medieval jewelry

Stunning Medieval jewelry in the spotlight

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    A privileged person turns his interests or perhaps hobbies into his profession. My first ‘love’ was jewelry, which I came into contact with in my father’s jewelry store. When he died much too early and the business had to be sold, I saw a big dream evaporate.

    Fortunately, I had a second dream and that was ‘history’. And especially Medieval history, from which I also graduated. Over time I was able to combine both loves and you can enjoy it in this blog about medieval jewelry.

    Not a backward period at all

    The Middle Ages is often seen as a ‘backward intermediate period’, namely between the developed Roman and the progressive Renaissance period. Probably invented by a jealous Roman, who could not cope with the decline of the Roman Empire.

    The medieval culture, but in this blog specifically the jewelry, is of very good quality and the creativity of the medieval people was very surprising. But let me explain that in this blog.

    Germanic fibulae brooches or pins used to fasten clothing. They date back to the early 5th century. This is an example of barbarian jewelry from the Migration Period
    Germanic fibulae (brooches or pins) used to fasten clothing. They date back to the early 5th century. This is an example of barbarian jewelry from the Migration Period
    Fibula or brooch from the Ostrogoths (Germanic tribe), made of partly gilt and silver, almandine and niello. 480 AD.
    Fibula or brooch from the Ostrogoths (Germanic tribe), made of partly gilt and silver, almandine and niello. 480 AD.

    Early Middle Ages

    The Early Middle Ages, also called the ‘dark middle ages’, was not a good time. Wars, the plague, and famines ravaged Europe and there was hardly any development in society.

    The Church gained a lot of influence and only the clergy and the nobility had sufficient finances to purchase art and jewelry. Medieval jewelry was there, but not in large numbers and the designs were often religious, such as pendants with crosses.

    Barbarian Medieval jewelry

    Let us go a little bit back in time, to the period of the Great Migration. Around 400 AD, many Germanic tribes invaded Europe from the east, hunted by the Huns and the Mongols. Eventually, they put an end to Roman rule and are therefore also called ‘barbarians’.

    These ‘barbarians’ made very beautiful jewelry, which testified to good taste and excellent technical skills.

    They used to bury their dead in full regalia. That is, in their most beautiful clothes and jewelry, they had to look beautiful in the afterlife. Thanks to the excavations of those graves, we know what their jewelry looked like.

    Despite their refined techniques, beautiful materials, and daring designs, their jewelry is still referred to as ‘barbaric jewelry’. However, when they were converted to Christian teachings, their jewelry design was influenced by Byzantine art.

    These Germanic artists (those ‘barbarians’) worked a lot with gold and knew the technique of faience (decoration with opaque colored glazes) and filigree work. Their jewelry was often made up of braiding strips of gold or precious stones.

    Fibula of a Frisian noble lady, made of more than 300 almandines/The Netherlands, 625 AD
    Belt buckle or fibula from the Ostrogoths (Northern Italy), made of parlty gilt, bronze and almandines. 530 AD.

    Favorite pieces of jewelry were fibulae (predecessors of buttons and zippers) in various shapes and sizes, and often beautifully decorated. But stiff neck rings or chokers, consisting of strands twisted together, with decoration were also popular at that time.

    The Celts

    Those stiff chokers were also worn by the Celts, one of the Germanic tribes that lived in Europe, and were called ‘torc’. And it seemed like you wore those torcs for a lifetime because they were very difficult to remove.

    Many brooches or fibulae were also worn by the Celts and a very fine example is the Tara Brooch from the late 7th or early 8th century. The brooch is made of gold, silver, and bronze and consists of numerous elements, which are decorated with filigree work, multicolored buttons, and Celtic spirals. These continuous patterns and designs are characteristic of Celtic jewelry.

    Tara Brooch, dated late 7th of early 8th century. Irish Celtic piece of medieval jewelry made of silver, gold, glass, enamel, amber and copper.
    Tara Brooch, dated late 7th of early 8th century. Irish Celtic piece of medieval jewelry made of silver, gold, glass, enamel, amber and copper.
    Celtic torque with spiral decoration Mediaval jewelry
    Celtic torque with spiral decoration Mediaval jewelry


    Besides the Celts, the Merovingians (450-750 AD) were also skilled jewelry designers. Of course, the torc (as a symbol of status and power), fibulae, and amulets were also popular with them, but the signet ring was often seen in the higher classes. You can recognize their jewelry by the stylized animal figures in the designs.


