Primitive man who wore the tooth of a slain beast around his neck and his woman who adorned her being with shells and coloured stones were simply adding to the protective mantle necessary for survival in their raw lifestyles.
From the early beginnings of civilisation, jewellery in its most basic form had a direct relationship to the human form. Bodily ornamentation was associated with conjuring, healing and sanctifying properties.
By the 13th century, there were many recorded references to the amulet character of certain gemstones:
. ruby – inner peace and happiness;
. sapphire – heavenly good fortune;
. emerald – earthly riches; and
. diamond – protection against enemies and insanity.
Earlobes were the first appendages of the anatomy to be used for ornamentation and very large earrings have been found in Sumerian graves, among the first civilisations to inter the dead with earthly possessions.
The arms have been offered as bearers of costly rings that could be made with special stones to indicate magical properties.
Ankle bracelets belong to this category, common in most cultures outside Europe where this form of adornment was rare. It hinted at concealed relationships of belonging, a kind of bondage amulet.
Through the ages, the intention of jewellery has mostly been to make the wearer stand out among others and also to beautify oneself. For all levels of society, this need remained basic with the difference only in the value of stones used. Through the diffusion of social groupings and structure over the centuries, the gap between jewellery of the rich and the common people began to narrow.
In the 12th century, it was forbidden for anyone but the nobility in Europe to wear jewellery but by the 15th century, many bourgeoisie had become rich merchants as nobility became poorer from over-indulgence and bad management. As a result, many bourgeoisie began accumulating jewellery that had hitherto belonged to the rich and noble, many of whom were forced to sell their heirlooms in order to live the lifestyle they had been accustomed to.
The most significant development of jewellery as non-mystical adornment came during the great flowering of the Italian Renaissance at the end of the 16th century. It was a time of decorative arts which reached heady heights especially when Florentine influence began to take effect. Everything became rich, lively and theatrically flamboyant with even the most severe geometrical lines becoming intricate and touched with iridescence. This was particularly reflective in the multi-faceted jewellery of the time, intricate Florentine goldwork combined with enamel, figurines and beings of heraldic fantasy in glorious hues; a bijou totality rarely to be matched again.
By the 17th century and with the beginning of the Baroque period, a definite change of style set in. The ornate Florentine manner of creative fantasy in jewellery took second place to the intrinsic sparkle of the precious stone itself. This made jewellery quite out of reach of the common people, almost as if it was a counter-attack by the nobility on the bourgeoisie who dared to flaunt their nouveau wealth.
The jewellery of the early l8th century was built largely around diamonds and pearls which, while understated in design, was still too expensive for the masses. This was the era when men were inclined to be more bedecked with peacock grandeur than women. Jewellery was not exclusive to women, but because of the new styles emerging of bows, pendants and earrings, it became more and more an article of female adornment, with men drawing the line at such frilly excesses.
Jewellery became more economical, simple and almost monotone not so much in material as in form. The price of material was decisive and as fanciful as the clothing was in this era. Men and women lavished upon their clothing, intricate embroidery in gold and silver thread. This pared-down but still expensive look in jewellery was to prevail until the mid-18th century when the re-awakening of the Rococo period saw a new flowering of the goldsmith’s art in Europe. There was no stinting of costly stones and heavy works of gold.
The monarchy and higher nobility rushed into their splendid uniforms more than ever but the bourgeoisie already had in their possession tiaras and other diadems that belied their owners’ humble origins. This wealthy stratum of bourgeoisie strove to attain the level of nobility which they did with little effort. Once they had done this, the emphasis shifted to individual pieces of jewellery that used the rarer gems. Rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds were used with abundance – the expression of wealth over-riding that of gentry.
The tendency was to create ensembles consisting of as many pieces as possible of the same design; for example a tiara, necklace, earrings, far exceeding their individual values.
By the end of the 19th century, with the world stock market crises of 1880 and 1892, artistic concepts did a swing-around. Everything of historic nature became ‘unmodern’ and gave way to the more geometrical forms of classicism that grew out of the French Revolution against ornate excesses. This second revolt against historicism brought a naturalism that found expression in expensive jeweilery with animal figures, beetles and butterflies.
By the start of the 20th century, there was much less emphasis on specific forms and jewellery became a much more individual creation. People wore what pleased them and rich men commissioned pieces dictated by their wealth and degree of love and passion for their women, expressed by expensive or sentimental creations.