Jewelry consists of any ornament that is placed on the body for any symbolic reason. Ornaments can be made of metals, shells, beads, textiles, clay, gems, stone, glass, or any components extracted from animals or plants.
Sometimes worn as talismans, jewelry is found among every culture and society in forms rangings from rings, armlets, bracelets, necklaces, and ornamental piercing to broaches, headdresses, and hair clips.
Jewelry plays many roles within cultures. It may be used to adorn the body, to express wealth, as a method of payment or trade, to convey social or spiritual messages or as a tool of creativity. It is possibly one of the earliest forms of art.
Early Evidence of the Presence of Jewelry Among Cultures
The first indication that jewelry was an important element in human society is traced back 100,000 years ago during the Ice Age, when human bodies were buried with funeral gifts including jewelry. Archaeologists have found the remains of inorganic materials such as stones, fossils, and clay that were used in the making of jewelry during the Paleolithic Age dating between 50000 and 10000 BC. Other materials suspected to be used during this time to make jewelry include bones, horns, shells, and amber. The jewelry created was in the forms of necklaces, amulets, bracelets, earrings, and headdresses made from carved ivory, seashells, and antlers, as well as animal and fish teeth and bones. Linear and stipple designs and carvings replicating animals forms suggest special attention to the detailing of jewelry. In Europe, rock paintings left by hunters and gatherers during the Ice Age consist of drawings and images of human forms decorated with numerous colorful and creative ornaments on the heads, necks, arms, and legs. Facial ornaments such as earrings, lip, and nose ornaments were also depicted on these individuals. These findings suggest that jewelry creation and application were quite significant during this time.
The Neolithic Age was an evolutionary period in the production of jewelry. Materials used in making ornaments became increasingly available with the rise of horticulture, and improvements in living conditions led to population growth. Advancement in toolmaking enabled artisans to create more complex pieces of jewelry as well as increase production. Materials such as spondylus (mollusk) shells, amber, marble, copper, and gold were used in the exchange of goods. With these changes in effect, other materials and procedures were used to create jewelry. Pearls, precious metals, and stones were carefully cut, shaped and polished into works of art and forms of wealth.
In comparison to earlier periods, more time was spent creating pieces of jewelry which reflected craftsmanship and artistic ability. The advancement of jewelry making also introduced the use of chains and the heating, hammering, and molding of metals into specific forms and designs. Widespread trade played a significant role in the development of jewelry making. The style and materials used in construction were representations and indicators of regions and areas in which jewelry originated. During this period, jewelry specific to particular regions is found over extensive distances. An example of this distribution involves the discovery of spondylus shells, copper and gold jewelry originally from the Mediterranean, but found in Central and northern Europe.
The Bronze Age generated specialized fields such as metal work and other technical processes including heating and lighting. Knowledge and experience were key elements in the growing social divisions of labor. It is suggested that this is the period in which primitive societies began to dissipate. Two Bronze Age cultures stood out in comparison to others in association with jewelry production. The first, the Aunjetity Culture, created simple forms of jewelry comparable to jewelry made in the Neolithic Age. In the earlier stage of the Bronze Age, popular forms of gold rings were produced by the twining or twisting of wire. Some archaeologists suggest that some form of social stratification existed as evidenced by discoveries of “princess graves” in which individuals were buried with numerous pieces of jewelry made of gold. The second, the Tumulus Culture, formed at the peak of the Bronze Age, left evidence of similar burial customs as well as other material items. The techniques and artistic quality, in contrast to the Aunjetity Culture, employed bronze casting and the work of the bronze smith. These techniques were improved and the processes advanced with the manipulation of the metals.
Jewelry in Contemporary Times
During the 18th century, jewelry was produced mainly by craftsmen and small manufacturers. England advanced economically compared to other countries, producing jewelry of better quality in the early 19th century. Machines and factories began to replace hand craftsmanship and small manufacturing, a trend that spread to other parts of Europe, Japan, and North America. Advances in stonecutting techniques began in the 18th century and continued to the mid-19th century. The Bourgeois Revolution brought with it the evolution of peasant jewelry. Imitation jewelry and cost-effective jewelry began being produced and worn by lower social classes, thus overcoming the obstacles that allowed only high-class individuals to wear jewelry. Jewelry began to take on additional purposes and representations, becoming viewed as a statement of personality and independence. The use of silver was a common feature among peasant jewelry. Gold was used sparingly. Gold-plated silver, silver-plated copper, and brass alloys were used among the poorer peasants. Colored gems, stones, and glass were used to brighten up ornaments.
The evolution of jewelry-making continued, from mass production and replication processes to the colors and designs used to create pieces of jewelry. Today jewelry is affordable to most economic classes through mass production of imitation jewelry. Although association of jewelry with the higher classes has decreased, it is still present. Only a small amount of the world’s population can afford to adorn itself with various precious gems and stones. The difference between past and present persists by virtue of the significance attributed to names of designers, companies, and quality of materials. Public attitude and the significance of jewelry still varies from culture to culture depending on social, economic, and cultural situations.