    The Anglo-Saxon tribe, which came to England after the Great Migration, made similar jewelry to the Germanic tribes on the European mainland. They only favored round or shield fibulae, made of gold and garnet cloisonne. The excavation at Sutton Hoo yielded wonderful examples, where a king is buried around 620, with beautiful barbarian jewelry.

    Hunterston The brooch is cast in silver mounted with gold silver and amber decoration. c. 700 AD 2
    Hunterston brooch is cast in silver, mounted with gold, silver and amber decoration. c. 700 AD
    The famous shoulder-clasp, found in Sutton Hoo, one of the finest examples of gold and garnet cloisonné inlay work (not enamel).
    The famous shoulder-clasp, found in Sutton Hoo, one of the finest examples of gold and garnet cloisonné inlay work (not enamel).


    You can more or less say that the Germanic peoples who entered Europe from the 4th century AD and remained there as separate peoples until the 9th century, made very beautiful jewelry, mainly of gold. The style of this medieval jewelry resembled each other, each with its own specific characteristics.

    They preferred golden torcs, fibulae, amulets, and signet rings. There was even talk of a kind of fashion. The combination of gold and red garnet (actually the almandine) was particularly popular.

    The designs were Germanic, but after the conversion to Christianity, Romanesque and Byzantine influences were added.

    The techniques that were used were soldering, gilding, cloisonne, and filigree and actually they could use all contemporary techniques, but with some more primitive tools.

    In the early 8th century, with the conversion to Christianity, the custom of giving jewelry to a dead person came to an end. The only gold objects were in the hands of monasteries and cathedrals, and there was hardly any jewelry among them.

    Only kings and emperors were allowed to be buried in full regalia. In fact, little jewelry was worn after that, in the Romanesque Period (950-1150).

    Medieval jewelry from 950-1150

    When the Germanic tribes in Europe had settled and the troubled times were over around the 9th century AD, the tribes united under a king. Charlemagne was the first king of the Teutons, and he was crowned in 800 in Paris. His kingdom was called the Holy Roman Empire.

    Carolingian jewelry

    The Carolingian jewelry was made in the workshops of the goldsmiths in the monasteries. They mastered all the necessary techniques and these were also passed on to goldsmiths in the cities, which emerged in the 10th and 11th centuries.

    They had a penchant for colors and glazes, as can be seen in Charlemagne’s crown, which is decorated with precious stones, filigree, gold, and enamel.

    This did not apply to France and England, which were embroiled in wars for a long time, and therefore hardly any Medieval jewelry was made in the early Roman period (10th century).

    Viking jewelry

    Around 800 to 1150 AD the Vikings ravaged Europe. At first, they wanted to trade, but that soon resulted in looting and conquest. And during those looting, they preferred jewelry, they were beautiful, precious, and easy to carry.

    Their own Viking jewelry style was simple at first, with some unadorned bands and rings, but soon they learned to make their own jewelry with their own style, which looked very beautiful. Usually made of silver.

    They liked to work with filigree and repoussé and designed many pieces of jewelry inspired by nature and animals, which later became increasingly abstract.

    One of the finest examples of Viking jewelry are the 2 buckles of Queen Aregund (Sweden) from 515-573. Especially women during this time needed jewelry to keep their clothes together and these buckles are a good example of that.

    Another example of Viking jewelry is the silver neck ring or torc, made by interweaving 3 silver wires, from the 9th or 10th century AD.

    Viking jewelry. Penannular silver broches or pins of the 'thistle' stijle, found in the Penrith hoard.
    Viking medieval jewelry. Penannular silver broches or pins of the ‘thistle’ stijle, found in the Penrith hoard.
    Fine example of mediaval jewelry: a fibula found in Dorestad (Wijk bij Duurstede/The Nederlands), 800-900AD

    Charlemagne united the Germanic tribes and the fighting between them came to an end. When people no longer have to go to war, there will be time to think about art again. The Medieval jewelry was decorated (which was mainly ordered by the court) with Christian images and symbols. They resembled Byzantine jewelry, but with a different head motif (Christian).

    In the 11th century, the workshops where gold Christian jewelry and objects were made in the monasteries gradually disappeared. The goldsmiths in the cities took over that position and started making worldly jewelry for the courts and high nobility. They organized themselves in guilds in the 12th century, with the advantage that the quality improved and was better controlled.

