or another in virtually every part of the globe. From the simple bead necklaces of the ancient civilizations to the intricate piece of jewelry created on a computer program of today, jewelry and other personal ornaments will always occupy an important role in our lives.



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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      If you read the book of Enoch you will understand how jewelry was conceived. I also remember reading the male sailor pierced one side of the ear due to superstious reasons

    • profile image


      6 years ago


    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I love Tatoo's!!! Their so awsome


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      it is good to make decishionms in live. some people like tatoos and pericings some dont but u have to respect there mind

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      fk old men

    • profile image

      fiindje shithigona 

      9 years ago

      as i went through all this stuff about body adornment i got to notice just how important it is to a whole lot of people around the doest appeal so much to me though..

    • Seabastian profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Raleigh

      Brian Thanks for reading.

      A wedding band is enough for me - even that created some heartburn once when I lost it windsurfing. Since it was a special design that my wife had gone to a lot of effort to get it was a important to get another one just like it.

      I also always keep in mind the dangers of wearing jewelry working around machinery or electronics.

      As for tatoos they don't seem to age well.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      10 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      I have never really bothered with jewelry even when I got married, just doesn't seem to be something I need or want, same deal with tattoos really. I am a little amazed when I see people who go totally over the top with these things.


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