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A History of Jewelry

When did we first begin wearing jewelry? What purpose did it signify at the time? When was the first ring or token given to express a form of marriage or union, or perhaps to seal a treaty? To answer these questions, we must look back through history, not only hundred, but at least thousands of years. These questions call for answers, as the more we become aware of jewelry historically and the part it played in peoples lives for so many years, the more we can relate to our origins in jewelry of today.

Jewelry ornaments of precious metal, sometimes set with gems have been worn since ancient times by people of all cultures for personal adornments, of badges of social rank, and as emblems of religious, social and political affiliation. Jewelry has been worn on the head in the for of crowns, native headdresses made of feathers, bones and precious beads, tiaras, hairpins, hat ornaments, earrings, nose rings, earplugs, and lip rings; on the neck in the form of collars, necklaces and pendants; on the breast in the form of pectorals, brooches, clasps and buttons; on the limbs in the form of bracelets, armlets and anklets; and at the waist in the form of belts and fancy girdles, such as chatelaines ensuring chastity, scent cases and rosaries.

The ancient Egyptians were familiar with most of the processes of ornamenting metal that are still in use today. They skillfully produced engraved, soldered, and inlaid jewelry. They commonly worked in gold and silver and inlaid these metals with semiprecious stones such as carnelian, jasper, amethyst, turquoise, and lapis lazuli and with enamel and glass. Their jewelry included diadems (headwear); wide bead necklaces or collars; hoop, hinged, or bead bracelets, and rings. An especially popular ornament was the signet ring. Jewelry motifs – the scarab (beetle), lotus, falcon, serpent, and eye, for example were derived from religious symbols.

Sumerian, Babylon, and Assyrian tombs of the 3rd and 2nd millennia have yielded a great quantity of headdresses, necklaces, earrings, and animal amulet figures in gold, silver, and gems. Fine gold and silver were also made in ancient Persia and Phoenicia. Greek and Roman artisans of the Minoan period executed earrings, bracelets, and necklaces that persisted from about 2500 B.C. to 479 – 323 B.C. Stamping was common as well as gold granulation and filigree.

The Byzantine nobility wore jewelry in lavish profusion. Dresses were made with gold set with jewels; pearls, rubies, and emeralds mounted in gold were worn at the neck and shoulders and hung in festoons from the temples to the breast. Most certainly too lavish for our most expensive clothing today, although we garnish our clothes with crystals, rhinestones, and faux pearls; perhaps as historical hand-me-downs!

The Renaissance period became an even more important part of fashionable costume. Rich velvet and silk robes for both men and women were embroidered with pearls and sparkling gems. During the 17th and 18th Century, jewelry was characterized by both luxury and popularity. The Arrangement, or Set, called a parure often included a tiara or ring, necklace, earrings, and brooch. Many magnificent parures were created for the Royal Houses of Europe. These included watchcases, snuffboxes, seals, and thimble cases. The jewelry worn in Colonial America was mostly imported from Europe.

The continent of Africa has produced jewelry of great beauty and variety since prehistoric times. Northern Africa is noted for silverwork, plain and enameled of the desert peoples. Craftspeople in Medieval Africa made rings, bracelets, and other ornaments out of gold, amber, ivory, brass, and bronze. Beads of shell and glass have long been important elements of personal adornment. Jewelry has also been used as a vehicle for religious symbols; the crosses of Ethiopia and NW Africa; and to indicate social or economic status. Today's African jewelry echoes many traditional themes.

As we examine this brief history of jewelry, the answers to our questions become significant. There is overwhelming evidence that jewelry in some form has been a part of many cultures for thousands of years. It's purpose, materials, value, and symbolic meanings seem to have remained relatively constant through to modern times. It appears that jewelry has given people in days long ago the same pleasure and meanings as it does for us today.

By Karen WhiteleyKaren B Whiteley

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