    From Romanesque to Gotic Medieval jewelry style

    After the 4th Crusade and the sack of Constantinople (1204 AD), the power of the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine influence on Europe came to an end. For example, earrings and bracelets were no longer worn by the ladies of the class.

    The new jewelry style followed the predominant style in architecture. The Romanesque architectural style, which was solid and grand in design, was supplanted by the Gothic style between the 12th and 13th centuries. The Gothic style was simpler and more elegant and those forms were adopted by the jewelry designers.

    The hoard of Hoogwoud

    In the 13th century, there was a fierce battle between the West Frisians and the Dutch in the Northern Netherlands. The West Frisians refused to submit to the Count of Holland and Hoogwoud, a farming village in the middle of a swampy village, was the epicenter of the resistance.

    In 2021, a great gold and jewelry treasure was found in Hoogwoud. That treasure was probably buried in the 13th century in order to hire knights later, who had to fight against the Count of Holland.

    The treasure contained expensive jewelry and had enough value to hire a professional army. This treasure consisted of four beautifully decorated gold earrings, 2 strips of gold leaf, and 29 silver coins, minted between 1200 and 1250 AD. The jewelry was made in the first half of the 11th century.

    The gold jewelry was not made in Hoogwoud, but probably in the Rhineland and was worn by noble ladies. This hoard proves that in the 11th-13th century, there were people with a lot of money who could afford this jewelry. But also with contacts, so that this jewelry made in the Rhineland could reach Hoogwoud.

    Medieval jewelry, 11th century, part of the Hoogwoud hoard.
    Medieval jewelry, 11th century, part of the Hoogwoud hoard.
    way to wear earrings in the 11the century
    way to wear earrings in the 11the century

    And treasures, like this one, also show well what people wore and liked during this time. The small fibers in the strips of gold indicate that these strips were probably attached to the edges of clothing.

    The gold earrings found were not worn by the ears, they are much too heavy for that and people in Europe at that time probably did not have pierced ears. They hung from the side of a hood or headband.

    At the time the jewelry was buried, it was already 200 years old. And probably a family property, which was buried in the ground together with the later minted coins.

    Medieval society

    Medieval jewelry in Western Europe showed the status and position of the wearer in medieval society. And that society consisted of a number of very closed classes. You can say that a ‘dime never became a quarter’.

    In addition to the high and low nobility, there were 2 social classes, the peasants and the bourgeoisie.

    The wealth of the peasants was measured by the number of garments they owned and how and to what extent those garments were decorated. Itinerant peddlers supplied the peasantry with metal clasps for purses, buttons for hoods (Medieval bonnets), or silver belts and shoe buckles. Jewelry was rare, except for rings.

    The well-to-do bourgeoisie who lived in the cities were wealthy. You could find them among bankers, international merchants, notaries, or high officials and doctors. In the 13th century, even the ladies of the well-to-do bourgeoisie did not yet own much clothing, because chic fabrics, but also jewelry were not yet available.

    That changed when the Crusades, the Silk Road (Marco Polo), and international trade transported fabrics and jewelry from the Middle and Far East, but also from India and Asia to Western Europe. Not only the royal houses but also the bourgeoisie became richer.

    However… those in power thought that the place of every human being in the social order is determined by an order created by God. In meetings, processions, or other events, each population group had its own place, recognizable by clothing and jewelry.

    portrait of a noble lady fully dressed in medieval jewelry and outfit
    portrait of a noble lady fully dressed in medieval jewelry and outfit
    Hillegonda van Voorne medieval lady with medieval jewelry
    Hillegonda van Voorne medieval lady with medieval jewelry

    The increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie was not really happy about that. They wanted to dress like the nobility and could afford to. The nobility wanted to preserve that distinction between them and the bourgeoisie by enacting sumptuary laws (in the 14th and 15th centuries).

    And they wanted to keep each class in its ‘right place’ in society. Perhaps the city officials can also be accused of misogyny…

    When a girl reached marriageable age, she was beautifully adorned with exorbitant jewelry in order to marry her off to a good party, that is, one of a class slightly higher than the girl. That higher class also raised her parents up again. The costs of the trousseau and the effervescent treasure got quite out of hand, which they wanted to counter with the sumptuary laws.

    The bourgeoisie had to pay extra taxes if they excessively showed their wealth or their jewelry (according to the nobility). In Bologna/Italy it was established that the ladies had to submit their clothing and jewelry to a committee and if the clothing/jewelry was not found to be ‘sober enough’, it had to be handed in.

