In all likelihood, jewelry has been around as long as humans have walked the earth. Through the ages, jewelry has symbolized wealth and power and has even been a form of currency.
The earliest jewelry archaeologists have found dates back 82,000 years, to a Moroccan cave. Small shells covered in red clay are some of the first examples to be discovered in the cave. Feathers, bones, and colored pebbles were common components in early jewelry. In Russia, a mammoth’s tusk was used to make ancient bracelets. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the metal age that the first artistic jewelry was born. The oldest pearl and gold earring found was in Bahrain and is 4,000 years old.
Ancient people from around the world created jewelry from what they had at hand. Some pieces were functional, such as brooches that held clothing together. Themes were varied, but the most popular motifs reflected religious beliefs and nature.
Ancient Nordic Rune symbols were uncovered across Europe. The Star of David has been used to symbolize the Jewish faith. Early Christians used the cross for necklaces and rings as early as the 5th and 6th centuries. Additionally, African tribes believed pachyderms were a link between this world and the next leading to elephant bracelets.
From 3,000 to 400 BC, the area around Iran and the Mediterranean Sea was home to amulets and seals, crafted of stone, with spiritual themes, floral designs, and stars. Statues were adorned with jewelry as an offering to the gods. Ancient Sumner was home to the Royal Tombs where mummies were adorned in headdresses, crowns, necklaces, earrings, rings, and pins.
The Bronze Age flourished within the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. Its location, with access to the coasts of Africa, Asia, and the Greek continent, ensured the spread of the Minoan jewelry techniques. Minoan gold-working specialized in necklaces and diadems produced by cutting and stamping gold sheets into beads and other designs. The Mycenaeans continued the practice of stamping, producing gold disks in a variety of shapes and motifs, including flowers, butterflies, birds, and sphinxes.
The Egyptians were well known for their amulets and talismans. As well as the Scarab beetle (believed to possess religious properties and symbolize rebirth), the ankh (symbol of life) was a common theme, as was the Eye of Horus, the ancient symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. Egyptian symbols included the lotus flower, Isis knot, falcon, sphinx, and the vulture -- which watched over Upper Egypt -- and the cobra, patron of Lower Egypt. Popular jewelry included layers of beaded necklaces resplendent with colored gemstones such as carnelian, turquoise, lapis lazuli, amethyst, and green feldspar. The color was an important factor in Egyptian culture. The sun was represented by yellow and gold; then green stones that were put into the mouth of the deceased were said to restore speech in the next life. A heart amulet in red was thought to preserve the soul.
A limited number of decorative motifs in Egyptian jewelry were offset by the seemingly unlimited variety of interpretations created by Egyptian artisans.
Jewelry produced by the Greeks dates back as far as 1200 BC. Initially, they used Eastern themes, but in time they transformed these motifs into a unique style that reflected the symbolism and religious beliefs embodied in Greek culture. Jewelry created included crowns, hairpins, earrings, rings, necklaces, and brooches. One popular necklace featured as many as 75 dangling miniature vases. Other Grecian jewels blended the Eastern preference for colorful gemstones with the Etruscan use of gold. The Etruscans mastered granulation, a process that covers the surface of a piece with gold beading.
The Roman Era
By the time the Roman Empire arose, most gemstones in use today had been discovered. Myths and legends were attached to each of the colorful stones. Cameos were also well-loved, as were bracelets (worn on the wrist as well as the upper arm), necklaces, and any type of jewelry that incorporated gold coins. Hairpins had a dual purpose – as well as being decorative, Roman women used the pointy jewels in self-defense.
Because jewelry represented a status symbol in Rome, it was illegal for someone not of a particular rank to wear rings, such as signet rings.
The Byzantine Empire
Arguably the kingdom with the richest tradition for fine jewelry was the Byzantine Empire. In 330 AD, after Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, the empire merged the prestige and wealth of Egypt, Greece, the Near East, and parts of Russia and North Africa. This congregation of influences resulted in a stunning use of color and Asian symbolism that endured through the Middle Ages. These designs traveled to Europe, thanks to trade, marriage, and war. The Byzantines were responsible for the art of cloisonné enameling, where glass is melted and set into cells.
Original forms, techniques, and motifs were created, thanks to the taste of the Etruscan citizens. New concepts, which included the desire for impressive pieces and a wealth of decoration, resulted in incredible achievements in jewelry. Necklaces were made of flexible chains that crisscrossed and supported pendants themed with mermaids, Gorgons, and Sileni, interspersed with fruit and fauna.
The Legacy of Ancient Artisans
All forms of work are represented in ancient jewelry – including chiseling, soldering, inlaying with colored stones, molding, and working with twisted wires, filigree, and granulation. The first two ancient civilizations that began organized production of jewelry were Egypt and Mesopotamia. Their talents in metallurgy and collecting gems were vital in the development of jewelry in every era that followed.