The history of jewellery is not only both fascinating and surprising, but also much more ancient than you might actually realise.
In fact, jewellery is nearly as old as civilization itself and existed even before both the written language or the spoken word. “The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration”, as British archaeologist Archibald Campbell Carlyle once said of primitive man.
Indeed, jewellery is and has always been more than just an ornament for personal decoration. Much similar to art, jewellery and its history is a window into the soul of humanity and is a reminder of how humankind differentiate from the animal kingdom: humans have always had a unique need and desire to express one’s personality, individuality and style through both jewellery and clothing.
Jewellery and Human Culture
Looking back, jewels were always part of human culture. Even from the times when humans first started using clothes and tools some 100.000 years ago, jewels were produced from any kind of materials that were available at the time, such as stones, animal skins, feathers, plants, bones, shells, wood, and natural made semi-precious materials such as obsidian. As time went on, advancing technology enabled artisans to start taming metals and precious gems into works of art that influenced entire cultures and many modern jewellery styles today.
However, even with all advancements of metallurgy and gem processing, the purpose of wearing jewellery always remained the same – they enabled the wearer to express themselves non-verbally, showcase wealth, rank, political and religious affiliation, or show affections toward someone. This enabled jewellery to become timeless and a target for constant development and refinement.
Neanderthals With Class
The very earliest known jewellery was actually created not by humans (Homo Sapiens) but by the Neanderthal living in Europe, which suggests that the Neanderthals had more class than we presently may give them credit for.
More specifically, perforated beads made from small sea shells have been found dating to 115,000 years ago in a cave along the coast of Spain. The organic beads are about the size of peas and come from a type of marine mollusk called Nassarius. The beads had been perforated, perhaps by tools made from flint, which led to the conclusion that they were used as beads. It is thought that the beads were not only decorative, but also served a symbolic purpose.
Many researchers believe the use of decorative objects such as jewellery grew out of the need to identity individuals – to determine which social group a person belonged to, or their status within that group.
The world of jewellery has throughout its history undergone many changes in style, fashion and creation – changes that still continue to this day.
The Evolution of Jewellery
Indeed, the history of jewellery is both long and deep. Let’s take a closer look at the evolution of jewellery and how it’s changed and developed throughout the times.
115,000 BC – 73,000 BC: The earliest jewellery ever found dates back an incredible 115,000+ years – and was as mentioned small sea shells found a cave in Spain. Decorative sea shell beads have also been found in Morocco around this time, as well as dried shells around Israel, South Africa and Algeria.
38,000 BC – 4400 BC: Discoveries from this era include beads made from bone and animal teeth found in France as well as fossilized shells and ivory beads from the Czech Republic.
Around 4400 BC we see the production of the oldest known objects made from gold, made by the ancient Thracian civilization.
5000 BC – 30 BC: Here we start seeing the use of copper which starts a new era in jewellery production, and in addition, cultures from Egypt start using alluvial gold to produce jewellery as well as jewellery created from gold, lapis, and ivory.
They soon start producing glazed steatite beads and various jewellery designs based on scarab beetles, scrolls, winged birds, tigers, jackals and antelopes.
Around 2750 – 1200 BC jewellery gets even more sophisticated: Cultures in Ancient Mesopotamia start creating jewellery from designs based on grapes, cones, and spirals. Popular gemstones for these jewellery pieces were agate, carnelian, lapis, and jasper. This period is also when Ancient Egyptian civilization started to actually cast gold.
1400 – 30BC – Egyptians starts making jewellery from gold and copper with various gemstones, and during this time jewellery also becomes an export traded for goods from other civilizations.
500 BC – 400 AD – Ancient Roma started creating pieces such as brooches, amulets and talismans that were infused with the designs of for example animals and coiling snakes. Most popular gemstones used include sapphires, emeralds, pearls, amber, garnets, jet and diamonds.
400 – 1000 AD – During the European Dark Ages use of jewellery was not very common, except among higher nobility and royalty, and no profound advances in jewellery design or production were seen during this time.
1066 – 1485 – Thanks to religion, Medieval jewellery starts to become more widespread. The most famous designs of this time were hair and cloth jewellery that was worn during religious ceremonies and were adorned with gemstones such as rubies, sapphires, pearls, emeralds, semi-precious stones and diamonds.
1500 -1830 – Here we enter the Renaissance and Georgian time period and with it a flourishing of jewellery in all of Europe.
During this time, we see significant growth in jewellery use and popularity across all of Europe.
Necklaces, earrings and many other designs were often decorated with the images of animals. Intricately designed gemstones became very popular to the point that diamond jewellery became commonly used as a part of evening attire.
1800-1900 – During this era, jewellery tastes and fashion are greatly affected by the reign of Queen Victoria of England. The Eureka diamond (the first authenticated diamond) was found in South Africa in 1867 and in the late 1880s the Tiffany setting for diamond solitaires was introduced. The screw-back earring for unpierced ears was also patented during this time.
Early 1900s – This period was profoundly influenced by Art Noveau and Edwardian styles and it is when white gold, a popular substitute for platinum, was patented as well as when the modern round brilliant cut was introduced. Cartier New York also opened in the early 1900s and then introduced the baguette cut in 1911.
1920 – 1935 – With the 1920s came the Roaring Twenties and the rise of the Art Deco, which introduced jewellery of vibrant colours, filled with geometrical shapes, abstract designs, cubism and modernism and oriental art. Wristwatches also started becoming popular during this time.
1939 – 1949 – Now very much in the ‘modern era’, due to the influence of World War II and widespread embargoes on gemstones, popular jewellery shifted to the more metal based designs adorned with patriotic motives and semi-precious and synthetic gemstones.
1950s – The end of WWII saw the return of brightly coloured jewellery as well as an increase in the popularity of rhinestones and large beads. In 1960, General Electric in the USA patented a process for producing synthetic diamonds.
1997-Present – Anything after 1997 is considered to be contemporary jewellery – and this jewellery is much more sophisticated and subtle than the jewellery designs of the past. Modern jewellery has never been as diverse as it is in the present day, with nearly as many different styles and materials as there are humans on earth.
Without a doubt jewellery has played a significant role in the history of humanity, and it’s one of the reasons why jewellery is so special for us at Tesoro. In our opinion, jewellery is not just jewellery or a form of self-decoration. To us, jewellery is ancient culture, rich history, self-expression and pure art.
And while jewellery trends and materials may change, one thing is certain – after more than 100.000 years of use of decorative items, and more than 6 thousand years of metallurgy and gem processing, we can surely say that jewels will forever remain an integral part of humanity and our entire civilisation.
… At least that’s what we at Tesoro hope, so our love affair with jewellery can forever continue.