    The bourgeoisie was not allowed to wear gold or silver, silver buttons, cords of braided gold thread, precious stones, and pearls were sewn on. But the nobility could show off gold and silver jewelry studded with colored gems, while the peasants had to make do with bronze and pewter jewelry.

    Medieval jewelry from 1100-1300

    Until late in the 14th century, the gemstones could only be polished, but not faceted. Cabochons in particular were used in jewelry (gemstones with a flat back and convex polished top, mainly used in pendants and rings).

    At this time, people loved the color and therefore colored gemstones, supplemented with colored enamel.

    Especially rings, decorated belts, fibulae, tiaras (coronets), and necklaces were often worn. But especially rings! They had symbolic and religious value but were also used as an amulet or talismans. You could show the environment what your profession or status was and you could sign documents with it (using wax).


    While rings were quite large in the early Middle Ages, the size of this Medieval piece of jewelry became smaller and smaller, down to a small gold or silver band with an inscription. Only signet rings kept their size and were worn on the thumb. In the 15th century, more women started wearing rings, which of course were smaller.

    Apart from the size of the ring, they could also be worn for a specific purpose. Devotion and signet rings were a sign of the wearer’s identity, curative rings healed diseases, and hollow rings contained relics or poison.

    Medieval garnet cabochon ring, circa 1200-1400 century
    Medieval garnet cabochon ring, circa 1200-1400 century
    Medieval garnet and turquoise finger ring, circa 1250-1450 AD
    Medieval garnet and turquoise finger ring, circa 1250-1450 AD

    Brooch or fibula

    Another very popular and useful medieval piece of jewelry was the brooch or fibula. There were many types of fibulae, which were mainly used to keep clothing together, but the so-called medallion type and the ‘ring brooch’ with an opening in the middle were popular.

    A beautiful example of this is the ‘Founders Jewel bequeted’ from 1404, which has the shape of the letter M. The arches of the M form a Gothic window containing the figure of Mother Mary and the archangel Gabriel. The whole is surrounded by a crown.

    The brooches were usually round and quite small but were decorated with reliefs of silver and gold. Those reliefs were geometric and the inspiration for the image came from nature, inscriptions, or crosses. The inscriptions were usually in Latin or French, the language of the court. In the middle of the 13th century, round ‘circle’ brooches set with precious stones and a movable pin in the center were popular.

    Later in the 14th century the brooch became more heart-shaped and in the 15th century extravagant brooches, set with precious stones and pearls, were worn on hats. That is, rich people could afford such brooches. The brooch also became an ornament to indicate to which class you belonged.

    Brooch the Founder’s Jewel bequeathed by William of Wykeham to New College, University of Oxford, in 1404 is in the shape of the letter M.
    Brooch the Founder’s Jewel bequeathed by William of Wykeham to New College, University of Oxford, in 1404 is in the shape of the letter M.
    Medieval brooch engraved with cross
    Medieval brooch engraved with cross

    Belts and girdles

    Another practical medieval piece of jewelry used by the majority of women to keep their clothes together was the belts or girdles. They were often made of leather or silk and set with precious stones or gold and silver elements. The buckle could also be seen.

    In the 14th century, belts were replaced by metal waist belts, which could be decorated much more extravagantly with precious stones and pearls, because they could carry more weight. The downside was that your hips seemed much wider.

    Crown or coronet

    In the Middle Ages (and actually still today) if you really represented something in society, you were allowed to wear a crown, which was made of the most expensive precious metals and gemstones.

    You also had a smaller kind of crown, which is also called a coronet in English, which was also worn by the nobility. Initially, this medieval jewelry was intended to be worn around the helmet of a nobleman. Later the noble ladies took over this, to put on their head veil, which remained stuck with it.

    They were actually thin bands of gold or smaller gems that were attached to each other to form a band. These coronets got bigger and bigger over time.

    early Medieval crown, gold with gemstones and pearls
    early Medieval crown, gold with gemstones and pearls
    Medieval coronet, to keep the headgear of the noble ladies in place.
    Medieval coronet, to keep the headgear of the noble ladies in place.


    Then we have the necklaces, which were only worn from the 14th century. The first medieval necklaces were actually strips of cloth or ribbons, which were decorated with precious stones. Only in the 15th century did the ribbons become metal chains, to which precious stones and pendants could be attached.

