A History of Jewellery

Ancient world jewellery

Collar known as The Shannongrove Gorget, maker unknown, Ireland, late Bronze Age (probably 800-700 BC). Museum no. M.35-1948. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Collar known as The Shannongrove Gorget, maker unknown, Ireland, late Bronze Age (probably 800-700 BC). Museum no. M.35-1948. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Jewellery is a universal form of adornment. Jewellery made from shells, stone and bones survives from prehistoric times. It is likely that from an early date it was worn as a protection from the dangers of life or as a mark of status or rank.

In the ancient world the discovery of how to work metals was an important stage in the development of the art of jewellery. Over time, metalworking techniques became more sophisticated and decoration more intricate.

Gold, a rare and highly valued material, was buried with the dead so as to accompany its owner into the afterlife. Much archaeological jewellery comes from tombs and hoards. Sometimes, as with the gold collars from Celtic Ireland which have been found folded in half, it appears people may have followed a ritual for the disposal of jewellery.

Medieval jewellery 1200–1500

Pendant reliquary cross, unknown maker, about 1450-1475. Museum no. 4561-1858. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Pendant reliquary cross, unknown maker, about 1450-1475. Museum no. 4561-1858. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The jewellery worn in medieval Europe reflected an intensely hierarchical and status-conscious society. Royalty and the nobility wore gold, silver and precious gems. Humbler ranks wore base metals, such as copper or pewter. Colour (provided by precious gems and enamel) and protective power were highly valued.

Until the late 14th century, gems were usually polished rather than cut. Size and lustrous colour determined their value. Enamels - ground glasses fired at high temperature onto a metal surface - allowed goldsmiths to colour their designs on jewellery. They used a range of techniques to create effects never since surpassed.

Some jewels have cryptic or magical inscriptions, believed to protect the wearer.

Renaissance jewellery

Ring, maker unknown, setting 15th century, centre 2nd century BC-1st century BC. Museum no. 724-1871. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Ring, maker unknown, setting 15th century, centre 2nd century BC-1st century BC. Museum no. 724-1871. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

 

Renaissance jewels shared the age's passion for splendour. Enamels, often covering both sides of the jewel, became more elaborate and colourful. Advances in cutting techniques increased the glitter of stones.

The enormous importance of religion in everyday life could be seen in jewellery, as could earthly power - many spectacular pieces were worn as a display of political strength.

The designs reflect the new-found interest in the classical world, with mythological figures and scenes becoming popular. The ancient art of gem engraving was revived. The inclusion of portraits reflected another cultural trend - an increased artistic awareness of the individual.

17th-century jewellery

Necklace with Sapphire Pendant, bow about 1660, chain and pendant probably 18-1900. Museum no. M.95-1909. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Necklace with Sapphire Pendant, bow about 1660, chain and pendant probably 18-1900. Museum no. M.95-1909. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

By the mid-17th century, changes in fashion had introduced new styles of jewellery. While dark fabrics required elaborate gold jewellery, the new softer pastel shades became graceful backdrops for gemstones and pearls. Expanding global trade made gemstones ever more available. Advances in cutting techniques increased the sparkle of gemstones in candlelight.

The most impressive jewels were often large bodice or breast ornaments, which had to be pinned or stitched to stiff dress fabrics. The swirling foliate decoration of the jewels shows new enthusiasm for bow motifs and botanical ornaments.

18th-century jewellery

Sword, mark of James Morisset, 1798-9. Museum no. 274-1, 2-1869. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Sword, mark of James Morisset, 1798-9. Museum no. 274-1, 2-1869. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The end of the previous century had seen the development of the brilliant-cut with its multiple facets. Diamonds sparkled as never before and came to dominate jewellery design. Frequently mounted in silver to enhance the stone's white colour, magnificent sets of diamond jewels were essential for court life. The largest were worn on the bodice, while smaller ornaments could be scattered over an outfit.

Owing to its high intrinsic value, little diamond jewellery from this period survives. Owners often sold it or re-set the gems into more fashionable designs.

Bridal crown (brudkrona), 18th or 19th century. Museum no. 1354-1873

19th-century jewellery

Spray ornament, maker unknown, about 1850. Museum no. M.115-1951. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Spray ornament, maker unknown, about 1850. Museum no. M.115-1951. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The 19th century was a period of huge industrial and social change, but in jewellery design the focus was often on the past. In the first decades classical styles were popular, evoking the glories of ancient Greece and Rome. This interest in antiquities was stimulated by fresh archaeological discoveries. Goldsmiths attempted to revive ancient techniques and made jewellery that imitated, or was in the style of, archaeological jewellery.

