Jewellery Through the Ages

Published on 25th September 2023

Body ornamentation made of feathers, bones, shells and coloured pebbles has been a part of mankind since before history was written. 

This was a form of identity and self-esteem.  Coloured pebbles were gems that have been admired for their beauty and durability since man first walked the earth. The coloured pebbles were then made into adornments, fulfilling the need to belong and feel accepted.

The coloured pebbles were followed by gemstones and jewellery.

The first adornments — made of teeth, claws, horns and bones — were derived from the hunt.  Hunters believed that wearing trophies would bring them good luck for the next hunt.  It also distinguished them as good hunters.  The best hunters wanted to prove they had courage and prowess and deserved respect and privileges in the village they lived.

The first adornments made of teeth, claws, horns and bones were derived from the hunt.

The earliest finding of jewellery — a simple necklace made of fish bones that was found in a cave in Monaco — was dated around 25 000 years ago.

In early societies, jewellery was worn as amulets to protect against bad luck and illness.  This is still applicable in many African societies today, including Zimbabwe.  Jewellery was also worn for its magical properties.  Even today, we hear the tales and adventures of people from long ago who somehow found luck and fortune because of gemstones and jewellery.  From these myths evolved jewellery made into symbols thought to give the wearer control over fertility, wealth and love.

The ancient Egyptians also wore amulets and talismans and used symbols to convey territorial pride.  For example, the vulture represented Nekhbet, patron of Upper Egypt, while the cobra stood for Lower Egypt.  Another common motif was the ankh, the symbol of life, while the golden udjat was believed to provide health and protection.

The Egyptians also strongly believed that colour reflects aspects of our personalities; as a result, colour symbolism was important to the ancient Egyptians.  Yellow and gold were associated with the sun and were always used on crowns and ornaments for the pharaoh and his priests.  A green stone was put in the mouths of the pharaohs to restore speech in the other world.  The red AB or heart amulet was believed to preserve the soul.

They made bracelets of multiple strains of coloured gemstones.  The royal jewellers used gold, silver and semi-precious stones, which are also found in Zimbabwe, such as turquoise, chalcedony, carnelian, amethyst, green feldspar and lapis lazuli, which are still popular today.  Lapis Lazuli was traded with miners from Afghanistan, who were famous for creating ‘faience’, a glass like glaze on clay and glass inlays.

The royal jewellers used gold and silver and semi-precious stones, which are also found in Zimbabwe.

In Africa, some African tribes today still wear enormous lip or ear plugs as ornamentation, to distort the mouth or ears of the wearer. This is to make the men look more fearsome in battle and women unattractive so that other tribes would not abduct them.  Whereas some women in Africa, such as the Ndebele and Xhosa women, add a new ring to their necks every year, beginning from childhood, to make their necks appear longer.

Many types of jewellery items still made and worn today began as functional objects.  For instance, pins and brooches originated from the clasps that held clothing, like the Roman toga, together.  Rings and pendants were used for early seals and as signs of identification, rank and authority. 

There were four main categories or purposes: Ecclesiastical rings, worn by clergy and laymen as sacred emblems; Curative rings, meant to cure ailments and diseases; Gadget rings, including brass knuckles, compass rings, and pipe stuffers, and Rings of romance, including the wedding ring on the left second finger because of its closeness to the heart.

Jewellery later came to denote human connection and commitment; rings symbolised the commitment two people had for each other.  On the other hand, slaves were made to wear bracelets to show who they belonged to.

At one time, only the wealthy and high-ranking Church officials were allowed to wear gemstones. This was a sign of wealth and power. The commoners wishing to mimic them would wear less expensive jewellery to add colour and sparkle to their festive costumes. Diamonds were not popular until people learned how to cut them to show their brilliance, which began in Europe sometime around the 1300.

The earliest traces of jewellery can be traced to the civilisations that bloomed in the Mediterranean and what is now called Iran around 3000 to 400 BC.  These were usually simple stone amulets and seals; many, like stars and floral designs, carried spiritual meanings. Jewellery was offered to the gods and was used to dress up statues.  The royal tombs in ancient Sumner, dating back to 3000 BC, provide us with the greatest collections of all times. There, mummies were found encrusted with every type of jewellery imaginable — headdresses, necklaces, earrings, rings, crowns and pins.

