The History of Jewelry

The earliest jewelry known to mankind was created by Neanderthal living in Europe. Some 115,000 years ago, perforated beads made from tiny Nassarius sea shells were discovered in the Cueva de los Aviones, a cave located on the southeast coast of Spain. In Enkapune Ya Muto, Kenya, beads constructed from pierced ostrich egg shells were found dating back more than 40,000 years.


The decorative Star Carr Pendant – perhaps the oldest Mesolithic art in Britain dating back to 11,000 BC  – was uncovered at the site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire in 2015. In 2008, The Venus of Hohle Fels was unearthed in Hohle Fels, a cave near Schelklingen, Germany. The figurine is anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000 years old and belongs to the early Aurignacian, dating back to the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, which is associated with the earliest presence of Cro-Magnon in Europe.

Photography by Petra Jaschke

Amulet Stone
Loristan, Persia
Late 2nd Millennium BC

Amulet Fayence
Egyptian, 1300 – 1100 BC

Tepe Siyalk, Iran
3rd century BC

During the Etruscan period, fibulae went beyond the common boat shape and adopted Asian-inspired motifs like ibexes, chimeras, sphinxes, winged lions and centaurs.


Sumer, the southernmost part of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which later became Babylonia and is now southern Iraq, was an area that recorded the earliest form of human civilization. Queen Pu-abi of Sumeria’s tomb, known as Tall al-Muqayyar, dates back to the 3rd millennium BCE and houses some of the earliest forms of Sumerian jewelry ever to be discovered.


The queen’s crypt was kitted with all manner of gemological relics including a robe covering her body made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, chalcedony and carnelian. She also donned three diadems fastened to a wide gold band. Other pieces found at Tall al-Muqayyar include three long gold pins with lapis lazuli heads, three fish-shaped amulets and a fourth gilded amulet in the shape of two seated gazelles.


The Sumerians were well versed with the technical aspects of jewelry craftsmanship, including wielding, alloys, filigree and stone-cutting. Apart from geometry, they were also deeply inspired by flora and fauna from the region.


Much like the Sumerians, the ancient Egyptians were known to bury their dead with the richest garments and ornaments. In ancient Egypt, the scarab was regarded as a symbol of the resurrection and rebirth of the sun. Upon discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s (18th dynasty; 1539–1292 BCE) burial site, a treasure trove of earthly curiosities was revealed, including diadems, necklaces, pectorals, bracelets, amulets, pendants and more.


Egyptian jewelry at the time was deeply entwined with symbolism and magical spiritual beliefs, which perpetuated ornaments like the scarab, the Horus eye, falcon, sphinx, vulture, lotus flower and Isis knot. While gold was the axiom of all jewelry creation, lapis lazuli, carnelian and turquoise punctuated all manner of accoutrements, as well as vitreous pastes emulating them.


The Minoan civilization settled on the Mediterranean island of Crete in the Bronze Age dating back to 2000 BCE and their deftness in gold workmanship quickly spread to the Cyclades, Peloponnesus, Mycenae and nearby Greek islands. Golden jewelry works by the Minoans and Mycenaeans encompassed granulation and filigree, as well as cutting and stamping of gold sheets into beads that were fitted into all sorts of accoutrements and decorative garments. Some common decorative themes by the Mycenaeans included sphinxes, florals, volutes, polyps and rosettes.

The 17th century witnessed a marked departure from dark and medieval fashion best matched with gold accoutrements to pastel garments, which were the perfect canvas for pearls and expertly cut gemstones.


Etruria, an ancient region in central Italy that now covers Tuscany and part of Umbria, was inhabited by the Etruscans in the 7th century BCE. The Etruscans were influenced by the Orientalizing period, which saw Scythian-Iranian objects with their animalistic motifs spread throughout the Mediterranean, particularly in Italy and Greece. Jewelry making for the Etruscans was fueled by the pursuit of opulence, massive scale and decorative abundance.


During the Etruscan period, fibulae went beyond the common boat shape and adopted Asian-inspired motifs like ibexes, chimeras, sphinxes, winged lions and centaurs which stood out against the smooth surface of the gold. One notable example is the fibula from the lictor’s tomb in Vetulonia. The Etruscans were also influenced by the Ionians from the 6th to 5th century BCE and many pendants were crafted in the shape of harpies, mermaids, Gorgons and Sileni.



Hellenization in ancient Greece took hold from vigorous expeditions by Alexander the Great into Anatolia to the east, southern Italy to the west and the Balkan Peninsula to the north. This marked a thriving era for jewelry in the region, with the technical virtuosity of Hellenistic goldsmiths reaching its peak in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.


The diadems from the Hellenistic period were especially noteworthy and reigned in popularity from the conquests of Alexander the Great into Persia. The Hercules knot was also a standout, as it was viewed as a magic knot and took on the gravitas of an amulet.

When the trade routes with the East were flung wide open in 1858, the West was quickly introduced to the Japanese aesthetic with its subtle and elegant interpretations of nature through prints and woodcuts during the 1862 International Exhibition in London.


Greek and Asian lapidaries and goldsmiths arrived in droves to the Roman empire towards the end of the 3rd century BCE. Gold rings once donned by noteworthy figures such as ambassadors, noblemen and senators began to pop up on the fingers of people from all ranks of society, even soldiers. The double spiralled serpent motif was carried forward from the Hellenistic period, while Greek geometric motifs – including botanicals, palmettos, acanthus leaves, spirals, ovoli, fleeting dogs and bead sequences – also made headway in the Roman empire.



