Maisha Ahmed

Why accessorize?

Ever since the dawn of time, okay, maybe not exactly since then, humans have been adorning themselves with jewelry. Whether it be the animal bones our ancestors wore around their necks or the over the top statement necklaces we wear today, jewelry has always played an integral part in every society's culture. Jewelry first came into existence when our prehistoric predecessors were able to divert their energies from finding food, water, and shelter towards other things. Traditionally, jewelry is viewed as a status symbol- the wealthier the person, the more intricate ornamentation they will wear and this view pervades into present day. Members of royal families and members of the nobility used jewelry to place themselves above the common people and legitimize their power.

However, most people fail to realize that jewelry is in fact sexual by nature. Many pieces serve to draw the viewer's attention towards a man or woman's beauty. Earrings, for example, accentuate the facial structure and neck area of an individual highlighting their beauty. Besides being a helpful tool when wanting to impress that special someone, jewelry played the role of a security blanket when security blankets didn't exist. This protectionist sentiment associated with jewelry came from the belief that different gemstones held different powers that could be utilized by the wearer. Not only can jewelry make the wearer feel protected, it can give the wearer a sense of belonging. In many cultures, the type of jewelry one adorns him or herself with identifies their affiliation with a certain group whether it be religious, ethnic, or social in nature. Nowadays, we hardly associate jewelry with these purposes and rather focus on its aesthetic pleasure. Whatever, the reason may be that you wear jewelry, it is safe to say that the piece you are wearing today have elements of design that stem from the past.

Ancient Egypt

What makes Ancient Egyptian jewelry the first important civilization to talk about? One word. GOLD. Without the discovery of this precious metal, Egyptian jewelry would probably have developed differently from the jewelry we are so familiar with today. Because gold is so malleable, many exquisite designs and patterns were created out of it. In fact, gold jewelry became one of Egypt's most prized exports. So what exactly did they to adorn themselves with?

Collar of Neferuptah. Middle Kingdom
Collar of Neferuptah. Middle Kingdom

The most iconic example of Egyptian jewelry is the Wesekh collar. These are the necklaces seen on images of pharaohs and empresses of Egypt. A Wesekh collar is made up of layers of beads with the final layer of beads in the shape of teardrops. Typically, the beads are made gold and gemstones. The Collar of Princess Neferuptah is comprised of gold, carnelian, and feldspar. The necklace ends in the heads of two falcons- the symbol for Horus, sky god and protector of Egypt. In fact, winged birds were a common motif in Egyptian jewelry along with scrolls, lotuses, jackals, and scarab beetles. Because Egyptians believed in an afterlife, they took their jewelry with them to be buried. This very necklace was found in a burial tomb.

Scarab Pendant 1890 B.C.
Scarab Pendant 1890 B.C.

Besides gold being a prized possession to the Egyptians, lapis lazuli was also used quite often. This blue-colored stone had to be imported from Mesopotamia and was primarily used in scarab beetle pendants like the one shown below. Beetles were extremely important in Egyptian culture because the hatching of baby beetles from their eggs represented rebirth.

Ancient China

Ancient China differs from other ancient civilizations in the appearance of their jewelry. Almost every other culture preferred to use gold and various multicolored gemstones in their jewelry. China, was the complete opposite. They preferred to use silver over gold and preferred to use jade as sole gemstone in their pieces. Why jade you might be wondering? Well, the ancient Chinese thought that jade was the stone closest to a human with its durability and beauty. In fact, the ancient Chinese loved jade so much that they invented a milling machine to create more intricate designs with the stone. Just like the ancient Egyptians buried themselves with jewelry, the ancient Chinese also buried themselves with jade jewelry as a form of protection.

Jade Ornament. 400s B.C.
Jade Ornament. 400s B.C.

The talent of jade craftsmen is demonstrated in this single piece alone. This ornament was most likely part of a pendant and not only does it consist of intricate designs, but it was carved out of a single piece of jade! Now that's called skill.

Jade Dragon Pendants. 300s B.C.
Jade Dragon Pendants. 300s B.C.

Amulets in the shape of dragons are quite common in ancient Chinese times. What makes this set of pendants different than the rest is the fact that they are matching. Because they are almost identical in appearance, they most likely belonged to a high ranking official.


