A Brief History of Jewellery

Today jewellery is everywhere. From lab made diamond rings to homemade macaroni necklaces. Maybe you wear a piece of jewellery because it holds sentimental meaning; maybe you wear it just because you like it.

Jewellery has been worn by people for literally thousands of years. Let’s take a look at how jewellery has changed over the years, what it meant to those who wore it and how the significance of jewellery may have changed.

In the beginning…

The very first jewellery dates back to prehistory. Hunter gatherers wore jewellery made from animal bones, teeth and shells. The jewellery would have been worn to show status within social groups. For example a hunter who had killed a particularly large animal may wear a tooth or bone to show off their prowess.

Fast forward a few thousand years to the Roman period and jewellery gets a lot more “fancy”. The Romans loved precious metals and gemstones. Particular favourites were pearls, emeralds and amethysts. If you weren’t rich enough to have real gemstones you could just use coloured glass and bronze instead of using gemstones and precious metals.

Jewellery was an important indicator of social status and wealth in the Roman period and, although both men and women wore jewellery of all kinds at this time, it could be argued that jewellery was of greater significance for women. When a woman was married in the Roman period all of her wealth and assets became the property of her husband, except for her jewellery. Jewellery was the only thing a Roman woman had that allowed her to have financial independence from a man.

More Coloured Glass

The Romans were not the only civilization to “fake it” when it comes to jewellery. The Saxons had a soft spot for garnets, but the less wealthy members of the Saxon community would use red glass (coloured using copper) in place of the gemstones.

Saxons were extremely skilled glass makers, able to make glass in a variety of bright colours. Blue and green were common colours, created by adding iron to the glass mixture. High quality glass beads were valuable, so much so that beads were used in trade. Saxon merchants would keep their beads safe, tied around their necks or wrists on cords.

Not Just for Knights

Say the word chainmail and most people might think of medieval knights in battle. Chainmail was favoured by medieval knights and soldiers as it was extremely flexible and gave good protection against penetrating injuries. However chain mail is also decorative and can be found used in mayoral chains of office, and decorating the uniforms of some members of the British armed forces.

Jewellery made with chain mail is extremely versatile, many different patterns can be created and additional items such as beads and stones can also be added into the designs. Chain mail still has some functionality in the modern day, for example deep sea divers or dangerous animal handlers may wear chain mail gloves if they are at risk of being bitten; and chefs may wear a chain mail glove to protect their hand from injury when shelling oysters.

Modern Costume Jewellery

We have seen many examples of costume jewellery across history. Using low cost substitutes for more valuable materials has always been a common practise. So when did this jewellery stop being “fake jewellery” and become “costume jewellery”?

Prior to the 1920’s no one had heard of costume jewellery, if your jewellery was made with coloured glass it was considered “fake” or “cheap junk”, however these techniques suddenly became fashionable in the 20’s when they were adopted by famous fashion houses and couturiers such as Chanel. Then costume jewellery exploded onto the scene becoming instantly popular and more and more expensive! When one department store announced “the imitation is no longer a disgrace!” in 1925 it sealed the fate of costume jewellery as a permanent fixture in modern fashion.

Jewellery Today

Today jewellery is everywhere. High street stores and “fast fashion” have made costume jewellery cheaper than ever, to the point where it almost disposable. Jewellery is available in all colours and made from all manner of materials.

Has this abundance of affordable jewellery taken some of the shine off our much loved accessories? Does jewellery still have a deeper meaning beyond the way it looks?

Although no longer reserved for the super-rich, jewellery can still represent aspects of status. Engagement and wedding rings are symbolic of love and commitment, and are perhaps one of the most recognised pieces of jewellery associated with status today. Some people wear jewellery to show they belong to a particular religion, for example a cross on a chain.

Some people may wear gemstones because they believe it offers them protection, strength or healing. Jewellery with a person’s birthstone is a popular choice for gifts.

Today we even have jewellery that allows us to communicate with those around us. For example a person with a serious medical condition may wear an alert bracelet or pendant which gives instructions on how to help the wearer in an emergency.

So while we might think that jewellery is a common every day item, the items we wear today still hold important significance. In some cases jewellery may even save someone’s life, not something our prehistoric ancestors would have considered when they wore the first jewellery.

Jewellery does not have to be symbolic to be important.  In today’s society people express their identity through the clothes and make up they wear, the music they listen to and even the tattoos they have on their bodies; so is jewellery any different?

If you wear a pair of earrings because you like them, you tell those around you a little bit about yourself; perhaps your personal taste, your favourite colour or even where you shop! You’re jewellery is important because YOU chose it. You are what makes your jewellery special.

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