Fashion, Jewellery, Luxury, Models

The history, art and culture of jewelry

In his influential 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that all people had a strong desire to realize their full potential and were motivated by a number needs, some of which took precedence over others. Maslow’s needs are often represented in pyramid form and classified into five categories: Physiological, Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization. Maslow added a sixth dimension – Self-Transcendence – to the needs in his later years.

Ancient Jewelry

The one – and probably only – entity that meets all six of the human needs is Jewelry. Indeed, jewelry has been used to meet the basic needs of people for hundreds of centuries. A truly universal form of adornment, jewelry predates modern humans. It was used by the Homo Neanderthalensis, the Homo Sapiens, and the Denisova Hominin more than two hundred and fifty thousand, one hundred thousand and forty thousand years ago.


Eagle talons first recovered, in Krapina, Croatia, by Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, in 1899, are considered the earliest known Neanderthal ornaments. The were identified them as beads used for stringed jewelry items Professor Davorka Radovčić, in 2006. Dr. Marian Vanhaeren analyzed and identified three shells – two one-hundred-thousand-years-old found in Skhul Cave on the slopes of Mount Carmel, Israel, and one seventy-five-thousand-year-old shell discovered in Oued Djebbana, Algeria – as beads, which were a part of the earliest jewelry items used by human beings, in 2013.

The oldest African beads were made of perforated ostrich eggshells and were found in the Enkapune Ya Muto cave in Kenya. They were dated to as being forty thousand years old and represent some of the earliest known personal ornaments.

The oldest known stone bracelet was discovered in the Altai region of Siberia, in 2008. It is made of dark green polished chlorite and was crafted by the Denisovians, an extinct species that predates both humans and Neanderthals, in the Paleolithic Period.

In 1970, archeologists discovered the Varna Necropolis, a burial site dating to 4560-4450 BCE, in the western industrial zone of Varna, Bulgaria. The extremely rich Varna civilization was an amazingly advanced, more ancient than the empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the first known culture to create golden artifacts. More gold was found in the burial sites than in the rest of the world in the nineteen seventies.


A pair of gold basket-shaped hair ornaments, from the Isin-larsa Period (2004 – 1595 BCE), discovered in the royal cemetery of Ur, Iraq, is amongst the oldest representatives of ancient Mesopotamian jewelry.

Sixteen Faience (glazed ceramic work) amulets discovered on a mummy in Faiyum, Egypt, believed to be part of a large necklace, are one of the oldest pieces of Egyptian jewelry dated between 500 BCE and 600 BCE.


Over the centuries, a very large number of materials – animal skin, bone, clay, feathers, fossil, glass, hair, hemp, plants, shell, stone, talons, teeth, and wood – have been used to make jewelry. However, the most popular materials have been metals, beads, enamel, and gemstones. Most jewelry made today employs some, or all, of these four elements.

The most popular metals used in making jewelry are silver, gold and platinum. Historically, bronze, iron and copper has been used for making jewelry, as well. In recent years, palladium, rhodium and titanium have gained popularity as metals used for jewelry.

Silver, first mined in Turkey and Greece in 3000 BCE, is shiny, durable and long lasting but soft and susceptible to tarnishing. It is often plated with rhodium to make it resistant to tarnishing. Copper is added to silver to make it stronger, so that it can be used for making jewelry. The alloy, which is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper, is known as sterling silver.


Gold has been used to make jewelry since as far back as 4000 BCE, in Eastern Europe, and 3000 BCE, in Iraq. The metal is associated with divinity, wisdom, perfection, and permanence. Gold does not tarnish and is the easiest metal to use for creating intricate jewelry due to its softness and malleability. The purity of gold is measured in karats, where 24 karat gold represents 100 percent gold. The addition of metals to pure gold affords a great variety of color, strength, purity and cost. Yellow gold is an alloy of gold, silver and copper. White gold is created by combining gold, silver, platinum, nickel, copper and zinc. It is coated with platinum, or rhodium, to improve whiteness and add durability and shine. Rose gold is an alloy of pure gold and a significant proportion of copper. It has a pink-red hue due to the relatively high content of copper. Green gold has a subtle green tint and is made of pure gold and silver. Harder metals, like nickel and zinc, are sometimes added to make green gold more durable.