There was also an interest in jewels inspired by the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is a testament to the period's eclectic nature that jewellers such as the Castellani and Giuliano worked in archaeological and historical styles at the same time.

Naturalistic jewellery, decorated with clearly recognisable flowers and fruit, was also popular for much of this period. These motifs first became fashionable in the early years of the century, with the widespread interest in botany and the influence of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth. By the 1850s the delicate early designs had given way to more extravagant and complex compositions of flowers and foliage. At the same time, flowers were used to express love and friendship. The colours in nature were matched by coloured gemstones, and a 'language of flowers' spelt out special messages. In contrast with earlier periods, the more elaborate jewellery was worn almost exclusively by women.

Brooch with cameo of Queen Victoria, by Félix Dafrique; cameo by Paul Lebas (active 1829-70)

Arts & crafts jewellery

Pendant-brooch (detail), designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, about 1900. Museum no. M.31-2005. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Pendant-brooch (detail), designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, about 1900. Museum no. M.31-2005. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Developing in the last years of the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement was based on a profound unease with the industrialised world. Its jewellers rejected the machine-led factory system - by now the source of most affordable pieces - and instead focused on hand-crafting individual jewels. This process, they believed, would improve the soul of the workman as well as the end design.

Arts and Crafts jewellers avoided large, faceted stones, relying instead on the natural beauty of cabochon (shaped and polished) gems. They replaced the repetition and regularity of mainstream settings with curving or figurative designs, often with a symbolic meaning.

Art Nouveau jewellery and the Garland style 1895–1910

Hair ornament, made by Philippe Wolfers, 1905-7. Museum no. M.11-1962. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Hair ornament, made by Philippe Wolfers, 1905-7. Museum no. M.11-1962. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The Art Nouveau style caused a dramatic shift in jewellery design, reaching a peak around 1900 when it triumphed at the Paris International Exhibition.

Its followers created sinuous, organic pieces whose undercurrents of eroticism and death were a world away from the floral motifs of earlier generations. Art Nouveau jewellers like René Lalique also distanced themselves from conventional precious stones and put greater emphasis on the subtle effects of materials such as glass, horn and enamel.

However, the style's radical look was not for everyone or for every occasion. Superb diamond jewellery was made in the 'garland style', a highly creative re-interpretation of 18th- and early 19th-century designs.

Art Deco jewellery to the 1950s

Commemorative Brooch, 1937. Museum no. M.115-1993

Commemorative Brooch, 1937. Museum no. M.115-1993. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Although buffeted by cycles of boom, depression and war, jewellery design between the 1920s and 1950s maintained both innovation and glamour. Sharp, geometric patterns celebrated the machine age, while exotic creations inspired by the Near and Far East hinted that jewellery fashions were truly international. New York now rivalled Paris as a centre for fashion, and European jewellery houses could expect to sell to, as well as buy from, the Indian subcontinent.

Dense concentrations of gemstones are characteristic of Art Deco jewellery. From about 1933 gold returned to fashion, partly because it was cheaper than platinum.

Artists and designers from other fields also became involved in jewellery design. Their work foreshadows the new directions jewellery would take.

Contemporary jewellery

Brooch, designed and engraved by Malcolm Appleby, made by Roger Doyle, 1975. Museum no. M.314-1977. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Brooch, designed and engraved by Malcolm Appleby, made by Roger Doyle, 1975. Museum no. M.314-1977. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Since the 1960s the boundaries of jewellery have been continually redefined. Conventions have been challenged by successive generations of independent jewellers, often educated at art college and immersed in radical ideas.

New technologies and non-precious materials, including plastics, paper and textiles, have overturned the notions of status traditionally implicit in jewellery.

Avant-garde artist-jewellers have explored the interaction of jewellery with the body, pushing the boundaries of scale and wearability to the limits. Jewellery has developed into wearable art. The debate on its relationship to Fine Art continues.

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Fashion Jewellery - Made in Italy (Hardback)

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Event - Italian Style: Bulgari Jewellery

Fri 16 May 2014 19:00

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