History of Jewelry

Jewelry History -- Part II
Medieval Period

By Margaret Burgon Klemp

The next important time in the history of the jewelry trade is during the Middle Ages when Christianity become so prominent in the known world. Christianity began to spread all over the ancient landscape of the Roman Empire just when its. power began to fade into oblivion during the 4th century AD. The Roman Emperor Constantine made it possible for the Christian religion to be acceptable in his empire. By 400 AD a lot of Romans embraced the new teaching, and consequently all of the different art forms underwent a significant change. The Romans did, however, make important contributions to other cultures --- especially those in the Western Hemisphere. These areas included not only modern day Italy and areas in the Middle East, but the "barbaric" tribes of the Goths, Vandals, Huns, Franks, and the Lombards. These tribes would later have their own impact on the gemstone industry and the jewelry trade.

But, the saga really begins with the advent of the Byzantine Empire where the new stronghold of Roman power resided. The main area of activity was Constantinople which is modern day Istanbul in Turkey. When these events took place jewelry and decorative art had a new appearance. Iconoclasm became a prominent feature of jewelry design. These ornaments reflected new traits and characteristics of the new religion. The production of holy images still remains a Christian tradition, but it reached an apex while Byzantium was still a dominating force in the world. This practice did become quite controversial during the 8th and 9th centuries, but iconoclastic practices survived until the arrival of Islam.

The decoration techniques used by the artisans to apply gemstones and pearls were filigree and enameling. "Filigree" according the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary is ornamental work of fine golden wire, silver or copper which is applied to gold and silver surfaces. It can also be ornamental openwork of a very refined and intricate design. Some of these techniques have inspired modern designer wedding bands. Good examples of the enameling technique can be found in the British Museum. Most of the time representations of animals and flowers were enameled onto gold and silver surfaces. All types of jewelry were worn during the Byzantine period.

Archeologists have found magnificent mosaics, and some of them show how finely the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora were dressed. Their excavations have found early artistic pieces which prove that people in the upper classes wore arm bands, tiaras, necklaces, rings, and loop style earrings.

When the arrival of Islam came to the Byzantine Empire the iconoclastic traditions went by the wayside. Islam does not believe in any physical portrayals of Mohammed or other Islamic historical religious figures at all. The Hagia-St. Sophia in Istanbul reflects this tradition very well. At one time it was a Christian cathedral, and then it was converted into a Mosque. It is still a functioning Mosque today as well as a museum. In the sanctuary there is not one icon present. When the invaders from the Mid-east arrived they covered all the Christian mosaics and tiled pictures with plaster, or removed them altogether. The Turkish government and scientists are now uncovering a lot of those works, and the presence of the ornate jewelry of Byzantium culture can be seen by all who visit there.

The Moslems did, however, have their own traditions. They wore rings, pendants and necklaces. The designs normally came from the Iranian artistic designs which depicted animal art. There are manuscripts from the 14th century which describe various types of jewelry worn among the Moslems. The designs were more conservative, but jeweled coiffures were sometimes allowed. Men were known to wear diadems. These items along with other types of jewelry were worn mainly among the upper classes of society.

In Ottoman society jewelry definitely had Iranian characteristics. Turbans were adorned with jewels. They also wore Aigrettes, which were sprays of different gems that were placed on hats or worn in the hair. A method was used among the Ottomans encrusted hard stones, and then attached floral gold pieces right on the stones.

Islamic metal and gem workers in North Africa had their own traditions, with a hint of Byzantine influence. They used triangular shapes to make unique shawl pins. Brooches and pendants were also commonly worn.

In Europe jeweled ornaments started to become much more colorful. Polychrome decoration of jeweled items began to make their appearance. Polychrome refers to adornment being done with several different colors. The Goths, Vandals, Huns, Franks and Lombards swarmed over the regions formerly held by the Greeks and the Romans. They brought their ideas about jewelry production with them, and the classical approach ebbed and went into decline. These civilizations were considered by the ruling classes as "barbarians" who were non-Christian and the demise of Roman classical practices in the arts were attributed to them.

The early tribes of Europe manufactured goldware that appealed to the tastes of the people where they lived. This period is known as the Teutonic period in history. Artisans of that time utilized methods taken from Iranian, Scythian, Sarmatian and Celtic sources, and mixed them together with their own artistic ideas. They used a method called "faience", which is normally used for earthenware. A jar, vase or other decorative artifact was spread over with opaque colored glazes. This technique was applied in the production of jewelry as well, and then jewels and enamels were used to complete the piece. These tribes also used the filigree method and braiding. Braiding was done by taking strands of embossed strips to form an interlacing network with bands of stones or enamel placed inside bezels.

Fibulas are clasp pins, and representations of them can be found at the Bucharest National Museum. The most common fibula was known as a "buckler". It had a fan shaped head and an arched bridge. Disk and "S" shapes were also made and widely popular.

The enameling method was used by Northern Europeans who followed traditional production practices, and they used lathes to complete their work.

In the 12th century the first goldsmith guilds were formed which was a giant step in the history of the arts and jeweled ornamentation.

Jewelry History Part I
History of Jewelry Part II
Modern Jewelry History Part III