A Brief History of Jewelry from the Middle Ages till the end of the 18th Century
The second part of this series is offering a concise survey of jewelry industry development over an 800-year period - from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, until the end of the 18th century. This informative guide analyzes jewelry's changing styles; give an overview of symbolism and designs of jewelry and gemstones; helps to better understand the relevance and meanings of jewelry and beads in context with historical and cultural progressions, including the radical and experimental improvements of the centuries.
During the Middle Ages the majority of the world adopted the Christian faith. Jewelry during this time was used primarily as a form of representing Christian faith. During the early part of the Middle Ages Christian monasteries were responsible for producing the better part of the world’s jewelry. Monks were required to learn the system of trade using their jewelry to maintain their religious efforts and the Papal State. The wave of iconoclasm gave the decoration of jewelry a basically ornamental nature. Europeans of the Medieval period wore necklaces and brooches, rarely wore earrings and bracelets. During this time the first independent jewelry guilds were created to both support jewelry craftsmen and the industry by implementing practices such as quality inspections. By the 11th century cities throughout Europe were stable enough to support these craftsmen and the secular jeweler-goldsmith was born. Jewelry makers regularly used Gothic style. Precious stones and metals were once again reserved for the wealthy. Designers employed gold leaf rather than solid gold and placed greater emphasis on stones and gems. Jewel-cutting was still underdeveloped. Jewelry then would have been much more boring and less colorful than they are now, and yet they were still extremely valuable. The main pieces of jewelry were brooches, belts, coronets, rings, and necklaces.
Commonly referred to as the “Jewel Age” jewelry began during the Renaissance to adopt a newfound purpose. During the Renaissance the jeweler’s art reached truly high levels—particularly in Italy in the grand duchy of Tuscany. Prior to this time jewelry served primarily as form of symbolism and wealth, forming an integral part of expressing religious and cultural beliefs. The enormous importance of religion in everyday life could be seen in jewelry, as could earthly power - many spectacular pieces were worn as a display of political strength. Renaissance jewels shared the age's passion for splendor. During this period the roles of jewelry began to diverge. Increasingly jewelry served the role of body adornment, created solely for the purpose of improving personal presentation and beauty. Enamels became more elaborate and colorful. Advances in cutting techniques increased the glitter of stones. The design reflects the new-found interest in the classical world, with mythological figures and scenes becoming popular. While jewelry was already seen as a sign of wealth, many now began to collect it for the purpose of protecting ones wealth. Many of the great Renaissance artists started their carriers in goldsmith workshops, working as apprentices in guilds. The guild system allowed the craftsmen to specialize.
With an increase in trade, gemstones were even more widely available, especially diamonds from India. Diamond cutting became more varied, and centers for diamond cutting grew in the great ports, particularly Lisbon. Pendants became popular, featuring miniature sculptures or intricate designs of interwoven floral and fruit motifs called arabesques. Worn on necklaces, pendants varied widely, from depictions of biblical scenes to enamel portraits of ships, mermaids, and sea monsters. Rings continued to be worn by both men and women, often on every finger. Rings featured a variety of gems highly ornamented settings. Earrings were popular in the Renaissance, and featured jeweled drops, pearls, fantasy sea creatures, and jeweled letters. It was important for men and women to wear matching jewelry pieces; however men had limited choice of jewelry.
The concept of “Crown jewels” distinct form personal jewelry of royal family was born during Renaissance period. These jewels were considered a possession of the “state” and passed to succeeding Kings and Queens through the ages. Pearls, emeralds and rubies were highly prized during the Renaissance, particularly from Burma. Women wore long chains of gold attached to a bodice. Another big fashion was heavily decorated rings that had cameos, gemstones, and compasses or sundials in the bezel of the ring. Some rings had hidden compartments that may have contained a relic, perfume or even poison. Even hat brims were decorated with designs in pearls as well as with pendants of great value.
Toward the end of the 16th century, the Renaissance style blended gradually into the manifestations of the Baroque period, which arose at different times in different countries. The increasing wealth of the general population and relatively relaxed social attitudes meant that the gold and silver pieces usually reserved for the rich and powerful could now be afforded by lower classes. Diamonds were still popular and jewelry continued to change to new shapes and techniques such as flowers, bows and animal shapes with bright colors.
In the 17th century craftsmen studied as well as explored many ancient cultures and made some technical improvements in gemstone cutting, which helped in enhancing the popularity of gemstone jewelry. Beautiful floral art was on peak at that time and flower designing became a dominant theme for fine jewelry. Necklaces (single or multi strand), earrings (ordinary or with chandeliers), and many other designs were decorated with the image of animals. The precious ornaments worn by women started on the hat, on the side of which at least one striking aigrette (spray of gems) was fastened. Then came two or three heavy necklaces each of which might have a pendant, then a belt that followed the pointed shape of the bodice. The bow, originally a ribbon used to secure a jewel for clothing was prevalent in Baroque jewelry. Pearls from the Persian Gulf were worn as necklaces and incorporated into dresses. In the late 17th century French jewelry became the finest in Europe.
In the 18th century Romanticism had a deep impact on the development of western jewelry. Changing social conditions and the onset of the industrial revolution also led to growth of a middle class that not only wanted, but could afford jewelry. As a result, the use of industrial processes, cheaper castings, and stone substitutes, lead to the development of costume jewelry. Distinguished goldsmiths continued to flourish. The history of jewels becomes principally the history of precious stones, their beauty stemming from their selection, their cut, and the arrangement of the stones composing the jewel. They lose their objective character which is so evident in the 16th century, and a little less so in the 17th, and they become adornment in the modern sense, absolutely necessary to dress, closely subject to the changes in fashion. More beautiful, bigger, more numerous and less expensive Brazilian and Indian diamonds in large numbers were imported into Europe and during the course of the century, this stone became so popular. The jewelry of this period seems to have been created to glorify and exploit the cutting of diamonds and other precious stones. Diamonds sparkled as never before and came to dominate jewelry design. Frequently mounted in silver to enhance the stone's white color, 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 genuine value, little diamond jewelry from this period survives. Owners often sold it or re-set the gems into more trendy designs.
The Georgian Period (1714-1837) of jewelry design covers the reign of four English kings named George: George I, II, III, and IV. Georgian jewelry became distinct based on the time of day it was worn. A difference between jewels for day and evening wear appeared. A piece of jewelry that was widely used for daytime wear was the chatelaine, on which, together with the watchcase, goldsmiths lavished some of their most highly refined work. Women used the chatelaine to carry keys, scissors, and other more or less useful objects. The evening was for diamonds. The setters routinely backed the rose-cut diamonds with a reflecting foil to enhance their beauty and fire, which is best seen under candlelight. These are signature elements in Georgian jewelry. Georgian goldsmiths used gold alloys of 18 karats and higher, and with the invention of the rolling mill, a device to roll out uniform sheets of silver and gold, the production of jewelry was greatly simplified. The brooch in the shape of a bouquet of flowers, comprising a variety of gems, became fashionable. Jewelry from Georgian times is relatively rare. Jewelers often melted down what they thought to be old-fashioned pieces to be remade into newer pieces expressing current trends.
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Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Yes! The sparkle and shine will bring a smile to your lips. You get to pay a King’s ransom for making the beautiful gemstone your own too. But at what price? Is the act of adorning your person more important than the well-being of planet Earth?