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.