History of Jewelry

Jewelry History -- Part 1

By Margaret Burgon Klemp

The rise of the use of jewelry began when early humans ceased being nomadic, and started to settle down in certain areas, and began building communities. This new way of life happened about the same time mineral deposits started to be taken seriously, and put to some kind of use. Prior to this period early men decorated their bodies through some manner other than wearing jewelry. In some early cultures they did wear fishbone or shells, tusks or animal around their necks.

At first, jewelry forms were limited. Priests wore breastplates which had religious or spiritual significance, and it took some time before the upper classes began wearing different forms of jewelry for more decorative purposes. Gradually, craftsman began making special pieces that were meant to be worn on various parts of the body. The religious breastplates remained, but items were manufactured for the neck and torso as well as other parts of the body.

Early neck and torso pieces included necklaces, brooches stomachers, and belts. There were also special ornaments made for the head. These included headdresses, crowns, diadems, and tiaras. Hairpins and combs even had jewels embedded in them. Earrings, nose and lip rings along with earplugs began to make their appearance on the jewelry market. Decorated rings were also worn on the hands and toes, and specially designed armlets were worn on the arm, while bracelets graced the wearer's wrist. There were also thigh and ankle bracelets sported by jewelry connoisseurs in those earlier times. Jeweled shoe buckles made a debut a little later in the historical time line. These earlier traditions still thrive today.

Some of the earliest examples of jewelry were found in 2500 BC among the Sumerians. In the tomb of an ancient queen known as Pu-abi in Ur (Tallal-Mugayyar) which is in modern day Iraq, beautifully preserved jewelry and ornamentations were found. The queen was wrapped in a robe made of gold beaded with silver, lapis lazuli, cornelian, agate and chalcedony. The mummy was richly adorned with amulets, diadems, necklaces, earrings and rings. They found necklaces set in three rows of semi-precious stone, with circular flowers in the middle of them. Many of the artifacts recovered belong to other dignitaries and the queens. attendants. Early Sumerians shared the tradition with some other ancient cultures regarding burial practices. Those who were unfortunate enough to serve someone in the royal household killed themselves following burial ceremonies for that individual.

Archeologists discovered that by this time that the technical processes used to produce jewelry existed. Geometric shapes and animal and vegetable representations were widely used.

When archeologists began excavating Egyptian tombs they found some of the finest pieces of ancient jewelry still in existence. The tomb of Tutankhamen a young Egyptian pharaoh yielded and whole treasure trove of precious items. Somehow, his tomb had escaped being torn apart by grave robbers and the elements for thousands of years. A lot of the pieces that were found there are now housed in The Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The mummy was covered with an array of some of the finest ancient jewels ever discovered. The excavators found other jewels and ornaments spread all over the tomb. These jewels remained truly Egyptian although Egypt had extensive relations with other cultures during that time. Most Egyptian jeweled artifacts reflected the deeply religious nature of the people. Their jewelry was worn, as a rule, for religious purposes, or to convey a definite message. Among the most spiritual designs were representations of the scarab, the lotus flower, the eye of the God Horus, the vulture, the sphinx and the serpent. These and other symbols eluded to the religions beliefs of the pharaohs, and other symbols often referred to a myriad of other Gods. Some jeweled pieces were decorated to give a message about the cult of the dead.

Gold was the predominant metal used with gemstones. Gold was frequently decorated with three colors of cornelian, turquoise lapis lazuli. There was a definite symmetry and a rhythmic repetition of colors and shapes that were employed by the craftsman. They placed everything in alternating colors using cylindrical, spindles, disks and spheres.

The first sign of outside ideas appearing in the Egyptian jewelry trade started to appear in the 18th dynasty when unknown jewels began to be imported by the artisans for use in the jewelry industry. As this continued influence from foreign sources took hold in Egypt the old artistic methods gave way to new Hellenistic designs, and eventually Roman methods. The integrity of Egyptian jewelry eventually died out.

The Greek influence in the history of jewelry found an unforeseen ally in Alexander the Great. As Alexander made incursions into other lands the creativity of the great artisans of the time followed him. Greek jewelry was known by its. sculpture in miniature. Religious, mythological and heroic scenes were the themes they used in production. Just prior to the time of Alexander the Great in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., technical talents among goldsmiths and gemstone craftsmen reached its highest level. They produced exceptional works of art. They incorporated rich overtones of contrast, harmony, clarity, unity and rhythm in their work. Just after Alexander conquered Persia beautiful diadems began to appear in the upper classes. Often a particular ornament was done in an elliptical shape, and bound together with the famous Hercules knot. The knot was used by ancient jewelry makers because it was supposed to possess mystical and magical qualites. Rome was a thriving center for early goldsmiths, and they built a jewelry trade there that was unrivaled until the Renaissance in Europe. They set up lapidaries, and goldsmiths came from Greece and the Mideast to work in them. At first fine jewelry was meant to be worn by the upper classes, but it is during the height of the Roman period that we see this custom start to change. Persons of lower social rank started to wear jewelry, and soon it became quite a common tradition. Gold was extended to household use: an example was the placing of precious stones in furniture. The Romans used Etruscan and Greek plots and patterns, but eventually began developing their own ideas. The Romans also started using colored stones such as topaz, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and pearls to craft a piece of jewelry. They preferred engraved gems, and these often became popularly collected among the upper classes. Their craftsmen also introduced new techniques. The most important one was the opus interassile, which is where the artisan took a flat or curved metal surface and decorated it with miniscule pierced stones.

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