In my personal opinion, I believe that India has the best jewelry out there, but that just might be a cultural bias on my part. Either way, Indian jewelry encompasses the most forms, from bangles to anklets to earrings and everything in between. The Indian subcontinent has been blessed with abundant natural resources: gold, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and many more can be found there and this has contributed to its gemstone centered style when it comes to jewelry. Unlike most other ancient cultures where jewelry was possessed by the elite, in India jewelry was a common every day thing to wear. Of course, the more intricate and ornate pieces would be saved for special occasions.

Kada Bangles. 1800s.
Kada Bangles. 1800s.

These bangles along with most other pieces of Indian jewelry are made out of gold. According to Hindu beliefs, gold is a symbol for the warm sun and immortality. Why immortality? It's because Indians observed that pure gold doesn't oxidize thus giving it it's "immortal" quality.
Navaratna Amulet Layout
Navaratna Amulet Layout

Navaratna Talismanic Bracelet. 1800s.
Navaratna Talismanic Bracelet. 1800s.

Maharajas or emperors were the only ones allowed to wear the Navaratna amulet. Each gemstone in the amulet is associated with a specific planet mentioned in the Hindu Vedic texts. Ruby is the Sun, pearl is the Moon, coral is Mars, emerald is Mercury, yellow sapphire is Jupiter, diamond is Venus, blue sapphire is Saturn, hessonite is Rahu (the moon's north node), and cat's eye is Ketu (the moon's south node).

Let's Move Onto Europe!

Starting with the Romans

With their centralized location and vast control over land, Roman art was influenced by numerous cultures. Jewelry was particularly influenced by Egyptian, Greek, Celtic, and Northern European culture. Although Romans had extensive knowledge about the various manifestations of jewelry, they were most in love with brooches (fibula) and rings.

Typical Roman attire of the time consisted of heavy fabric that required draping. The Roman people liked brooches (fibula) because they were stylish ways to hold up their clothing. The difference between the two is slight. Brooches are more pin-like and fibula are more clasp-like.

Dragonesque Brooch. 2nd century A.D.
Dragonesque Brooch. 2nd century A.D.

What makes this brooch unique is that it illustrates the far reaches of Roman conquest.
This brooch is Romano-English and its Celtic influence
is visible in the pattern on the dragon.

Crossbow Fibula. 430.
Crossbow Fibula. 430.

This fibula was made post-Christian Rome and so instead of having an animal motif, it features a cross. Because this piece is made completely out of gold, we know that it's owner is most likely an elite member of society. Interestingly enough, what makes this piece a status symbol is not its intricacy in design, but rather its screw mechanism used to fasten clothes.

Signet Ring. 300s.
Signet Ring. 300s.

Men usually wore a ring on every finger or none at all and this tradition came from the Etruscans.
The one type of ring worn was the signet. The signet ring is a ring with an engraved gemstone on it and typically, what was engraved was the wearer's family crest. To seal documents, men would
press their rings into the wax.

The Middle Ages

Okay, so there is this preconceived notion that because Europe pretty much went downhill during this time period that no good jewelry was made. However, this statement could not be anymore contradictory because numerous excavations have been done, revealing exquisitely made pieces of jewelry from all over the European continent. Of course though, these exquisite pieces were made for the ruling elite and not your common everyday folk; jewelry worn by the common folk was worn for protection.

Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasps. 600s.
Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasps. 600s.

These shoulder clasps should look familiar to you- they're in our textbook! So how does it work? The wearer would fasten their armor with this by putting the two halves together and sliding in the pin. Right away we can tell that this belonged to someone powerful. The clasps are made of gold which only the upper strata of society could attain and the clasps end in images of boars which symbolize strength. In these clasps we also see the use of garnet cloisonné. What is that? Well cloisonné is when strips of gold are used to create a pattern and then gemstones with gold underneath them are used to fill the pattern created by the strips. Another thing that you'll notice is that the gemstones are polished not cut as you would typically find today. However it is during the Middle Ages that this changes, but it occurs during the end of the 1300s.

Ottonian Ring. 10th-11th Century.
Ottonian Ring. 10th-11th Century.

According to the Met, this ring is one of the most "technically complex extant gold rings from the early Middle Ages".
Just like the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps, this ring belonged to a very important person- most likely an empress.
The ring features cloisonné, but instead of using gemstones it uses enamel, a material created from firing
ground glass at high temperatures onto a metal surface.