Bahrain, located off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, was an island, not of nobility and wealth, but of commoners where 170 000 burial sites were discovered. The most ancient are nearly 4 000 years old while some are as recent as 300 BC.  Archeologists have flocked to Bahrain trying to discover how these everyday people, who had a high standard of living, lived.  They found bronze axe heads, javelins and even a 4 000-year-old pot traced to ancient Oman.  But the real find was a 4 000-year-old pearl and gold earring, the oldest ever found.

The Greeks often wrote about jewellery and its impact on their day-to-day lives.  As far back as 1200 BC, Greek jewellery was rich and varied and reflected the prosperity of their society.  Initially, the Greeks copied Eastern motifs but later developed their own style following their beliefs in the gods and symbols.  Greek jewellery included crowns, earrings, bracelets, rings, hairpins, necklaces and brooches. Greek women sometimes wore necklaces with 75 or more dangling miniature vases. Their jewellery combined the Eastern taste for gemstones and the Etruscan use of gold.  The Etruscan perfected a method for making tiny gold beads called ‘granulation’.

Most gemstones used today had been discovered by the time of the Roman Era.  Myth and magic was the rule of the day and gemstones were treated with respect. They also had a second purpose; the Roman women wore hairpins that were long enough to be used in self-defence! The Romans also loved the cameo and cherished it for its beauty.  Bracelets for the wrist and upper arms as well as necklaces became popular, as did jewellery made from gold coins.

The Byzantine Empire inherited its rich jewellery tradition after the Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople in 330 AD.  The empire merged the greatness and richness of Greece, Egypt, the Near East and parts of Russia and North Africa.  The combination of influences led to the use of rich colours and oriental symbolism which lasted through the Middle Ages. Their designs were carried west into Europe by trade, marriage and war.  The art of ‘cloisonné’ enameling flourished during the Byzantine period.

After the fall of Rome, life was hard and luxuries like jewellery all but disappeared from European life. At this time, most of the wealth lay in the hands of the Church. In the 10th Century, the sacred world enjoyed such finery as gem-studded altars, chalices and icon missals (books used during mass).

During the Crusades, bands of solders travelled to the holy land and returned with a vast plunder of gemstones and jewellery.  Though the Church benefitted most by the looting, many pieces were not delivered to the Church and found its way among the common people.  The Crusades marked the first real trade between East and West in several centuries.  This opened up a new world of trade and communications and exposed the Europeans to new products and ideas. 

From the 12th-15th Centuries, few peasants wore jewellery, except for a brooch or hatpin.  In the Middle Ages, the royal family and churches frowned on commoners wearing jewellery or trying to copy their clothes or manners. The nobility considered this a privilege only for them to enjoy.  To enforce this idea, Sumptuary Laws, meant to curb opulence and promote thrift by regulating what people were permitted to wear, were initiated.

Although the French set fashion trends in the 16th Century, England’s Henry VIII wore the most extravagant clothing.  He boasted at least 234 rings, 324 brooches as well as diamond and pearl-studded necklets. His daughter, Elizabeth I, loved pearls so much that she had over 2 000 dresses made, each weighted down with pearls and gemstones.  Elizabeth’s clothing was typical of this period, and the Queen of Spain also wore dresses heavily jewelled and embroidered with pearls.  King Louis XIV of France wished his court to be the most magnificent throughout the land.  During his reign (1642-1715), more large diamonds were imported from India than at any other time in history.  The blue Hope Diamond was to be set in a necklace by the Royal Jewellers; it was to be given to his grandson as a wedding gift for Marie Antoinette, but instead the necklace was stolen.

The 17th Century was the era of Baroque design.  Coloured gemstones lost favour and diamonds commanded the jewellery industry. By following the trail and evolution of ornamentation from the ancient worlds of Africa to the Mediterranean, then Europe and, finally, the US, we see how jewellery found in stores today evolved over time from the simple feathers, bones, shells and coloured pebbles.

By Dr Michelina Andreucci

Zimbabwean-Italian Researcher and Industrial Design Consultant.

Courtesy: The Patriot

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