The origin of jewelry is awesome, interesting, and very informative about how people lived through time.
At the moment I am a voluntary guide in the provincial archeological museum in my hometown. I cannot help myself and show my visitors the whole collection, but of course, point them the incredible pieces of pre-historic jewelry in the windows.
And the most common reaction is ‘they are so well-made, so beautiful, how is that possible’. Then I explain that maybe the people then could not read and write but they could make stunning jewelry with the tools and the material available.
Maybe you have the same reaction? Therefore I will – in short – tell you about the amazing origin of jewelry that started about 100.000+ years ago.
Why is knowing about the origin of jewelry important?
Jewelry and gemstones were always a part of life, from the days a human being started to walk straight up until now. The material, the tools to make jewelry, and the techniques developed over the years, but the jewel as a symbol stayed the same.
Jewelry is an art, an important art to mankind. Art that shows where mankind comes from and where it is going to be. Because jewelry is there since the beginning, you can see the development in material, techniques, symbols for status or gender, or commitment.
It is important to know everything about the origin of jewelry. That is how we know what people ages ago felt, thought and how they lived. What the difference in classes was, what the status symbols, what the symbols for protection against evil.
When did the origin of jewelry start?
Actually, you can say that the origin of jewelry started with the beginning of mankind standing on two feet. Even before they used clothes or tools, some 100.000 years ago, they wore some kind of jewelry.
Depending on the availability of certain materials and tools, jewelry was made of shells, feathers, wood, bones, plants, colorful nice pebbles… You name it and they used it to make something beautiful out of it to decorate themselves.
With the development of tools and the discovery of how to make metals people made more long-lasting jewelry.
Why should you wear jewelry?
Jewelry can make you feel accepted in the tribe wearing the same adornments. Jewelry can be a part of caring and loving your body. You get your identity from your parents, but your own identity and the development of that can be accomplished by wearing certain jewelry. Your own jewelry form your own identity.
But jewelry can also give you status and power. If you are the hunter of the village and you take care of the food, you want to show that you are important, that people can rely on you for the job. You want respect and maybe privileges. To show that you are that important hunter you wear pendants made by parts of the animals you killed for the village, like teeth, bones, horns, or claws.
And the hunter started to believe that wearing these symbols brings him good luck in the hunt and maybe also good luck with the ladies?
People depended on nature. It brought them food, but nature could also be harsh, like with thunder and storm, and they could get ill. Their solution was wearing amulets that protected them against all bad luck. Those amulets were made of colorful pebbles, mostly raw gemstones, stone, bone, etc. They believed that the gemstones had magical powers and could control nature.
Besides decorating your body with jewelry and protecting yourself against natural diseases and bad luck, it is also a great investment. Beautiful pieces of jewelry have value and can be sold in lesser fortunate times.
That is why women get a dowry, the Russian Tsar family sewed precious jewelry in their clothing when they had to leave Russia because of the Russian revolution. And think about the reason pawn houses still exist.
silver coral necklace (1 available)€ 185.00
Jewelry symbols in the origin of jewelry
For ages, jewelry showed wealth, power, and status. If you wear expensive jewelry you or your family are wealthy. If you wear a crown you are a king and an expensively decorated dagger means you are an important leader. And wedding rings show you are married. These are the most common jewelry symbols in the origin of history.
Besides the jewelry symbolizing your status, power, and wealth that are worn by men too, women wear more jewelry. They know the feeling of how to be special, feel beautiful, become confident, and look stunning with the right jewelry.
There are more symbols used during the origin of jewelry. For instance, slaves had to wear a bracelet (so-called slave bracelet) with the name of their owner engraved on it. There was a time that only very rich and powerful church officials were allowed to wear gemstones, the symbol of power and wealth.
Talking about churches… every religion had its own religious jewelry, like a cross or prayer beads. A catholic married couple wears their wedding ring on the left hand and a Protestant couple on the right hand. Due to the jewelry (rings) and the cross as a pendant you know immediately what religion someone has.
In Thailand live the ‘long-neck’ people. The female members of that tribe start at a very young age to wear copper collars, and every year one collar is added. Their neck, as a symbol of beauty, gets enlarged (and they cannot live without the collars anymore!). These collars are also thé symbol of that tribe.
And the last example is about the members of the Suri tribe, who live in Southern Ethiopia. They are one of the last tribes wearing enormous lip plugs. The men look very fearsome for their enemies and the women get that ugly, no one wants them anymore and they won’t get stolen by those enemies. There is also an explanation that the lip plugs are the symbol of fertility.
Practical use of jewelry in the origin of jewelry
Mankind started to live like Nomads, traveling around with their family and cattle and looking for food on the way. Later on, the nomadic life with the development of agriculture people settled down, mostly along the banks of great rivers.
The result of working on this land was the discovery of gold and gemstones. And they started to make more jewelry and they used every part of the body to decorate.
For the head, they designed tiara’s, crowns earrings, hair combs, nose- and lip rings, and earplugs. The neck and torso could be decorated with necklaces, brooches or fibulae, breastplates or pectorals, or belts. Arms and hands got rings, bracelets, and armlets as decoration, and for the ankles and feet, they invented ankle bracelets, toe rings, and shoe buckles.
After the decoration phase there came a practical phase of using jewelry, according to the origin of jewelry. Brooches, lapel pins, and fibulae were used to keep a coat or clothes together.
Where to find the first jewelry?
In the Old Stone Age, which lasted from about 2.5 million years ago until the last Ice Age (10.000 years ago) people made jewelry from artifacts they find in nature. But natural things are difficult to find back since natural material decays.
