jewelry, history of jewelry

To Adore Adornment: The History of Jewelry

From eagle talon charms to charm bracelets, chandelier earrings, and diamond engagement rings, the history of jewelry is a complex journey throughout mankind.  It reflects not only trends but also our values, technology, societies, and beliefs.  Jewelry also shows us that, despite the millennia between modern man and our ancient counterparts, some things never change.

We may have developed more complex tools, languages, and more, but one thing seems to have remained the same: the need to express our individuality.

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Sticks and stones may break bones, but they also look good, too!

Eagle talon jewelry from Croatia. Photo via

When humans started wearing clothes (some 100,000 years ago!), we recognized this as an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.  Clothing was not just a means for protection and warmth – it could also be used as adornment.  Perhaps most importantly, jewelry showed who we are, where we came from, and what we believed in.

The earliest example of jewelry is a set eagle talons dating approximately 135,000 years ago.  Discovered in Croatia, the talons have small cut marks, indicating their use as jewelry (perhaps strung like beads).

Like the talons, early jewelry were made from easily-found materials such as “stones, animal skins, feathers, plants, bones, shells, wood, and natural made semi-precious materials such as obsidian.” Colored pebbles were also widely used and coveted for their beauty and unique patterns; a precursor to gemstones (which came later as technology improved).

history of jewelry, ancient jewelry, nassarius snail beads, ancient history, history

Nassarius Snail Beads. Photo via

These first jewelry pieces were most likely “derived from the hunt” and used to signify the wearer’s prowess as a hunter.  As modern diamonds are used as an indication of wealth and status, a necklace with a variety of animal teeth signifies bravery and skill.

This does not mean, however, that jewelry was simply used as a barometer of skill.  “In early societies, jewelry was worn as amulets to protect against bad luck and illness[,]” a precursor to later faith-related pieces. “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.”

Pieces like the Nassarius Snail Beads (found in Israel and dated around 110,000 years ago) show that jewelry could also be used as superfluous adornment.

Ev’ryone wishes for silver and gold

Gold pieces from the Varna Civilization. Photo via

There is not much different between ancient and modern jewelry, aside from the materials they are made of/utilize.  Pieces were made to adorn arms, ears, necks, fingers, etc..  As technology advanced, artisans were able to craft jewelry from precious metals and gemstones.

As the time went on, advancing technology enabled artisans to start “taming” metals and precious gems into works of art.  These pieces influenced entire cultures and many modern jewelry styles.

The Varna civilization (located near modern-day Bulgaria) was the first to make objects from gold (around 4500-4400 BC).  They were situated near the water, making trade a vital part of gold jewelry’s spread throughout the ancient world.  It is interesting to note that more ancient gold (dating around 4400 BC) has been found in the burial pits of Varna than anywhere else in the world.

India improved on Varna’s gold artifacts and “were the first who managed to conquer the art of gold gathering and processing, This made them one of the most sought destinations for trade, which eventually became driving force for the incredible expansion of European civilization during the Age of Discovery.”  Under Indian craftsmanship and development, metalworking techniques improved.  Artisans were then able to create more intricate designs. 

Glamour, glitter, fashion, and gems

Egyptian Broad Collar (ca. 1479–1425 B.C.). Gold, carnelian, obsidian, glass. Via Met Museum.

India was also the first to discover diamonds, but that would come much later.   The gemstones used in these early gold pieces were soft, making them easier to carve and shape.  Amber, made of fossilized pine tree sap, was one of the earliest stones used in jewelry-making.  “Other stones that found early use among gemcutters were meerschaum, jet, lignite, soapstone, lapis lazuli and malachite. Where volcanic action was evident, obsidian was also used.”

Amethyst, carnelian, and turquoise were also fairly popular, especially in Egypt:

“The ancient Egyptians were very taken with this sky-blue stone, sometimes grinding it into a powder to provide a unique blue eyeshadow[…]A relatively soft stone, turquoise was easily worked and could quickly be buffed to a nice finish with a mixture of sand and water.”

Mesopotamian Head Dress (ca 2600 B.C.). Lapis lazuli and carnelian bead head-dress with 14 gold leaf pendants; double row of beads. Via British Museum.

The Egyptians were also among the first to use silver in their jewelry-making.  Silver was abundantly available in Egypt and it rivaled gold in popularity.  The Egyptians also pioneered the use of stained glass inlays and glazed clay; antecedents to glass enamels.  This glass and clay work gave Egyptian jewelry a uniqueness and variety not previously found in jewelry.

Egyptians are also credited with introducing symbolism to the styles and colors of jewelry:

“Egyptians believed strongly that color reflects aspects of our personalities, and as a result, color symbolism was important to the ancient Egyptians. Yellow and gold were associated with the sun and were always used in crowns and ornaments for the pharaoh and his priests. A green stone was put in the mouths of the pharaohs to restore speech in the other world.  The red AB or heart amulet was believed to preserve the soul. The golden Udjat provided health and protection.”

 Later on (between 2750 and 1200 BC), the Mesopotamians further expanded on jewelry design.  They made pieces from thin sheets of metal and set with colored gems – not completely unlike our stamped pieces today.

History of Jewelry: All about Jewellery –
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Early History of Jewelry: Ancient Times to the 17th Century –
History of Gemstones –
Amber –
7 Oldest Pieces of Jewelry in the World –
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