Despite its expansions to the rest of Europe, northern Africa and southwestern Asia, ancient Rome began to lose its edge by the close of the 4th century CE and its civilization was already in decline. The Roman Empire had embraced Christianity, and the Byzantine court at Constantinople intended to maintain Roman supremacy in the art realm although it didn’t bode well partly for religious reasons and the iconoclasm prevalent in the region. This resulted in a distinctive style which highlighted the ornamental nature of jewelry making, focusing on filigree, opus interrasile and enameling, as well as profuse use of precious stone and pearl appliqués.

Beginning with the Renaissance period in the 14th century, jewelry became a question of the zeitgeist through to the 19th century and extended to Art Nouveau, Art Deco and contemporary styles.


Up until the late 14th century, gemstones were only polished and gem cutting was still an undiscovered art. The craft of gem cutting was only introduced with the advent of the Renaissance throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, which also brought in a new wave of artistic portraits and a heightened interest in the individual.


The 17th century witnessed a marked departure from dark and medieval fashion best matched with gold accoutrements to pastel garments, which were the perfect canvas for pearls and expertly cut gemstones. The brilliant cut saw the light of day and art jewels soon became inspired by nature with foliate and botanical motifs.


Gemstones were applied to all forms of attire in an attempt to soup up the fashions of the royal court. The finest jewels and diamonds were also encrusted in the hilts of small swords made of gold or silver with enamel detailing. These lightweight swords with razor sharp blades emerged as a response to the latest fencing techniques of the time which favored thrusting at maximum speed.


They were donned by men as a form of male jewelry to denote status, but also served as a form of self defense. Designed by goldsmiths and fine jewelrs in place of swordsmiths, these little swords were also gifted as tokens of appreciation to revered military and naval officials.


While the 19th century ushered in the newness of the industrial revolution, jewelrs looked to the past and the legends of Greece and Rome. At the time, archaeological excavations were in full swing, which fueled the designs of goldsmiths who crafted jewelry with an archaeological undercurrent.


Fortunato Pio Castellani, an Italian jewelr, was one of the main figures responsible for the archeological revival in the 19th century. The wealthiest of fashion mavens flocked to Rome to pop a visit at Castellani’s shop by the Spanish Steps and to lay their hands on one of his pieces of archeological jewelry.


The jewelry house founded by Fortunato Pio Castellani in 1814 was later run by his sons until 1930. It’s believed that the Italian revivalist jewelr Carlo Giuliano soon managed Castellani branches in London and Paris. Giuliano is reputed to have been behind the monochrome enamel pendant made as a mourning piece for the Queen upon the death of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, son of Queen Victoria. It was purported that King Edward VII was a regular at the jewelry house, as was Empress Victoria of Prussia and Queen Alexandra who had her pearls strung and cleaned there.


Both Castellani and Giuliano were celebrated for their groundbreaking use of materials and techniques and how they interpreted antique references in designing jewelry for 19th century eclectics.


When the trade routes with the East were flung wide open in 1858, the West was quickly introduced to the Japanese aesthetic with its subtle and elegant interpretations of nature through prints and woodcuts during the 1862 International Exhibition in London. Japonisme as it was soon dubbed, was the polar opposite of stately Victorian era design. Jewelrs were in awe and took in the simplicity, organic forms, intersections of nature and design, intense colors and mixed metals, which spawned a completely new decorative style.


The concept of the free-flowing line, also known as the “whiplash” line celebrated the female form, eroticism and anything in nature that had sinuous shapes and movements. The French used the line to illustrate women’s hair and subtle movements in plants, while other cultures created undulating abstract designs. Walter Crane waxed lyrical about the free-flowing line: “Line is all important. Let the designer, therefore, in the adaptation of his art, lean upon the staff of line – line determinative, line emphatic, line delicate, line expressive, line controlling and uniting.”


In Germany and Austria the Art Nouveau movement was known as Jugendstil and was equally inspired by nature and the secret life of plants. Theodor Fahrner drew upon artisans from Darmstadt to design inexpensive jewelry for the public at large, underscoring craftsmanship and technique. In Austria, the Wiener Werkstätte headed up by Josef Hoffmann was a leading jewelry house specialized in Jugendstil crafts.

The Art Deco we’re familiar with today is actually derived from the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, an event dedicated to the jewelry arts. The style of this era was defined by the Cubism movement, which migrated away from the flowing lines of Art Nouveau and focused on geometric and figurative manifestations. In dispensing with superfluous ornamentation, Art Deco was known for a cleaner aesthetic with rigid and angular lines and was a direct nod to modernism and the machine age.


“Dense concentrations of gemstones are characteristic of Art Deco jewelry. From about 1933 gold returned to fashion, partly because it was cheaper than platinum. Sharp, geometric patterns celebrated the machine age, while exotic creations inspired by the Near and Far East hinted that jewelry fashions were truly international,” the V&A explains.


Contemporary jewelry has been known to push boundaries with new technologies and materials, including textiles, paper, synthetic fittings and lab-grown diamonds. Costume jewelry also made a segway into this genre. Also known as fashion jewelry, costume jewelry is made from base materials like aluminum, brass, copper and metal alloys. It also incorporates simulated stones, such as plastic stones, cubic zirconia, and Swarovski crystals.


Lab-grown diamonds make use of advanced technology that mimics the natural diamond formation process. While a lab-created diamond is man-made, it is actually chemically and physically identical to a diamond grown deep in the Earth’s surface. Cubic zirconia (CZ), on the other hand, is a synthetic alternative to natural and lab-grown diamonds and gemstones. The majority of cubic zirconia is created in bright white to mimic natural diamonds, although CZ can be made in virtually any color. The synthetic gemstone has a rating of 8 to 8.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness, which makes CZ 75% heavier than natural and lab-grown diamonds.