The earliest use of Platinum in jewelry was found in Egypt almost three thousand years ago. The famous Casket of Thebes, dating to 700 BCE, is adorned with platinum, along with gold and silver. Platinum is one of the rarest and most expensive precious metals. Its desirability comes from its bright bluish-white color, remarkable luster, resistance to tarnishing, strength, and durability. The metal is hypoallergenic. A jewelry item needs to have a minimum level of purity of 90 percent in order to be classified as platinum. Items of lesser purity are said to be made of platinum alloys.

Palladium is the newest precious metal. It is lighter, less dense, and cheaper than platinum. More malleable than platinum, it can be used to make very fine, intricate jewelry. The metal is hypoallergenic and does not tarnish. Rhodium is the world’s most expensive precious metal. It has very high reflectance and is used to plate other precious metals to improve appearance, give shine and add luster. Titanium is a relatively new metal in jewelry. It is strong, durable, hypoallergenic, lightweight, and corrosion-resistant. It is difficult to set stones in the very hard metal. Titanium is used primarily for wedding bands.

Enameling is an ancient decoration technique in which powdered glass is mixed with color pigments and fused to metals. The earliest known enameled jewelry items date to 1300 BCE. Enameled jewelry is very popular and a number of variations of the basic enameling process can be found all over the world. These include champlevé, cloisonné, émail brun, émail de basse-taille, émail de plique à jour, émail en resillé, émail en ronde bosse, guilloché, marquetry, meenakari, peinture sur émail, and pratapgarh.


The history of beads is more than one hundred and twenty thousand years old. They have been used extensively in jewelry and for religious, financial and trading purposes, in many ancient cultures and civilizations. Beads are made of a variety of materials – clay, gemstones, glass, metal, plastic, polymer clay, resin, seeds, shells, wood, and many others – and are used in jewelry, all over the world. They are particularly popular with artisans, hobbyists, and amateur jewelers.

Gemstones have long fascinated humans across cultures and the ages. They are pieces of mineral crystal, certain rocks, and some organic materials, which, after mining, cutting and polishing, are used in jewelry items, all over the world.

A total of a little more than two hundred varieties of natural gemstones are known but about thirty are used in jewelry, on a regular basis. Gemstones can broadly be divided into two categories: precious and semi-precious stones. Diamonds, emerald, rubies, and sapphires fall in the category of precious stones because of their rarity, purity of color, translucency, desirability, and hardness. All other gemstones are considered semi-precious. Agate, amber, amethyst, aquamarine, citrine, coral, garnet, jade, lapis lazuli, malachite, onyx, opal, pearl, peridot, quartz, spinel, topaz, tourmaline, and turquoise are amongst the most popular semi-precious gemstones.


Cut and shape

The brilliance, color and luster of a gemstone is heavily influenced by its cut. The craft of cutting and polishing gemstones, for use in jewelry, is known as lapidary. They are three general styles of cutting gemstones: faceted, en cabochon and mixed-cut. Faceted gemstones have multiple geometric flat surfaces, known as facets, designed to increase the brilliance of a stone by reflecting incident light. The faceted cut is mostly applied to transparent and translucent gemstones. Cabochon gemstones have flat bottoms and rounded, convex tops.


They do not have any facets. Generally, opaque stones are cut as cabochons. Mixed-cut gemstones, also known as buff-top, incorporate elements of both faceted and en cabochon cuts. The top is rounded whereas the bottom is faceted. The cut allows greater brilliance than the en cabochon cut and gives an illusion of depth to gemstones. Gemstones are cut – faceted, cabochon or mixed – in a variety of shapes. The most popular shapes include asscher, baguette, briolette, cushion, emerald, heart, marquise, octagon, oval, pear, princess, radiant, round, and trillion.

