Adornment: A Little History of Jewelry

Items used as adornment have been excavated from the time of 28,000 B.C. As evidenced in ancient burial sites throughout time, humans have strung together various items for adornment such as seeds, berries, flowers, shells, beads, animal teeth and bones.

The ancient Egyptians favored bands of beads in gold, cornelian, lapis lazuli, green feldspar and turquoise. The colorful jewelry added color and interest to the simple white linen clothing. The Egyptians favored designs that had a magical or religious significance. Necklaces were typically worn from shoulder to shoulder versus around the neck. Bracelets were also worn, usually in pairs, they were often large bangles; accompanied by matching armlets worn on the upper arm.  These items were created and used for form and function not purely for adornment. As an example, seal rings were popular and were used as seals in shapes such as the scarab.  They developed ring shanks, which were hammered out and the scarab shape was riveted to the shank which allowed them to swivel to be utilized as their seal.  Over time, more elaborate rings signifying gods, animals, flowers were created; larger bracelets were worn on the upper arm.  Gold serpent motifs were frequently used.

Belts (called girdles) were an essential part of dress for men and women right through the middle ages.  Little is known about their design prior to 1150. Most were plain leather which could then be very richly decorated, some had elaborate buckles and belt ends. Some were studded along their considerable length with mounts of silver, silver-gilt and enamel. Very ornate belts usually had a specially woven silk or velvet base.  These were worn in Venice, c. 1350-70. King Casimir III of Poland, c. 1370, wore a sword-belt which was decorated with architectural elements.

Around 1600 B.C. earrings were made and were worn by women only at first; they were later worn by men.

Roman goldsmiths were organized in guilds and their work was found widely in Europe. During the iron age Europe was dominated by the Celts in northern Italy which were influenced by Greek Art. They used triangles, arcs and dots; later flowing curvilinear shapes predominated. Jewelry patterns based on palmettes and lotus petals and the wave tendril from Greek art appears to linking, curving triangles or radiating from a central point; they used brooches as a garment fastener.

Jewelry during the Roman times was made up of colored stones which they had polished into rounded forms. Popular stones were garnet along with the cloudy emeralds. Sapphires became available during this time period. Amber, which is fossilized tree resin, and jet (fossilized wood) were used to form necklaces and amulets.

Late Roman jewelry consisted of polished sapphires, emerald crystals, pearls, onyx and also granulation. I love jewelry that has granulation, which is the action of adhering small metal spheres for raised decoration which is still used today.

Moving forward to the 1800s Sir Thomas Lawrence did a portrait painting of Lady Peel where she was wearing three large non-matching bracelets with large jeweled clasps on her left arm, along with a number of varied rings on one finger. See photo below for reference.



The Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and the Arts & Crafts periods utilized colored stones and also enamels to obtain color in jewelry designs. The Arts & Crafts movement utilized the use of semi-precious stones and enamels for a hand-made look. Moving forward to the Paris Exhibition of 1900 was the center of this intensely colorful and elegant period.  I love this period jewelry and also the Tiffany stained glass lamps! The Art Nouveau jewelry design caused a dramatic shift in reaching a peak around 1900 where it was a success at the Paris International Exhibition. The grand prix were Piel Freres, Rene Lalique, Boucheron, and Vever. This was a departure from conventional precious stones because these jewelers put a greater focus on the design and the material used, i.e., glass, horn, and enamel; along with silver, silvered bronze and pewter.  A few of my favorites are Rene Lalique (Peacock brooch; Lady Necklace), Piel Freres (Diane; peacock belt buckles), Boucheron, and Vever. The styles designed during this period continued without little change until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Diane belt buckle by Piel Freres; Necklace by Rene Lalique

During the 1920s women began wearing their hair bobbed, which created the perfect opportunity to show off statement earrings. Long dangling necklaces which enhanced the neck and swayed while they danced to the 20s music. Pearls came into fashion. Fine jewelry was almost entirely white based on an extensive use of diamonds and pearls as South African diamond mines resulted in cheaper stones and by the late 1880s over 90% of Europe's diamonds came from South Africa. To match these, settings were made in white gold and then increasingly in platinum as these gave the white setting a greater strength than had been possible with silver. One of my favorite jewelers during the Paris Exposition of 1900 was a Frenchman, Rene Lalique (1860-1945). His opinion was that value came from the designer's vision and the craftsman's skill versus the size and quality of the gemstones; many of his pieces were made of horn and glass. In my opinion, this makes jewelry more interesting and varied!

I visited Pompeii, Italy in the early 1980s.  It was fascinating to see how the Pompeiians lived. It is common knowledge that Pompeii and the surrounding towms met their death when the volcano Vesuvius suddenly erupted in AD 79. Many of the ancient Pompaiian jewley pieces were uncovered when Pompeii was excavated. Jewelry during this time were serpeent bracelets worn in pairs, necklaces, rings, gem-set earrings and also pearls.

Throughout time and continuing through today; jewely has used plants, birds, bees, animals, architectural elements, and in recent times fashion as inspiration for jewelry adornment.