Gemstones have had a mysterious hold on mankind for as long as humans have been on the planet. Before written language or even the spoken word, there was jewellery. British archaeologist Archibald Campbell Carlyle said of primitive man, “the first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration.” But jewellery is more than a mere ornament, a flash of cash or historical heirloom in a museum or gathering dust in a safe. Jewellery symbolises so much more than that – it is a symbol of our separation from the animal kingdom and our desire to capture and appreciate beauty.
Read on for a whistle-stop – and by no means all inclusive – history of the use of gemstones in jewellery, focusing on some of the most interesting and pivotal eras in jewellery history.
The first jewellery was made from found objects and natural materials, for example, animal teeth, bone, shells, carved stone and wood. We believe that the first pieces of jewellery were designed as functional items, such as to fasten clothing. However, it seems that these items were later adapted to become religious or spiritual symbols and sometimes made and worn just for pure aesthetic revelry.
The first gemstones to be used were probably gathered much in the same way as food; perhaps these gems were found when picking through gravels in a dry river bed. We can only imagine what these primitive people must have thought of these alluring yet seemingly useless objects.
As mankind progressed, jewellery was used as a symbol of wealth and status, as well as to protect against harm, ward off evil, and heal ailments.
Think of ancient historical jewellery, and I believe most people think of the Egyptians. The hieroglyphics found in Pharaohs tombs show figures covered in gold bangles, neck pieces and earrings, which were first seen when Tutankhamun’s tomb was first uncovered in 1922. One of the most amazing finds in this almost intact tomb was the huge quantities of stunningly ornate, gold covered artefacts. The Egyptian aesthetic has inspired Modernist jewellery and continues to inspire jewellery designs to this day.
The ancient Egyptians placed great importance on the religious significance of certain sacred objects and this was heavily reflected in their jewellery motifs. Gem carvings known as “glyptic art” typically took the form of scarab beetles and other anthropomorphic religious symbols. The Egyptian lapidists (gemstone carvers) would use emery fragments or flint to carve softer stones while bow-driven rotary tools were used on harder gems.
The ancient Egyptians were the first nation to shout about their glory, power and wealth within their own community and the broader region. To build monuments and to collect opulent furniture, art and jewellery was an uppermost priority for the Pharaohs. This projection of wealth was not just important in their earthly life but was even more important after death. Gold, a rare and highly valued material, was buried with the dead so as to accompany its owner into the afterlife.
One of the key characteristics of Egyptian jewellery is the rich array of colourful gems utilised in its design. But in actual fact, although the Egyptians had access to many precious gemstones, they often preferred to emulate them with glass. The reason for this was that natural gemstones were much harder to work with. That being said, there were several soft gems that were definite favourites of the ancient Egyptians: carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, malachite, quartz and turquoise were all used extensively throughout ancient Egypt. In many ancient cultures, royalty was represented by the colour blue, and this was especially true in ancient Egypt, making Lapis one of the most prized of all gemstones. The same goes for blue paint in ancient paintings – the pigment was made using ground up Lapis, making it the most expensive of all the colours and therefore reserved for the most important portraits.
The Middle Ages
Throughout history, gemstones have been collected by the rich and powerful as displays of their wealth, but no more so than by the Church of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages is a period that covers a huge stretch of time from the 5th century AD to the 16th century. It was filled with natural disasters and plague; the Middle Ages were a ten-century-long period of hardship full of superstition, religious oppression, fear and despair. The belief in the medicinal power of gemstones was particularly potent at this time; it was commonly accepted that gems could heal every manner of illness. Talismanic rings were used as an antidote for illness, poisoning, or to ward off evil and the envious “evil eye.”
At the height of the Dark Ages, the Church was one of the only sources of wealth in Europe, and as such, Ecclesiastical vestments were some of the few ornate objects made by the Goldsmiths of the time. But as Europe became more prosperous towards the end of the Middle Ages, the decorative arts began to emerge from the cloistered world of the royal court. Enamelwork, inlayed ivory, and jewels set in ornate metal work gave way to the Gothic style during the 13th century Renaissance.
After years of training as an apprentice in a particular craft, a junior craftsman was tested by guild members to see if his workmanship measured up. They worked in silver and gold and used gems such as garnets, jasper, sapphires and emeralds.
The Victorian Era
Fast forward from the 16th century to the 1800’s and discover the fascinating world of Victorian jewellery. As far as fashion, social attitudes, and aesthetic taste is concerned, there was no greater influence on the nation’s sense of taste, and general mood, than the royal family. The Victorian era blended an eclectic array of stylistic influences such as Elizabethan, Classical and Gothic revival, Greco-Roman, Neoclassical, Orientalism, Rococo and Romanticism.