Gem lore – religion , belief and superstition 

Gem lore is full of stories about the magical, spiritual, protective, and healing effects of gemstones. Gemstones have featured prominently in religion as well.

Each one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, which, according to the Hebrew Bible, descended from the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob, had an association with a specific gemstone.  In Christianity, twelve gemstones represented the Twelve Apostles, the primary disciples of Jesus.

The prophet Muhammad (صَلَّى اللّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّم) wore a silver ring that held his seal. The seal read, Muhammad Rasool Allah (Muhammad, the prophet of Allah). The ring was lost during the caliphate of Hazrat Usman (رضي الله عنه) when it fell down the well of Aris and could not be recovered. An inexact replica of the ring was made and is a part of the collection of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. The prophet wore a second silver ring, set with an Abyssinian stone, on his little finger with the stone facing his palm. The Abyssinian stone has been variously identified as a carnelian, chrysolite and onyx.


Hazrat Ali Ibne Abi Talib (رضي الله عنه), the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (صَلَّى اللّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّم), wore four gem set rings. The gemstone in each one of the rings had a specific purpose. The agate was for protection and anger management, the hematite for protection against mischief, the ruby for beauty, nobility and dignity, and the turquoise for divine help, prosperity and victory.


The Garuda Purana, one of the eight most important Hindu scriptures, includes a detailed discussion of gemology.  Jyotish, the ancient Vedic astrological system, relates gemstones to various planets and explains their used in producing balancing effects to counter specific diseases, calamities and hardships. Jyotish therapeutic measures employee gemstones extensively to heal spiritual, mental and physical ailments.

Fifteen classifications of jewelry

A study of the history of jewelry results in fifteen classifications based on age, geography, aesthetics, and style. These include jewelry items produced in prehistoric times, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance period, and the Victorian era along with those produced in China, Egypt, Greece, India, Mesopotamia and Assyria, and the Roman Empire. They also include Native American jewelry and that made in the Art Nouveau (1890 – 1910) and Art Deco (1908 – 1935) styles. The fifteenth classification is avant-garde jewelry. It often combines traditional and modern styles. This class of jewelry is the work of modern jewelers and a result of ingenuity, innovation and experimentation.

Development of early jewelry

The development of early jewelry can be roughly divided across four ancient civilizations – China, Egypt, India and Mesopotamia.

China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It started producing jewelry in the Neolithic period, during the rise of the Yangshao (5000 BCE – 3000 BCE) and Longshan (3000 BCE – 1900 BCE) cultures. The Chinese preferred to use gold and silver as metals, and jade as a gemstone in their jewelry designs. China has produced large amounts of jewelry, in a variety of styles and using a number of techniques, in its history, and greatly influenced the style of a number of Asian countries. The five-thousand-year-long history of Chinese jewelry is known for seven major jewelry-making techniques: cloisonné, engraving, filigree inlaying, jade carving, kingfisher feather ornamentation, precious metal threading, and silver enamel.


The ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia are credited with starting the organized production of jewelry. Egypt became the leading force of jewelry manufacture due to its advanced knowledge of metallurgy, access to precious metals and gemstones, development of innovative jewelry-making techniques, glass-manufacturing prowess, and a culture that valued beauty, luxury and ostentation.  Everyone – male and female, young and old, and poor and rich – wore jewelry, in ancient Egypt. A widespread belief in the magical properties of jewelry existed in the region. Jewelry was worn, primarily, for protection from evil, disease, adversity, and misfortune. Certain materials, colors, and designs were believed to have specific magical properties and associated with gods who governed the kingdom. Egyptian jewelry was made of gold and silver and encrusted with colored glass, beads and semi-precious gemstones like carnelian, coral, jasper, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. It included amulets, bangles, bracelets, collars, earrings, necklaces, and rings. The most popular motifs used in ancient Egyptian jewelry included animals, birds, flowers, fruits, gods and goddesses, insects, and leaves.  The civilization made huge contributions to the development of jewelry-making techniques


