Research indicates that self-adornment seems to be an archaic human trait... According to the Biblical story of Eve, self awareness is what made us human.
What is it about humans and self-adornment? While today’s obsession with glittery gems and baubles is obvious, it might come as a surprise that humans have been making jewelry since the Stone Age. In fact, the earliest pieces of jewelry discovered coincide with man’s transition from nomadic roamer to settled villager, roughly 100,000 years ago. What the exact relationship between these factors is, we can’t say, but it’s safe to assume that the introduction of jewelry into our collective history reflects a significant shift in human consciousness. By examining early jewelry, its materials and uses, we can learn a lot about our ancestors and the evolutionary steps that made us who we are today.
Jewelry has always been an integral part of human sociology. If you track the various cultures throughout history, jewelry’s played a variety of roles in the extension of fashion.
Jewelry is nearly as old as civilization itself and the evolution of jewelry techniques, styles and fashions gives us a fascinating look back into the time periods in which the jewelry was created.
The earliest known Jewelry was actually created not by humans (Homo sapiens) but by Neanderthals living in Europe. Specifically, perforated beads made from small sea shells have been found dating to 115,000 years ago in the Cueva de los Aviones, a cave along the southeast coast of Spain.
The first known examples of jewelry originated in Africa in the form of shell jewelry, like the use of snail shells and Ostrich egg shells, which have dated back nearly 75,000 years ago. Later, early jewelry was made from bone, teeth, stones and similar materials. Though evidence of jewelry existed, it wasn’t until 3,000-5,000 BC in Ancient Egypt that jewelry making was truly established. Gold was used in metalworking as early as 3,000 BC in Egypt.
Ancient Egypt, famous for the extravagant life of the Pharaoh, is known for its rich design, artwork and opulence. The use of bracelets, necklaces, collars and more all in gold aligns with the extravagance of the time. At the time, gold was mined from the the Nubian desert and, due to its malleable nature, was an easy metal to work with. The Egyptians also worked with lapis lazuli, glass and other semi-precious stones.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe continued to develop jewelry making. During the Middle Ages, amulets, clothing fasteners and signet rings were popular jewelry accessories. During the Renaissance, the increase of trade led to a dissemination of jewelry making methods and materials led to the prominence of gemstones and gemstone settings.
The 19th century saw a return to extravagance in jewelry making, this time using precious stones and matching suites. At this time, costume jewelry started to slowly emerge. The wealthy sought intricate and detailed jewelry designs to stand out from the new middle class, so an increase in commissioned one-of-a-kind pieces also increased.
In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany founded Tiffany & Co., bringing the U.S. to the forefront of jewelry making. Meanwhile, in 1847, Pierre Cartier founded Cartier SA in France and in 1884 Bulgari in Italy. These three jewelers remain the top and most notable fine jewelers in the world today.
Historical Jewelry Timeline:
110.000–73.000 BC During this time period jewelry was made from dried sea shells and sea shell beads. This is the earliest jewelry known to man.
38.00–2800 BC Archeological evidence found in France shows that jewelry beads were made from bone and animal teeth circa 38.00 BC. Circa 2800 BC, archeological evidence found in what is now the modern Czech Republic, indicates that jewelry was made from fossilized shells and ivory beads.
4400 BC During this era we see the production of the oldest known objects made from gold. These objects were made by the ancient Thracian civilization.
5000-30 BC Around this time we start seeing the use of copper, which starts a new era in jewelry production. In addition, the Badarian culture from Egypt starts using alluvial gold to produce jewelry. And in Southern Egypt, we start to see jewelry created from gold, lapis, and ivory. Popular gemstones used in jewelry of that era and location included amethyst, carnelian, chalcedony, feldspar, and turquoise. Soldering and glass production was introduced around this time too.
2750–1200 BC Jewelry gets even more sophisticated: People in Ancient Mesopotamia start to create jewelry from designs based on grapes, cones, and spirals. Popular gemstones for these jewelry pieces were agate, carnelian, lapis, and jasper. This period is also when Ancient Egyptian civilization started to actually cast gold and around 1500 the art of lost wax casting is developed in the Near East.
1400 -1200 BC Egypt starts making jewelry from gold and copper with different gemstones, and jewelry becomes an export traded for goods from other civilizations. Around 1300BC we start to see the use of signet rings (in the form of a monogram or coat of arms) which were used to represent signatures, as this was a time when most people could not read or write. Greek jewelry during this era was inspired by animals and shells and frequently contained amethysts, chalcedony, pearls, garnet, emeralds and cornelian. In addition, in the early Harrapan culture, which emerged from South Asia during the Bronze Age, we start to see such advanced jewelry making techniques as embossing and enameling. Silver also becomes a popular metal for jewelry. Also around 1200 BC, molding and engraving are introduced in the Chavin civilization of Peru.
