jewelry, personal adornments worn for ornament or utility, to show rank or wealth, or to follow superstitious custom or fashion.
The most universal forms of jewelry are the necklace, bracelet, ring, pin, and earring. Its use antedates clothing, and it has been made of a variety of materials including berries, nuts, seeds, perforated stones, feathers, hair, teeth, bone, shells, ivory, and metals. Although bronze and silver have been used by primitive peoples and in modern handwrought jewelry, gold has usually been the preferred metal. Jewelry has been decorated by engraving, embossing, etching, and filigree, and by application of enamel, mosaic, gems, semiprecious stones, and glass.
The Ancient World
The wearing of jewelry has very ancient roots. The oldest examples discovered to date are about 75,000 old. Found in a cave in S Africa in 2004, they consist of pea-sized pierced shell beads that were probably strung into a necklace or bracelet. Other African beads have been found dating back some 45,000 years. In the ancient world, the art of jewelry making reached an elaborate development in East Asia with its wealth of precious stones and pearls. Egyptian relics also show a rare craftsmanship. The jewelry is largely emblematic, very colorful, and displays lotus flower and scarab motifs. Beads were used extensively, as in broad collars, and were often used for bartering. Armlets and anklets were also worn.
The Greeks were highly expert goldsmiths and preferred exquisitely wrought ornaments of metal unadorned with color. After 400 BC precious stones were set in gold; later the cameo was used. Roman jewelry, although based on Greek and Etruscan forms, was massive and valued rather for precious stones and cameos than for artistic settings. Ropes of pearls were especially prized. Byzantine jewelry, influenced by East Asia and lavish in color and design, was of composite Greek and Roman styles.
The Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century
Jewelry of the Middle Ages was massive; large brooches and girdles predominated. Amber was worn as a protection against evil spirits. After 1300 glass beads were used. The Renaissance brought a transformation in the art of the jeweler; noted artists and architects often designed or even rendered pieces of jewelry. Jewelry was splendid with enamel and precious stones; heavy gold link chains, jeweled collars, and the necklace with pendant were worn by both men and women. Jewelry, worn to excess, became overcrowded with stones, to the neglect of the design and setting. By the late 17th cent. the goldsmith and enameler gave way before the lapidary and mounter. A process of making imitation pearls was first discovered in 1680; thereafter, ropes of pearls became highly popular for women.
The Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries
In the late 18th cent. the fashion for decorative buttons, watches, and snuff boxes almost superseded the wearing of jewelry. After 1800 the bracelet, which had dwindled (c.1500) in importance with the ruffed and cuffed long sleeve, was again in favor. The 19th cent. also saw the revival of the cameo and the introduction of the watch and chain and sets of jewelry. With the introduction of factory-made ornaments, artistry of workmanship declined. In the 20th cent. platinum became popular for settings. Costume jewelry, which followed the rapidly changing fashions in dress, was introduced (by Gabrielle Chanel), as was the wristwatch. There was a renewal of enthusiasm for handwrought pieces during the craft revival of the 1960s in the United States.
See F. Rogers and A. Beard, 5,000 Years of Gems and Jewelry (1940); J. Evans, A History of Jewelry: 1100–1870 (2d ed. 1970); A. Mason, An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewellery (1974); P. Dormer and R. Turner, The New Jewelry (1986); H. Tait, ed., Jewelry: Seven Thousand Years (1987); G. Egger, Generations of Jewelry: 15th–20th Centuries (1988); G. Daniels, Folk Jewelry of the World (1989).