Yup, Napoleon gets his very own section. Because of Napoleon, the worldwide desire for diamonds started. Like he literally made the diamond a girl's best friend or at least that's how the saying goes. Diamonds were often set in silver, thus changing world tastes in precious metals away from gold. Pieces made for Napoleon's Royal Court demonstrate an inclination towards simple designs and large stones during this period.

Napoleon Diamond Necklace.1811. By Etienne Nitôt.
Napoleon Diamond Necklace.1811. By Etienne Nitôt.

This necklace was a gift to Napoleon's wife Marie-Louis for birthing an heir. What makes this necklace famous is the number of diamonds it contains. Guess how many there are. There are 234 of them! Not all the diamonds are of the same cut either. Some diamonds are old mine cut, brilliant cut, or rose cut.

Necklace and Earrings. 1806. By Etienne Nitôt.
Necklace and Earrings. 1806. By Etienne Nitôt.

Another thing Napoleon is credited with bringing into fashion is the parure, which is just a fancy way of saying a matching set of jewelry. It's strange to think that if Napoleon hadn't come into power that it'd be hard to find a matching set of earrings and necklace nowadays. This set was given to Napoleon's adopted daughter, Stephanie, on the day of her arranged marriage.

Romantic (1837-1860), Grand (1861-1885), and Aesthetic Jewelry (1880-1901)

The key players during this age are Queen Victoria of England with her impeccable taste in fashion and the Industrial Revolution which allowed for the availability of cheaper jewelry. Because jewelry could now be mass produced, rapid changes in style and preference can occur as demonstrated by having three major periods in the span of sixty years.

Snake Bracelet. 1860. By Michelangelo Caetani.
Snake Bracelet. 1860. By Michelangelo Caetani.

During the Romantic era there was a return to styles found during the Middle Ages, which this piece imitates. This bracelet with its gold, rubies, and emeralds was obviously worn by someone of the upper class. The snakes featured on the bracelet are not unusual of the time and many bracelets incorporated snakes into their coil.

Brooch. 1868. By Tiffany & Company.
Brooch. 1868. By Tiffany & Company.

The Grand period was actually started by Queen Victoria when her husband died. It was conventional for jewelry not to
be worn after the death of a loved one, but she wanted to and that's why "mourning jewelry " was created. Obviously a lot of black and dark colored materials are used, but another interesting element present is human hair. In fact, the central portion of this brooch is the deceased's braided hair. Why hair? Well, it is durable to work with and serves as a symbol of love for that person.

Watch Pin. 1900s. By the Riker Brothers.
Watch Pin. 1900s. By the Riker Brothers.

With this piece, we see a return to happy times. Returning into style are the animal motifs and bright colors. What makes this watch pin unique for its time is the enameling technique used to
produce it. Plique-à-jour is a version of enameling where transparent enamels are placed on top
of a metal design that looks like stained glass. The light shines through the enamel and creates a
cool view.

Art Nouveau and Art Deco

Art Nouveau was a reactionary style to classicism. It was prominent from around 1890 to 1910 and was youthful and organic in design. The demise of Art Nouveau was caused by World War 1- a light art style does not go well with the somber attitude of the war. What replaced Art Nouveau was Art Deco, a modernized style focused on speed and geometric patterns.

Brooch with Female Figure. 1903. By René Lalique.
Brooch with Female Figure. 1903. By René Lalique.

René Lalique, the creator of this piece is in fact a well established Art Nouveau artist. His piece incorporates many of the artistic conventions associated with this style. This brooch combines elements of fantasy, sensuousness female form, and organic forms.

Dress Ornament. 1923. By Georges Fouquet.
Dress Ornament. 1923. By Georges Fouquet.

This piece screams Art Deco because of many reasons. First off, jade is the main stone used in this object and that is atypical in European jewelry. However, it makes sense to use jade when looking at the subject of the piece- a Chinese mask. Both ends of the dress ornament are geometric, ending in an arrow point. The arrow points represent speed, a common motif in Art Deco jewelry because of the changes in technology occurring at the time.

Contemporary Replicas

Can You Figure Out Who They Copied?

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that clasp though
that clasp though

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