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Jewelry History - 500 CE to 1500 CE Part 2

Updated on June 15, 2012
Baltic Amber Necklace
Baltic Amber Necklace | Source


In the early days of the Middle Ages, many of the skills developed in the West were lost, or the market for the products produced had disappeared. The classical gem carving arts, mastered in the Roman Empire, had no market with the economic demise of Rome. Most gems were fashioned en cabochon, with a domed top on the stone. One of the oldest known diamond set pieces is the Crown of Saint Stephen. Created at the end of the 11th Century, it includes unset diamonds. With liturgical enamel work of Greek origin or design, it was a symbol of royal power and ecclesiastical authority.

India, Persia, and possibly Egypt appear to have developed faceting, the placement of individual “faces” on gem materials before these methods were adapted by Europe. As the East developed these methods during the period of the Crusades, and trade routes developed with the East, the faceted stones were soon shown off in the courts of Europe. Table cut gems, including diamonds, were being produced in Europe in the 14th Century. Some diamond fashioning is reported in Paris in the early 15th century. Towards the end of the century, Louis de Berquen of Bruges is credited with using a polishing wheel to grind facets on stones, using diamonds and diamond dust as an abrasive. The bruting process, where one diamond is used to alter the rough shape of another diamond, is developed in a primitive form. De Berquen is sometimes credited with the fashioning of the famed Sancy Diamond, although that story is open to some speculation. The Dutch centers came to dominate the diamond cutting world for centuries.

The trade with the East brought a number of gems and jewelry materials to Europe, which had a limited supply and variety of native gem materials. Gem engraving became a feature of gem carving in the East, and wonderful engraved gems were created for the rulers of Persia and the Mughal Empire.


The trade in Amber created its own trade routes across Europe. Amber deposits were located on the shoreline of the Baltic Sea. The material had been traded since ancient times, with Baltic Amber items being found with the treasures of King Tut. Centered around the towns of Kaup and Truso, routes extended south to Venice, where shipments to other lands occurred. The route extended north to St. Petersburg. The route allowed the distribution of other materials, as well as exposing many folks to the culture of other lands. Used for ornaments and jewelry, including rosary beads, the trade was monopolized by the Teutonic Knights when they returned from the Crusades and dominated the areas East of the Baltic. They sold their control of the trade in the early Renaissance, to traders that expanded business with the Middle East.

Image of the crown of St Stephen
Image of the crown of St Stephen | Source


Glass making had occurred throughout the Roman Empire for the first 400 years of the Common Era, probably using techniques learned in Alexandria, or from craftsmen of that area. It spread into the Germanic regions, but with the Fall of the Roman Empire, there was little demand for luxury items. Glass making was rather utilitarian for a long period. Around 1000 CE, Northern Europeans began using locally produced potash for glass making, eliminating the need for imported soda ash. Glass making went through a revival in 13th century Venice. Safety and security concerns led to the isle of Murano being designated for glass production. Glass imports were limited, and craftsmen and their knowledge were not available for export. The industry was not as restrictive in other parts of Italy, and artisan from Genoa spread the new skills throughout Europe.

The Venetian artists were masters of bead making, and Murano is still one of the major centers of quality glass manufacture. By the mid-1500s, some of the major glass making centers were established in Bohemia, in places like Jablonec, Stanovsko, and Bedrichov, and a cottage industry of small makers produced beads for these centers.

The Guilds

Early organizations based on occupation began to develop around 300 CE, and were sometimes served as semi-religious burial societies. Around 1100, the religious affiliations were nearly non-existent and the guilds began to turn into something resembling business organizations. Most were city based, and work in specific trades might be regulated by a guild in any town. A system of apprenticeship, often involving indenture, developed. After serving an apprenticeship, a young worker might travel around for a number of years as a journeyman, earning the experience in different workshops, until he could qualify as a Master of his craft.

Members of guilds were sometimes granted special privileges, and some closely guarded their trade secrets. Many hallmarking systems were developed, and were the predecessors to our patent and trademark systems. The furthered advancements in the crafts. Despite the secrecy of some guilds, the journeyman system undoubtedly helped disseminate information and improvements throughout Europe. Some guild systems also existed in the Middle East and Africa.

Some guilds still exist, with Germany still granting some special privileges to guilds, and a traveling journeyman system still in place for carpenters. The guild system declined greatly with the dawn of the industrial age in the 19th century.

One of the best known of the guilds was one related to jewelry. In 1327, Edward II granted a charter to the Goldsmith’s Company, also known as the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Responsible for assaying gold and silver items, a system of maker’s hallmarks was introduced. In 1327. In 1478, the guild began requiring that all gold and silversmiths have items marked with a date stamp. Saint Dunstan was considered the patron saint of the guild and of goldsmiths. Dunstan worked as a metalsmith and jeweler, in addition to painting. His feast day is May 19, and hallmark years run from May 19 to May 18, rather than on a calendar year, as a tribute to this saint. He is credited with pulling the devil’s nose with red hot metal tongs, and the belief in the luck of horseshoes originates with him. According to legend, Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the devil’s hoof and only agreed to remove it if the devil would never again enter a place with a horseshoe over the door.

Saint Eligius holds a similar position in France as patron saint of metalsmiths and jewelers. It is said that he made a golden throne for Clotaire II, King of the Franks

Image of St. Dunstan
Image of St. Dunstan | Source

The End of the Era

The end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance overlap, with no clear defining line. The 1000 year span we have touched on here saw major changes in the world. The Crusades and the guild system caused a spread of culture never seen before. While most folks probably never left the area of their birth, they were at least exposed to new ideas and different cultures, through trade. Technological improvement and knowledge were more readily shared, moving beyond the cloistered walls of abbeys and monastaries. By the end of the period a new mercantile class had developed, creating new markets for jewelry and other objets d’art. The Church and royalty were no longer the sole patrons of the arts, allowing new styles and forms to develop that were not related to either of these still powerful groups. A budding culture was ready to bloom.

Medieval Influence on Contemporary Jewelry

Many of the trends first seen in the Middle Ages have recurred over the years, and still influence today’s jewelry. The Gothic Revival of the 19th century is still felt today, and the work of William Morris and the pre-Raphaelite movement owes a great and acknowledged debt to this part of our collective past.. The Italian glass making traditions of Murano have been preserved and are still highly regarded. The trade in Baltic Amber still exists, with some Polish jewelry makers specializing in this work. The motifs of Medieval Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian craftsmen are still being produced. Medieval Fairs have produced renewed interest in the styles of that period, including work in chain mail. While these creations, along with the fashion jewelry world’s interpretations of Medieval style, may lack the authenticity of a true reproduction, the influence of the times is clear.


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    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

      Very interesting and thanks for sharing.

      Take care