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History of Jewelery

Updated on February 12, 2012

The instinct to decorate the person has been common to all people at all times. Jewellery falls into a number of categories according to what parts of the body it is intended to adorn; at different times and in different places the emphasis has moved from one category to the other. The head can be ornamented with wreaths, such as the Etruscan ones of gold leaves, with great pendant gold beads like those of the Phoenicians or contemporary Berber women; with pins, like the Romans or the Chinese or fashionable Edwardians, or aigrettes (feather-like ornaments made of precious metals and stones) like the late 16th-century Spanish ladies', and the 17th and 18thcentury ladies' all over Europe. Crowns are, and have generally been confined to royalty or the priestly class, but late imperial Roman matrons wore crown-like headdresses.

Tiaras, a modified coronet, have been worn by European noblewomen on state occasions since the early 19th century. The ferroniere, a pendant jewel worn on the forehead from a chain, was popular in 16th-century Italy and briefly revived in the 1830s and 40s.

The necklace could be a massive collar, like the Irish torques, or the Egyptian usekh which consisted of countless strings of beads covering the shoulders and chest, or it could be a short collar like the 16th-century European carcan, usually worn in conjunction with a cotiere, a chain with a pendant. Probably the most elaborate pendants ever made were the 16th and early 17th century ones, in the form of miniature sculpture, often enameled and heavily jeweled.

The chest could be adorned with a pectoral, like that of the Egyptians', usually in the form of a shrine, and suspended on a ribbon and chain. High Church dignitaries of the medieval ages wore morses, sometimes elaborately jeweled, to hold together the edges of their copes.

Brooches worn to hold material together are very ancient and many medieval ring-shaped ones survive.

Spray brooches heavily set with stones became very popular in the 18th century. The stomacher, a large jeweled ornament worn covering the front of the dress from the bustline to the waist was evolved in the 18th century and briefly revived in the Edwardian period.

During the 16th and early 17th centuries, both men and women wore long heavy chains of gold, sometimes diagonally over the shoulder like a sword or belt or baldric.

Earrings were much worn by the Greeks and Romans, but not at all in the Middle Ages because the hair covered the ears, and were revived in the 17th century, since when they have continued to be popular. Probably the most elaborate to be worn were the Spanish ones of the 17th and 18th centuries, as long as a hand and often hung' looped over the ears.

Girdles have also been worn at all times, and particularly in the Middle Ages, and in the 16th century when worn en suite with the carcan and cotiere. Pendant jewels and small enameled books were often hung from them. During the 18th and in the early 19th centuries the chatelaine hung from the waist, often in turn suspending a watch, scissor case, vinaigrette, etc. Some elaborate buckles were made for the waist, such as those intended for early 17th-century Hungarian noblemen, often over 15 cm in diameter.

Bracelets of plain twisted gold were worn by the Celts among others; the Romans introduced snake-shaped ones; they were almost unknown in the Middle Ages and 16th century, but began to be revived at the end of the 17th century. while bracelets of strings of pearls, often clasped by a portrait miniature were very popular in the 18th century. Probably the most elaborate ones ever to be worn were those made in the 1840s and 50s with massive settings and large stones. Sometimes the jewellery was applied to the garment itself, as by the Greeks, who sewed gold repousse or die-stamped plates called bracleae to their clothes. Late 16th-century fashion also involved numerous jeweled studs sewn to the garments, as portraits of Queen Elizabeth I show. In the 18th century men took' to wearing heavily jeweled buttons on their coats.

The feet are adorned by North African women, by the Indians and the Thais. with anklets which sometimes have bells attached to them, but in the West little jewellery has been worn on the feet. The only exception is the late 17th and the 18th centuries when jeweled buckles became more and more prominent on the shoes. Buckles were particularly worn by men, and often el1 suite with their buttons.

Jewellery was, of course, frequently more than mere adornment: the Egyptian pectoral, for example, had a religious significance since it often contained a scarab, the emblem of immortality. Jeweled rosaries, or rosaries elaborately carved of coral, amber and ivory, were often worn hung from the waist in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, but however decorative they might be, they remained fundamentally religious. Much early 17thcentury jewellery is an affirmation of faith, such as the Spanish enameled pendants with the cypher Maria, or those with the cross of the order of Santiageo enameled on the reverse. The 16th-century Heneage jewel in the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its miniature of Queen Elizabeth I and its emblematic references to the Queen as head of the Church, is a piece of political propaganda.

Memento mori jewellery, very popular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and then again in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, serves to remind the wearer of death and of those who have already died. It could take the most literal forms, like the Tor Abbey Jewel (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) which is an enameled skeleton in its coffin. Much jewellery was am uletic, i.e. intended to ward off evil or illness, either because it included stones which were considered particularly efficacious for this purpose, or because of its form.

The small crosses made in Caravaca in Spain, with the figures of angels hovering around and . supporting the cross, were said, for example, to protect the wearer from lightning.

Chivalric orders, such as the Garter of the Golden Fleece, provided the jeweler with an opportunity to show off his virtuosity, and in the 18th century the insignia were often made with matching of buckles, buttons and sword.

Most of the techniques of goldsmithing now known were already practiced by the ancient Egyptians. Some techniques of the Etruscans, such as granulation, have never been matched by the modern craftsman. It is in the use and cutting of stones that the greatest technical advances have been made.

The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans preferred gold to all other materials for jewellery. The late imperial Romans and Byzantines began to make extensive use of stones and so did the medieval jewelers but the emphasis was still on the surrounding metal. In the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries enamel was almost preferred to the glitter of jewels, but from that time onwards, because of the technical developments, the gems began to preponderate until the jeweler's role became hardly more than to provide a bed for the stones. Besides the precious metals, gems and enamels usually associated with jewellery, other more eccentric materials have been employed at various times.

Feathers have been applied to gold by the Chinese because of the blue iridescent effect they give; woven hair has been used to make earrings, bracelets, and was set in rings and brooches to remind late 18th and early 19th-century ladies of the beloved departed; iron and cut steel have been briefly popular; China plaques by the Wedgwood company, and inlaid mosaic plaques from Italy were also worn at the end of the 18th and in the early 19th centuries. Bone and horn were combined with jewels by the Art Noveau jewelers, and glass was used by the Frenchman Rene Lalique. Finally, experiments are being made by contemporary jewelers in the use of plastics.


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