The Role of Jewelry in Society
Within a social context, jewelry plays numerous roles. It has been used as a teaching tool to communicate knowledge, to explain and recall histories and events; for example, in hunting tribes amulets were given to poets or singers to wear during a performance in order to transfer knowledge. Jewelry is also commonly used in identifying individuals. Soldiers often wore bracelets and necklaces as identification which was sent back to home to family or next of kin upon the soldier’s death. In Africa, jewelry expresses information about an individual. For example, Tuareg women wear bracelets, rings, and silver beaded necklaces given by the husband at marriage. Jewelry is used to signify whether a woman is married, divorced, or widowed.
Jewelry signifies traditional and religious beliefs. For example, the Tuareg people of Africa regard the use of a triangle as a symbol of protection; thus, the triangle is a popular jewelry form and is worn frequently in order to protect against evil forces.
Other benefits are associated with the wearing of particular materials. Silver is believed to bring happiness, agates are believed to be healing stones, and specific shells are used as fertility charms. Gold was once believed to attract misfortune, but is now frequently worn, denoting cultural adaptation. Silver is still considered to be a classic form of jewelry but gold has become more accessible and affordable than in the past, which has resulted in its increased use.
South American jade in the form of a frog or a bird was thought to bring the wearer the gift of life. Ancient Greeks and Romans wore images of Medusa to destroy evil forces, and dog’s teeth to ward off illness. Members of many religious groups wear pendants, medallions, amulets and mandalas to identify themselves with a particular religion or sect, as a means of protection, or to show loyalty.
Jewelry has been used frequently in trade and as a sign of wealth. In Egypt, artifacts suggest that the role of jewelry played an important role for both the living and non-living. Pharaohs and the upper class accumulated large amounts of jewelry; however, not all jewelry was worn. It seems that jewelry played an even more important role in the burial rites of an individual. High-status individuals such as pharaohs and kings were often buried with an enormous amount of jewelry consisting of colorful objects, lapis lazuli, or glass with gold, mostly in the form of a scarab. The scarab was the classic universal charm or amulet and a principal theme in Egyptian ornamentation. The scarab was associated with the sun god Ra and therefore acquired magical significance. In Egyptian society, most artisans were exiled from the Valley of the Living, forced to live and work in the Valley of the Dead, creating masterpieces for the afterlife.
Unlike the Egyptians who strongly associated jewelry with the divinity, the Ptolemaic Romans strongly associated jewelry with the living. Jewelry was used as a tool by which to express or signify the owner’s wealth. To make no mistake of ownership, the names of the owners were engraved into the pieces of jewelry.
It has been suggested that Roman women were the first women to wear jewelry freely, due to their social and economic status. Jewelry worn during this time consisted of necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, broaches, crowns, and anklets. Romans took comfort in their status and expressed their economic wealth by wearing jewelry to communicate their socioeconomic status. Gold was a predominant material used in Rome. Roman jewelry patterns and forms were straightforward and bold in design. Greater emphasis was placed upon size and weight than on intricate design.
Beads are the materials most commonly found in the Indus Valley, but cave paintings dating back to the 8th century AD depict Buddhist women wearing gold crowns and numerous necklaces. Other sculptures from the 12th century include ornaments such as dangling pearl earrings and gems deeply cut in black stone. In India, jewelry symbolized the ruling class’s power; an immense amount of power was expressed through a large quantity of jewelry. Materials associated with the history of Indian jewelry include pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, lignum, aloes, and coral. Indian princesses were believed to have worn lengthy necklaces made of a variety of jewels such as pearls and gold, gem-set ornaments. An abundance of rings, bracelets, armlets, earrings, and waistbands were covered with magnificent jewels.
North American Indians originally used shell, turquoise, feathers, bearclaw, ivory, bone, and copper as the essential materials in creating jewelry. Exotic materials used were jade, freshwater pearls, particles of mica, and pieces of meteorite. Today, contemporary Native American jewelers use gold, platinum, diamonds, emeralds, opals, rubies, natural turquoise, coral, sugilite, chrysocolla, lapis lazuli, spiny oyster, and hardwoods. Much of the jewelry worn by Native Americans was, and still is, associated with the spiritual world and relationship of humans to Mother Earth in a celebration of all living things.
Although most jewelry produced today is mass-produced, there remains an art to jewelry making. Craftsmen, artisans, and artists continue to be inspired by old styles and designs. Individuals and families have maintained traditional procedures, techniques, and knowledge to be passed on to future generations. Jewelry is a key to cultural continuity and to rediscovering and reinterpreting culture over the generations.
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