Jewellery or jewelry consists of objects of personal adornment prized for the craftsmanship going into their creation and generally for the value of their components as well.
The word “jewelry” is derived from the word jewel, which was Anglicized from the Old French jouel around the thirteenth century and traces back to the Latin word jocale, meaning plaything.
Throughout the centuries and from culture to culture, the materials considered rare and beautiful have ranged from shells, bones, pebbles, tusks, claws, and wood to so-called precious metals, precious and semiprecious stones, pearls, corals, enamels, vitreous pastes, and ceramics.
People started using jewelry over 100,000 years ago, such as a bracelet made from an eagle’s talons was discovered in Croatia in 2013.
In prehistoric times, people chose materials that came from their immediate environment. Women wore necklaces of snails and shells that symbolized fertility and motherhood. Men adorned themselves with animal teeth and claws, which signified strength and the ability to hunt, feed, and protect their families. Aside from being ornamental, jewelry during these times functioned much like an amulet – a good luck charm that protected them.
Later in Kenya, at Enkapune Ya Muto, beads made from perforated ostrich egg shells have been dated to more than 40,000 years ago. In Russia, a stone bracelet and marble ring are attributed to a similar age.
In prehistoric times, as well as in contemporary cultures, jewelry is not only ornamentation for the body, but also a means of communication. Hierarchy, prestige, and power are expressed through jewelry, which can affirm the status of an individual in society.
Around seven-thousand years ago, the first sign of copper jewellery was seen. In October 2012 the Museum of Ancient History in Lower Austria revealed that they had found a grave of a female jewellery worker – forcing archaeologists to take a fresh look at prehistoric gender roles after it appeared to be that of a female fine metal worker – a profession that was previously thought to have been carried out exclusively by men.
The oldest gold jewelry in the world is dating from 4,600 BC to 4,200 BC and was discovered in Europe, at the site of Varna Necropolis, near the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria
Among the most ancient examples of jewelry are those found in Queen Pu-abi’s tomb at Ur in Sumer (now called Tall al-Muqayyar), dating from the 3rd millennium BC. In the crypt the upper part of the queen’s body was covered with a sort of robe made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, and chalcedony beads, the lower edge decorated with a fringed border made of small gold, carnelian, and lapis lazuli cylinders.
The first signs of established jewellery making in Ancient Egypt was around 3,000–5,000 years ago. The Egyptians preferred the luxury, rarity, and workability of gold over other metals. In Predynastic Egypt jewellery soon began to symbolise political and religious power in the community. Although it was worn by wealthy Egyptians in life, it was also worn by them in death, with jewellery commonly placed among grave goods.
The sensational discovery of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (1539–1292 BC) revealed the fabulous treasures that accompanied an Egyptian sovereign, both during his lifetime and after his death, as well as the high degree of mastery attained by Egyptian goldsmiths. This treasure is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and represents the biggest collection of gold and jewelry in the world.
The Greeks started using gold and gems in jewellery in 1600 BC, although beads shaped as shells and animals were produced widely in earlier times.
Although jewellery work was abundantly diverse in earlier times, especially among the barbarian tribes such as the Celts, when the Romans conquered most of Europe, jewellery was changed as smaller factions developed the Roman designs. The most common artefact of early Rome was the brooch, which was used to secure clothing together. The Romans used a diverse range of materials for their jewellery from their extensive resources across the continent. Although they used gold, they sometimes used bronze or bone, and in earlier times, glass beads & pearl. As early as 2,000 years ago, they imported Sri Lankan sapphires and Indian diamonds and used emeralds and amber in their jewellery.
India has the longest continuous tradition of jewelry making. Around 1,500 BC the Indus Valley people made their earrings and necklaces of gold, beads other metals. Womenfolk wore clay and shell bracelets, usually painted black and loved tiaras, chokers, brooches and ear rings .Gradually, clay was replaced by glass and metals.
Post-Roman Europe continued to develop jewellery making skills. The Celts and Merovingians in particular are noted for their jewellery, which in terms of quality matched or exceeded that of the Byzantine Empire.
The Renaissance and exploration both had significant impacts on the development of jewellery in Europe. By the 17th century, increasing exploration and trade led to increased availability of a wide variety of
gemstones as well as exposure to the art of other cultures.
Starting in the late 18th century, Romanticism had a profound impact on the development of western jewellery. Perhaps the most significant influences were the public’s fascination with the treasures being discovered through the birth of modern archaeology and a fascination with Medieval and Renaissance art.
Many whimsical fashions were introduced in the extravagant eighteenth century.
The Industrial Revolution destroyed forever the ancient role of jewelry as a symbol of social rank. The social evolution created a market for a vast quantity of jewelry at prices the middle class could afford, and so jewelry, too, succumbed to the machine.
The jewelry produced in the 19th century is characterized by a stylistic eclecticism that takes its inspiration from all past styles—Gothic, Renaissance, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Rococo, Naturalistic, Moorish, and Indian, all tinged with the Sir Walter Scott–Lord Byron Romanticism of the period.
Most modern commercial jewellery continues traditional forms and styles, but designers such as Georg Jensen have widened the concept of wearable art.
One of the most recent developments in modern mass-produced jewelry is the use of plastic and new materials. This material, as well as providing colour, can have mineral fragments or dust embedded in it or can be used in combination with more or less valuable metals, producing pieces of jewelry whose composition may call for considerable effort and which may be of much interest.