1100-600 BC The Greeks start making intaglios and cameos, and iron hand tools are introduced that allow for greater sophistication in the design and production of jewelry. Around 800BC, diamonds, which were already known in India, become an export product and circa 700BC/600BC the Etruscan civilization starts to use sapphires and amber in their jewelry pieces, while the Greeks start to include garnets and emeralds in their jewelry.
500-400BC Ancient Romans began to create jewelry pieces such as amulets, brooches, seal rings, and talismans that were infused with animal designs or coiling snakes. Amber, emeralds, garnets, diamond, pearls, and sapphires were the most popular gemstones used at that time.
400BC-1000 CE We enter the Dark Ages during which jewelry was rarely used except among nobility and royalty. No real advances in jewelry design or production are seen during this time.
1096–1496 CE Emerging from the Dark Ages, Medieval jewelry starts to become more widespread largely due to the spread of religion. At this time, there was a preference for hair and cloth jewelry, which was frequently adorned with emeralds, diamonds, pearls, rubies, and sapphires. These adornments were usually worn during religious ceremonies. Also during this period of time, China introduced the concept of cultured pearls (circa 1100CE) and goldsmiths in London started a guild. In the 1200s, Gothic style jewelry becomes popular and we see the earliest evidence of diamond cutting (the point cut). Circa 1450, the table-cut diamond is introduced and not much later, the first French-cut diamonds are cut. It is also worth noting that around this time the first diamond engagement ring ever presented was given to Mary of Burgundy by Emperor Maximilian I.
1500-1800 Enter the Renaissance and Georgian time period and with it a flourishing of jewelry in all of Europe. During this time, we see significant growth in jewelry use and popularity across all of Europe with new diamond cuts like the rose cut, the appearance of the first European lab for smelting ores, and the first mention ever of the Beau Sancy diamond. Also during this time, colorless zircons are mined in France and nearing the 1600s Barogue Style hits Europe, influencing everything from architecture to clothing to jewelry. Baroque style is characterized by highly ornate and dramatic designs.
In this same time frame, circa 1650, the Great Mogul diamond is discovered in India, and circa 1700 the Peruzzi cut, which was an early version of the brilliant cut, is introduced. Tourmaline and topaz are also discovered during this time period and in 1791, titanium is discovered.
1800-1900 Jewelry tastes and fashion are profoundly affected by the reign of Queen Victoria of England during this time period. This is also when the Royal Iron Works of Berlin opened and started producing jewelry. Other developments in jewelry include the introduction of brooches with swiveling compartments, the documentation of the process for bloomed gold, the patenting of a snake chain making machine in the USA and the opening of the first diamond cutting factory in the USA. In addition, the Eureka diamond (the first authenticated diamond) is found in South Africa in 1867 and the Dewey Diamond is cut in 1868. Also noteworthy is the patenting in 1886 of a six-prong setting for diamonds, which later became known as a Tiffany setting. Shortly after, the Tiffany setting for diamond solitaires was also introduced and the screw-back earring for unpierced ears was patented.
Early 1900s This period was greatly 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 The 1920s brought us the Roaring Twenties and the rise of Art Deco, which influenced not only architecture, but also furniture, fashion, jewelry, and other everyday objects. Art Deco’s influence on jewelry came in the form of vivid and vibrant colors, geometrical shapes, abstract designs, and modernism. This was also around the time that wristwatches became popular.
1939-1949 Now firmly into the ‘modern era’, we see the invention of the ‘invisible’ setting, which was patented by Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels, and we also see costume jewelry manufacturers begin to use copyrights for designs instead of patents. This is significant because costume jewelry became increasingly popular around this time as a result of WWII and the resulting embargoes on gemstones. Another notable event for the history of jewelry during this period was the launch of the ‘a diamond is forever’ slogan by De Beers in 1948 – one of the most iconic ads in history.
1950s-1990s The end of WWII saw the return of brightly colored jewelry as well as an increase in the popularity of rhinestones and large beads. In 1960, General Electric patented a process for producing synthetic diamonds.
1997-Present Anything after 1997 is considered to be contemporary jewelry and this jewelry is more sophisticated and subtle than the jewelry designs of the past. Engagement rings in particular have become much more refined, with the solitaire engagement ring becoming the most popular style for many years. In recent years, jewelry design and production has also benefited greatly from technology. CAD in particular has brought jewelry design to new levels of complexity, intricacy and beauty. CAD jewelry is also more accurate, more versatile, and less expensive. And it allows for the creation of renders or photo-realistic images that show how the finished piece will look before it’s even been produced.