History of Jewelry Part One: An Overview

By: Shmukler Design

We all wear it but how much do we know about the history of jewelry? Today’s post introduces the first in a five-part series on the history of jewelry, offering insights gained from thousands of years of advancement in jewelry making. These historic innovations range from simple beads in prehistoric times to the development of synthetic gems that can fool the layman — but not the professional jeweler.

Today’s column is an overview of that history — from 110,000 BC to the present day. It will be followed on March 27 with a description of jewelry accessories. Other historic columns will discuss wealth identifiers on April 24, and the religious connection on May 22. The series will conclude with a column on June 26 about the history behind engagement and wedding rings.

Egyptian bracelet with vintage engraving

Above: Egyptian bracelet with vintage engraving.

To begin, we look to 10 distinct periods of history in order to explore the origins of jewelry and its development over the centuries. Each of these periods were marked by skilled and innovative craftsmanship, advancements in jewelry making techniques, new mineral and gem discoveries, and trends that advanced the art of jewelry creation through each era.

Specifically, the 10 eras we’ll be covering today are:

  • Prehistory and Ancient History (110,000 BC – 100 AD)
  • Middle Ages (400 – 1499)
  • Renaissance (1500 – 1600)
  • Baroque (1601 – 1719)
  • Georgian Period (1720 – 1835)
  • Early Victorian (Romantic) Period (1837 – 1860)
  • Mid Victorian (Grand) Period (1861 – 1894)
  • Late Victorian (Aesthetic) Period (1885 – 1899)
  • Edwardian Period (1900 – 1918)
  • The ‘Modern Era’ (1919 – present)

First up, the Prehistory and Ancient History eras covering 110,000 BC – 100 AD:

Prehistory and Ancient History (110,000 BC – 100 AD)

Not surprisingly, the earliest examples of hand-crafted jewelry were discovered in ancient archaeological digs, including those in Morocco, where ocean shells were used to create colorful bracelets and necklaces. In Bulgaria, archeologists discovered jewelry crafted with worked-gold within a Thracian burial site.

Innovation in creating jewelry also took place in the Near East where the art of lost wax casting was discovered, as was the development of a soldering device in the Middle East. In Ecuador and Peru, artists used clay furnaces to cast gold, and Indians in South America were the first to uncover and then work platinum into jewelry.

Middle Ages (400 – 1499)

Precious stones seized during the First Crusade were dragged from the areas between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and taken to Northern Europe, where they were fashioned into fine jewelry. The Middle Ages also saw jewelers — in particular, London’s goldsmiths — start up their own union guild.

Renaissance (1500 – 1600)

Perhaps the most remarkable piece of jewelry emerging from the Renaissance was the 34-carat Beau Sancy diamond, a pear-shaped colorless diamond named after a French nobleman, who was, among other things, a financial adviser to a French king, and a knowledgeable dealer of fine diamonds. This French diplomat — Nicholas Harlay de Sancy, also owned a 55-carat, shield-shaped, colorless diamond, that later became known as the Great Sancy or Sancy diamond — among the most storied diamonds of Europe.

The Renaissance period also lays claim to some of the earliest examples of memorial jewels featuring human hair.

Baroque (1601 – 1719)

This period of time saw the advent of mounting diamonds on silver-topped yellow gold, as well as the development of high-lead flint glass. The era is also recognized for the use of aventurine glass (goldstone) in Italy.

Georgian Period (1720 – 1835)

This 115-year period saw the discovery of several minerals and gems, including diamonds in Brazil; topaz in western Brazil; titanium in Great Britain; amethysts uncovered beneath the Ural Mountains of western Russia; and other discoveries including palladium, rhodium, iridium and osmium.

Many jewelry making devices were invented during this time, including John Pickering’s die-stamping machine; and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier’s unique method of using pure oxygen to melt platinum from ore. The end of this era was marked by the development of machines in both England and the United States that produced straight pins.

Early Victorian (Romantic) Period (1837 – 1860)

A highlight of this period was the founding of Tiffany & Co. in 1853 by Charles Lewis Tiffany during a period when large-scale jewelry manufacturing was underway in the United States. The influx sparked a duty on imported jewelry and mounted gemstones in the U.S. Also in the U.S., Henry D. Morse built the first American diamond-cutting factory in Boston.

Other highlights of the era included the founding of Cartier Jewelers in Paris in 1847; the discovery of gold in California the following year; and the invention of brooches with swiveling compartments. And jewelers worldwide appreciated the invention of the Bunsen gas-air burner by R.W. Bunsen.

Mid Victorian (Grand) Period (1861 – 1894)

This period included a stampede of European jewelry designers and craftsmen arriving in the United States in 1870; the discovery of sapphires along the Missouri River in Montana; Tiffany & Co.’s introduction of the six-prong setting for diamonds in 1886; and the commercial production of celluloid thermoplastic by John Wesley Hyatt in 1873.

“Eureka,” the first authenticated diamond, was discovered in South Africa in 1867; and De Beers Consolidated Mines was established in 1888).

Late Victorian (Aesthetic) Period (1885 – 1899)

Highlights of this period of jewelry history included the development and patent of a power-driven machine for cutting diamonds in England; a patent for screw-back earring finding for ears that were unpierced; and the opening of Daniel Swarovski’s glass stone-cutting factory in Austria.

Edwardian Period (1900 – 1918)

Jewelry craftsmen during the Edwardian Period invented the oxyacetylene torch (Edmund Fouché); a lever safety catch for brooches (Herpers Brothers of New Jersey); and a process for setting metal and rhinestones in celluloid.

Also notable during this time was the founding of what would become Rolex in 1905 by Alfred Davis and his brother-in-law Hans Wilsdorf.

The ‘Modern Era’ (1919 – present)

Diamond Design, a publication that details the cut and proportions of the modern diamond came out following standards first developed by Henry D. Morse. The period is also footnoted by the evolution of Art Deco jewelry, beginning in the Roaring Twenties.

The lost wax process — used in dentistry for more than a decade — became a means to mass produce jewelry castings from rubber models in 1910. And synthetic emeralds were developed in Germany and first seen by jewelers in 1934.

General Electric began producing synthetic diamonds in 1960, and synthetic gem-quality crystals were available 13 years later. In addition, synthetic citrine became available in 1973.

Editor’s Note:For additional information on any of these developments, plus a lot more milestones on an period- and era-by-era basis, please visit Antique Jewelry University. And be sure to look here for the next post in our History of Jewelry series. That article will focus on the role jewelry played in accessorizing and accessories.

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  1. […] Here, in today’s post —the second entry in our History of Jewelry series — we’re pleased to provide a broad overview of the evolution of jewelry accessories, as well as tell about what’s coming next week, in part three of our series. For Part One in the series, please read History of Jewelry Part One: An Overview. […]

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