A Brief History & Timeline of Jewelry Making [Updated]

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A Brief History & Timeline of Jewelry Making [Updated]

Like blacksmithing, glassblowing, and other traditional crafts, jewelry making has ancient roots. Our prehistoric ancestors were the first to make jewelry using simple materials and techniques. The ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans discovered new ways to craft precious metals and gemstones into wearable works of art. 

Jewelry making evolved in each major period of history and reflected the changes and developments occurring politically, socially, and economically. Techniques continued diversifying and improving in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance era, and the Age of Enlightenment.

As globalization intensified in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, the materials used to make jewelry and the jewelry styles themselves reflected this growing interest in other cultures and their history.

7000 Years of Jewelry
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 09/12/2008 (Publication Date) - Firefly Books (Publisher)

The Ancient Origins of Jewelry Making 

prehistoric jewelry making
Jewelry making is an ancient craft with prehistoric origins. Muséum de Toulouse, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jewelry has been a part of the history of humans for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of jewelry making can not even be attributed to Homo sapiens, but instead the Denisovians, a subspecies of archaic humans who lived before Neanderthals. 

Jewelry made by our early ancestors was simple in construction and the materials used. Very ancient people wore feathers, bones, teeth, claws, shells, and small gems strung on cord. Jewelry made from animals was thought to protect the wearer and bring good fortune. It was also a status symbol, showing the prowess of the hunter who wore it.

Ancient Egyptian gold jewelry
The Ancient Egyptians used gold and precious gemstones to craft ornate jewelry.

The Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks advanced the jewelry making craft and introduced a wide array of precious metals and gemstones. People of all social classes wore jewelry in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The color and meaning of gemstones were important to these civilizations, and certain people made sure to wear the lucky colors every day for protection and guidance. For example, Egyptian royalty and lesser nobles favored gold or yellow gemstones, which symbolized the sun. 

Ancient Egyptian jewelry makers worked with a rainbow of gemstones that included amethyst, carnelian, green feldspar, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. Craftspeople usually set these gems into gold or silver, but platinum was also used during this time. 

The Greeks and Romans were prolific jewelry makers who introduced new styles and techniques. Cameos and jewelry made of coins are examples of these cultures’ abilities to craft beautiful and unique pieces from simple materials like sheets of metal, onyx, and agate. Greeks and Romans wore jewelry from head to toe: crowns, hairpins, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings.

Jewelry Making in the Middle Ages

Jewelry Making in the Middle Ages
This detailed medieval necklace would have been reserved for the nobility. Momir Alvirović, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The art of jewelry making waned in the middle ages, with most Europeans barred from owning pieces made of precious metals and gemstones. Common people sometimes possessed items made of cheap materials like copper or pewter.

Nobility and the clergy wore the most ornate and expensive jewelry during this time period, and only certain types of ornaments were deemed appropriate. Acceptable jewelry included ecclesiastical jewelry made for the clergy, rings of romance (similar to modern wedding rings), and gadget rings that included brass knuckles and compass rings.

Byzantine jewelry making
The Byzantines dominated the jewelry making industry during the middle ages. The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of the jewelry made during the middle ages is attributed to the Byzantines, whose expertly crafted designs included delicate gold leaf and cloisonne enameling. This technique is still used today, and was perfected by Byzantine jewelry makers. The process involves pouring colored glaze between thin strips of wire mounted to a metal backing and firing the piece to create an ornate design.

Renaissance Jewelry

jewelry in the Renaissance era
Examples of ornate Renaissance jewelry is found in portraits like this one. Toñito456, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By the early Renaissance era, jewelry makers developed gemstone cutting techniques that replaced the simple, polished designs popular in the middle ages. Despite these advancements, enameling techniques reigned over the appearance and size of set gemstones. Jewelry makers cut stones into basic shapes to ensure that the enameling stood out. Common cuts included en table, or flat; en cabochon, or rounded; and en pointe, or pyramid shaped.

Jewelry of the 17th and 18th Centuries 

18 century jewelry making
Jewelry in the 18th century featured multifaceted diamonds and colored gemstones. Manederequesens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 17th and 18th centuries saw major changes in fashion and jewelry design. Advances in gemstone cutting and the expansion of global trade made available a wider variety of gemstones and metals.

The dark fabrics popular in the Renaissance period were replaced by softer, pastel shades that coordinated well with glittering gemstones and light colored metals. Gemstones and pearls gained favor, with the largest specimens displayed on the bodices of gowns and smaller pieces decorating skirts and jackets. 

By the mid 18th century, advanced cutting techniques allowed for multifaceted diamonds and other popular stones to decorate the jewelry and clothing of nobles across Europe.

19th Century American Jewelry Making 

19th century gold
The 1849 Gold Rush supplied jewelry makers with gold from the West Coast. James St. John, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century saw the mechanization of jewelry making as the industrial revolution swept through Europe and America. New materials and jewelry making techniques expanded design possibilities, and a renewed interest in historical designs challenged jewelry makers to find a balance between ‘new’ and ‘old.’ 

In 1836, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanite, a durable material made of India rubber treated with sulfur. This replaced tortoiseshell, which was commonly used for hair accessories. Vulcanite made accessories more practical and affordable for a wider range of people. 

Another development in the early to mid 1800s was the discovery of gold on the west coast of America. The 1849 Gold Rush and the massive mining efforts that followed supplied jewelry makers with more gold than was previously available from states like North Carolina.

seed pearl jewelry of the 19th century
Seed pearls adorned much of the jewelry produced in the 19th century. https://clevelandart.org/art/1916.222, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A renewed interest in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Renaissance jewelry stemmed from archaeological excavation and historical discoveries. Seed pearl jewelry, cameos, and coin jewelry once again dominated the fashion scene and die stamped reproductive coins were introduced to meet demands.

pique a jour jewelry making in the 19th century
Pique a jour was all the rage in 19th century jewelry making. Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Common jewelry making techniques during this time included champleve enameling and plique a jour. Champleve enameling involved cutting designs into metal and fusing enamel into the hollowed out spaces. Plique a jour was more similar to stained glass, in that enamel was set within a metal framework with no backing. This made plique a jour more delicate and transparent than champleve enameling.

Art Nouveau and Art Deco Jewelry of the Early 20th Century

Art Nouveau jewelry of the 1800s
Art Nouveau jewelry featured nature imagery and soft angles. Philippe Wolfers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The natural world also inspired the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This style of art and jewelry design included organic, asymmetrical shapes and interpretations of nature. Art Nouveau jewelry makers favored humble materials like enamel, opals, moonstones, glass, and horn.

Art Deco jewelry of the 1920s
Details of this Art Deco pin show the exotic influences in design during the 1920s. SiefkinDR, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Art Nouveau gave way to Art Deco by the 1920s. This artistic movement emphasized geometric shapes, symmetrical patterning, and a mix of industrial and Near East designs. Gold became favorable again as the cost of platinum rose. The exoticism of this jewelry style reflected the impact of globalization on art and culture during this era. 

Concluding Thoughts

Jewelry making has evolved in its use of materials and design techniques, and mirrors larger trends in society. As the discovery of new materials, cutting, and setting methods took hold, jewelry making become a more respected, artistic, and complicated craft.

The major historical periods of jewelry making discussed illustrate the importance of jewelry in the art, culture, and economics of different civilizations and countries and the ways in which people of diverse social classes enjoyed jewelry and the advancements in its creation.

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