    Medieval jewelry was not only used to show your class or wealth and to make you look beautiful, it also had inscriptions, which were intended to protect the wearer against misfortune. We still know that today, like the St Christopher amulet to protect you during your travels.

    Medieval jewelry style

    Between the 12th and 13th centuries, thanks to the Crusades, the Silk Road along which international trade unfolded, an international medieval jewelry style developed, which looked more or less the same in England, Germany, France, and Denmark.

    You had to be in Paris for a trendy handmade medieval piece of jewelry, while Venice and Genoa imported the materials for that jewelry from Paris. The pointed arches of the Gothic (church) windows and the colors of the stained glass were visible in the designs of the trendy Medieval jewelry.

    This is an example of Mediaval jewelry. A cross decorated with gemstones from the Early Middle Ages.
    This is an example of medieval jewelry. A cross decorated with gemstones from the Early Middle Ages.
    Reliquary clasp with eagle.
    Reliquary clasp with eagle.

    Medieval jewelry was a combination of secular and religious elements. Medieval jewelry with precious stones was used as amulets, had images of saints, or had protective and healing powers.

    The designs of flowers and animals in medieval jewelry were seen as a symbol of faith and a number of gemstones were given Christian meanings, such as the garnet becoming the symbol of the blood of Christ and the pearl becoming the symbol of innocence.

    Medieval jewelry was either heraldic, or religious, or an expression of courtly love. In addition to showing your status, this jewelry also had a practical use, or it stemmed from the general need to keep clothing in place.

    From this emerged brooches or fibulae, buckles, buttons, decorations for belts, bags, etc., which, with the necessary gemstones, precious metals, and pearls, can rightly be called medieval pieces of jewelry. And as an extra decoration, the noble ladies sewed gold and silver strips or plates on their clothing, which together formed patterns.

    The precious metal in Medieval jewelry

    Gold was the metal most commonly used in the production of Medieval jewelry. It is beautiful, soft, and easy to work with. The Romans were also true admirers of gold, so much so that all European gold mines were exhausted when they left.

    Some gold was imported from West Africa in the Middle Ages, but most of the gold was recycled from the gold Roman coins that were saved or that emerged from the excavation of gold treasures.

    In times of war between the Romans and the Teutons and the Germanic peoples themselves, people have hidden all their gold in the ground for lack of a safe. Gold jewelry was also offered to the gods by floating them in water or burying them in the ground.

    There was a shortage of gold at times in the Middle Ages (despite the gold treasures that were found), but the silver mines, on the other hand, were not exhausted.

    Golden plate of a fibula. Gold treasure of Wieuwerd. Friesland/The Netherlands. 7th Century.
    Pendants made of old Roman gold coins. Found in the hoard of Wieuwerd/The Netherlands, 7th century.


    Although amber, jet, pearls, and coral were available in Europe itself, the other gems were imported. The colored gemstones were especially popular, because the stones could only be cut cabochon (smooth round top and flat back) and with this method especially colored stones in combination with gold looked good.

    Rubies, emeralds, and rock crystal were especially popular, but also expensive. Rock crystal was popular because you could place a colored piece of paper under the stone to achieve the desired color in the jewelry.

    The style of jewelry is always evolving. It is influenced by time, economic conditions, the availability of certain metals or precious stones, and of course the fashion or taste of the moment.

    The style of medieval jewelry was influenced by the same elements as described above. It was not even the case that you saw the same jewelry style throughout the Middle Ages, the Medieval jewelry also continued to develop as very beautiful and technically advanced jewelry.

    There was no question of a ‘behind-between period’. Medieval jewelry is pieces of art, just like the jewelry from the periods that preceded or followed the Middle Ages. Hopefully, that has become clear in this blog.

    What struck me when I examined medieval jewelry in terms of style and appearance, was that the ladies knew very well what they liked, but also what looked good on them. The medieval jewelry matched perfectly with the clothing that was worn during this time.

    It started with a practical application of an object, such as a brooch or a coronet, but in no time these ladies asked for an elegant shape of that object, for a luxurious appearance of what came to be called a piece of jewelry. All this to make these ladies look attractive.

    Not sure what you look like, or which jewelry choice is best for you? How to highlight certain facets of your figure and how to camouflage the facets you are less satisfied with? Then request the free PDF published by FlorenceJewelshop, which contains many tips to help you with these challenges.

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