The Early Victorian years from 1837 to around 1860 were referred to as the “Roman Period,” marked by the Queen’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. Romanticism was a social shift away from the aristocratic, social, and political norms of this period, stressing the importance of dreams, emotions and sentimentality. This in turn had a huge influence over design in this period. The Romantic era also brought about a new fascination with nature, adding Eden-like symbols such as the serpent, grapes, flowers, and birds to create the ‘romantic’ motif.
After Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had purchased Balmoral Castle in the Caledonian Woodlands of Scotland in 1848, Celtic motifs began to permeate English culture. By the end of the Romantic Period, brooches and pendants containing polished agate gemstones called “Scottish pebble jewellery” had become very popular. Another offshoot of the Queen’s fascination with the Scottish countryside was the popularity of the Celtic Revival Cross, worn as a pendant or pin.
So called “hair jewellery” or “memorial mourning brooches” became a staple of the period, with Queen Victoria giving gifts of jewellery made from her own hair. Mourning brooches were made by weaving small locks of a loved one’s hair into detailed “hair art.” The locks were mounted on an agate or mother-of-pearl backing, then covered with domed glass.
After a twenty year run, the Romantic era ended suddenly with the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert in 1860. A new period of mourning known as the Mid-Victorian or “Grand” Period, lasted from 1860 to 1885. Darker stones such as jet and black onyx began to appear in jewellery, symbolic of the national mood.
A typical jewellery item of the Victorian era was the cameo brooch and the stick pin, often depicting mythological Greco-Roman imagery. The cameos were made of carved conch shell, hardstone agate, carnelian, and sardonyx, or Wedgwood ceramic. Glass or paste gemstone simulations were also used extensively, especially with a foil backing to reflect more light through the stone. Brooches were decorated with miniature enamel portraits, surrounded by granulation, filigree and fleur-de-lys.
After Queen Victoria was crowned as the Empress of India in 1876, ‘Orientalism’ brought about a newfound fascination with the Far East. Eastern and Indian motifs worked their way into European art and jewellery design too.
The Art Nouveau period is one my personal favourites because of it’s organic, flowing lines and clear inspiration from nature. It is an important design movement, which encompassed not just jewellery, but furniture, architecture and lighting as well. It is so important because it was one of the first departures from classical design towards a new modernism.
The key themes and motifs of Art Nouveau come from nature, fantasy and the female form, with sensual and flowing shapes and earthy, feminine colours. Exotic floral motifs combined with animals, birds, butterflies, dragonflies, peacock feathers and plants were incorporated with graceful feminine imagery of fairies, mermaids and nymphs, complete with long manes of twisting hair. Some of the floral motifs that were used in the Art Nouveau style were inspired by the work of English artist William Morris, founder of the “Arts and Crafts Movement” in the late Victorian era.
Enamelling was main technique for adding colour to Art Nouveau jewellery but some gemstones were used, for example, pearls, diamonds and translucent stones like amethyst and aquamarine.
The name Art Deco refers to the movement’s effect on the decorative arts, which was far more utilitarian than its predecessor, Art Nouveau. The geometric and clean-cut aesthetic of Art Deco design was inspired by industrial styles such as Bauhaus, Cubism and Futurism. But like its sibling movement, it permeated every aspect of design from fashion, architecture, graphic arts, industrial design, consumer products and, of course, jewellery.
Art Deco jewellery is some of the most easily recognisable of all the styles and is one that often gets replicated in contemporary jewellery. It is ultra modern with clean lines, trapezoidal shapes, stepped edges and arched corners, taking inspiration from Aztec, Egyptian and tribal motifs. Art Deco jewellery has an Architectural appearance, with stones cut in bold and geometric shapes such as the emerald, pentagon, trapezoid, baguette or trillion cuts. Another key feature was the use of contrasting colours such as black and white. Diamonds and light coloured gemstones were mixed with dark, opaque materials such as black onyx.
The Art Deco period was a time of great advancements in the jewellery industry. Gem cutters developed new cuts that achieved fantastic brilliance from faceted gems in new and innovative ways, resulting in new cuts and shapes that could be arranged in mosaic-like designs. Van Cleef & Arpels developed one of the most important innovations of the era by devising a new ‘invisible’ setting style. This setting style used a system of grooves and rails in such a way that no metal was visible.
What I love about contemporary jewellery is that it takes inspiration from all these design movements but puts a brand new spin on it. There is not one key style or motif anymore, but a huge wealth of options to find inspiration from. Have a look at our Pinterest for some examples of Contemporary jewellery.
Have you got a different favourite era of jewellery from history? Perhaps you like the idea of commissioning a piece of jewellery inspired by a design movement from the past? Get in touch using the contact page with your ideas.