Known as the Birthplace of Human Civilization, Mesopotamian civilization flourished in a region of richness, located around the riverbeds of Tigris and Euphrates. Mesopotamians started making jewelry around four thousand years ago, initially in cities of Sumer and Akkad, and later all over Mesopotamia, from Assyria to the Babylonian cities of Nineveh and Ur. The use of jewelry, in Mesopotamia, was not limited to the clergy, nobility and royalty; the entire population wore jewelry. Mesopotamian jewelry is known for its distinct style, pioneering technique and wide variety. It was made of thin sheets of metal and employed engraving, filigree, gem-setting, granulation and cloisonné techniques. The motifs of Mesopotamian jewelry were inspired by nature and included branches, cones, grapes, leaves, and twigs. The Mesopotamians worshiped the planets and paired each one of them with a unique gemstone, laying the foundation of the concept of birthstones. The accomplishments of the Mesopotamians in the area of gemstone collection, metallurgy, and jewelry-making, along with those of the Egyptians, played important role for the production of jewelry in all later civilizations.


The history of Indian jewelry is as old as the Indian civilization. The beginning of manufactured jewelry in the region can be traced back to the Neolithic era Mehergarh settlement (6500BCE), to the west of the Indus River. Mehergarh was the precursor to the Indus Valley Civilization. The earliest jewelry items from the era consist of beads made of soft stones, seeds and shell, strung together by thin cord. During the mature period of the Indus Valley Civilization (2600 BCE – 1900 BCE), metal jewelry made of bronze, copper, gold, and silver was crafted in Dholavira, Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Indians were the first to mine diamonds and master the process of mining, collecting and processing gold. The two facts, along with the huge supply of precious metals and gemstones, and a cultural emphasis on owning, wearing and amassing jewelry, helped make India one of the most prolific jewelry-making civilizations of all times. Indian jewelry has more variety than that produced anywhere else in the world thanks to the region’s cultural, religious, ethnic, and geographic diversity. Indian jewelry pieces are made for virtually all parts of the body and, in addition to standard items like bangles, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and rings, include special ones such as the bazuband (arm bracelet), bichwa (toe ring), jadanagam (ornament for braided hair), kardhaniya (waist band), nuth (nose ring), oddiyanam (waist ornament), panjangla (handiece), payal (anklet), sarpech (turban ornament), tikka (forehead ornament), and vanki (armlet). Indian jewelry employs styles, techniques and aesthetics from all over the world. Jarau kaam, kundan, meenakari, pardaas, rawa, taarkashi, and thewa are most popular techniques in the region.

Designer jewelry

The jewelry made in present times falls into many classifications – artisan, commercial, designer, folk, hand-made, machine-made, mass-produced, and others. Designer jewelry is, however, the most desirable of all classes of jewelry. It is jewelry that adheres to design aesthetics determined by famous jewelers, or design companies, and is crafted by hand, using precious gemstones and metals. Four designer jewelry houses – Tiffany & Company (established 1884), House of Fabergé (established 1842), Cartier (established 1842), and Bvlgari (established 1884) – made major contributions to the popularity of designer jewelry, in the nineteenth century, and started the trend which continues to this day. Buccellati, Chanel, Chopard, Costis, Dior, Graff, Gurhan, Harry Winston, Hermes, HStern, Ilias Lalaounis, Mikimoto, Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels have been some of the most influential jewelers in the history of jewelry.


The need for jewelry

For over one hundred thousand years, jewelry has fascinated civilizations on this planet. The desire to adorn oneself with jewelry has transcended boundaries of age, class, culture, gender, geography, religion, and time. Jewelry is a polymorphism of symbolism and has represented birth, commitment, death, friendship, marriage, mourning, scholarship, sex, success, virginity, and much else, over time. It has been used for adornment, healing, protection, safety, trade and a lot of other purposes. Most importantly, it has satisfied all six of Maslow’s needs in a way no other item ever has.

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