Monday, January 31, 2011

A Brief History of Jewelry

By Kathy Ciaccio

I’m not an expert on this subject by any means, but I gathered this information for a talk that I gave to our local arts group, and thought you might find it interesting too.

Our English word jewelry (or jewellry) comes from the Latin word jocale, meaning plaything, which is really appropriate for the way many members of our group, including myself, look at it. The French word for jewelry is bijoux, in Spanish it’s joyas, in Italian it’s gioielli, and in German……..schmuck.

Archaeologists used to think that humans first became capable of symbolic thought, and therefore started decorating themselves, and whatever they could get their hands on, about 45,000 years ago. However, more recent finds of shells that are identically sized, shaped, and drilled for stringing have pushed this date back to somewhere between 70,000 to 130,000 years ago, so we’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long time! Here’s a picture of some of the shells that they found –

(This is attached to this blog entry - I hope it came through.)

Based on current “primitive” cultures, we can pretty much assume that ancient people used just about anything to make their jewelry, including leather, reeds, pebbles, berries, pods, feathers, shells, bones, teeth, et cetera. Apparently someone has found mother-of-pearl jewelry that dates back 40,000 years – I’m sure it was a big hit with its beautiful iridescence! Jewelry has been worn, and continues to be, for many reasons, including decoration, as religious amulets, for status, and even as currency.
Some of the earliest stones used were the ones that were easy to obtain, and also fairly easy to polish, like river rocks, jade, amber, turquoise, soapstone, lapis, and malachite. These were first polished by rubbing stone on stone, and later by using a paste made of sand. About 7,000 years ago, the first metals were used, and by about 5,000 years ago, the Egyptians were making jewelry from gold, stones, and glass. (They liked the glass better for its different colors, supposedly.) At about this time, the Aztecs were using gold, silver, and stones, and the Mayans those things plus bronze, copper, and jade.

About 2,300 years ago, the ancient Greeks had mastered many techniques. They were using gold, enamels, emerald, garnet, amethyst, pearls, agate, glass, and were also cutting cameos!

There’s a big gap in my history here, because I had trouble gathering facts about the intervening period of time, but by the 1300’s the Italians were importing stones such as rubies from the Far East and cutting them. Large, round, flawless pearls were valued more than gemstones, and were very popular. Fake pearls were also to be found, which were made from glass, egg white and snail slime(!), as well as paste jewelry.

By the 1470’s, diamond cutting and polishing had improved, and Idar-Oberstein in Germany became famous for its gems and gem cutting, which it still is. The picture is of some of their workers in the 1800’s polishing gems on big sandstone wheels while lying prone on benches – talk about keeping your nose to the grindstone! (I always wondered where this expression came from.)

(This image should be attached to this blog post - I hope it came through.)

By the 1600’s in Europe, the ladies who could afford them wore their earrings while dressed or undressed, and they wore their fake jewelry during the day and their real gems and pearls at night. France made the best fakes of the time, of both pearls and paste jewelry. Many of the pieces from this time period have survived, but those with real gems were often dismantled and the gems reset to keep up with the changing styles.

As we all know, ever since people have been making and wearing jewelry, it has been changing with the times, and its history has followed that of the art world through baroque, classical revival, Victorian, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, modernist, abstract, and whatever else came along. It’s an endlessly fascinating subject, and may we all continue to enjoy our “playthings” for a long time!
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