Sometimes we are lucky, especially when the material is harder, like stones, shells, or well-preserved bones.
I will show you some examples to make my point:
Around 130.000 years ago the North Sea was no sea but a valley. You could walk from the Netherlands to England without getting wet feet. In that valley was a flattened hill, the Doggersbank, where nomadic tribes lived in the dry season. In 10.000 BC the ice melted and the North Sea became a sea.
The nomadic people on the Doggersbank want to distinguish themselves and one day a very tiny bead, made from the bone of a bird washed ashore.
In the museum where I work as a voluntary guide, are 8 beads exhibited, made of the human shinbone (made around 2000-1800 BC). There are found in Velsen, in the Netherlands and the bearer wanted to show his power or protect himself against all evil.
In the Bizmoune Cave in Morocco recently they found 33 shell beads of about 142.000 old. They are made by the Aterian tribe and you can see some red ochre of the decoration.
One of the oldest civilizations in Europa is to be found in Malta. This civilization is even older than the pyramid culture in Egypt. Between 4000-2500 BC people used fish backbones, beautiful shells, and stones to make jewelry. In a cave in Monaco, a fishbone necklace is found of 25.000 years old.
In 2011 in Croatia, archeologists found about 130.000 old eagle’s talons, which probably form a necklace or bracelet, made by the Neanderthalers. And the same people probably made jewelry of ostrich eggs about 115.000 years ago, which is found in Southern Spain. Also old are the marble rings found in Kenya and Russia of about 42.000 years old.
When the development of the origin of jewelry became to a point where they could make jewelry out of precious metals and gemstones, it is easier to find traces back. Especially when people started to bury their loved ones and gave them precious gifts in their graves. An Eldorado for the archeologists.
Further development of the origin of jewelry
After the time, where stone and natural material are used to make jewelry, the discovering of gold and copper, and the development of making bronze of tin and copper, the jewelry made of metalwork and gemstones is the next step in the origin of jewelry.
The purpose of jewelry stayed the same but a completely new range of jewelry was added. The difference was that now specialized jewelry makers started to design and produce the jewelry. The techniques were too complicated to work with metals without any talent, knowledge, or equipment.
Grave finds are essential in the origin of jewelry
Without archeologists finding jewelry in graves, we could not have known so much about the origin of jewelry. One of the most important examples is the excavation of the Royal Tombs in ancient Sumner (now Iran), which dates back from 3000 BC.
In the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia (civilization between the rivers Eufrat and Tigris) the oldest metal and gemstone pieces of jewelry are found. Common practice is that you find amulets and seals, depicting stars or floral designs. Jewelry in those days was an offering to the gods and to dress up divine statues like they still do on Bali with pieces of clothes.
But the Royal Tomb was different. They found several mummies, their whole body covered with jewelry. And I mean their whole body: headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, rings, brooches, crowns. And more pieces than just one. You could hardly see the body anymore.
One of the mummies was Queen Puabi. The upper body was covered with a robe, made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, chalcedony, and agate beads. The lower part of the robe had a fringe made of small lapis lazuli, carnelian, and golden beads.
On her head were 3 diadems placed, each one smaller than the one below it. The last one covered her forehead. Above the diadems were golden flowers with blue and white petals. And on the back of the head was a hair comb. And I can go on with the description.
This tomb learned us a lot about the origin of jewelry. About the techniques, the material, and the style. But also about the status and wealth of the queen and the traditions of how to bury such an important person.
Another important grave find in the origin of jewelry
In 1922 Howard Carter, an archeologist, discovered in the Valley of the Kings (Egypt) maybe the most famous grave ever: the grave of Tutankhamun. Not that this Pharaoh in his time was that important, but the discovery of the grave and its findings made him so.
He reigned from 1332-1323 BC and when he was buried in a deep grave in the valley (not in a pyramid) he got an enormous amount of treasures to accompany him in his death. The whole treasure including the famous death mask is exhibited in the Egyptian museum and represents the largest collection of gemstones and gold in the world.
The innermost coffin of Tutankhamun was packed with jewelry, and more were found in boxes that were all over the rooms of the tomb. Studying the necklaces, rings, bracelets, pectorals, diadems, etc. made very clear that the techniques used to work the metal and to cut and set the gemstones was superb.
Finding his tomb was an important stepstone in the origin of jewelry. A stepstone we maybe never discovered and known of without this find.
We would not have known that the image of a scarab was important in those days or that they used the ankh as a symbol of life in their jewelry. That the Egyptians loved multi-strand necklaces made of colorful gemstones, like carnelian, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and amethyst.
Or that their lapis lazuli was imported from Afghanistan and that we may conclude that even in 1500-1300 BC there was a trade route between the two countries.
We know now that they liked ‘faience’, a type of glass that looks like the glaze on clay and glass inlays. The result is somewhat similar to enamel.
The color yellow and gold were the colors of the sun and were mostly used for the jewelry of the Pharaohs and the high priests. And a green stone (maybe serpentine or emerald) was put in the mouth of a Pharaoh mummy so he could speak in the other world.
The origin of jewelry seems to never end…
Early jewelry and its development can be divided into three parts, reflecting the three important civilizations of those days: Egypt and Mesopotamia, India and China.
There is so much to say about the jewelry in those civilizations that I will save that information up to another blog. Stay tuned…
FlorenceJewelshop makes unique and exclusive jewelry, of gemstones and silver bought on one of my travels. Every bead has its own story, and every design is so unique because it is used only once. My designs are made for the modern woman, but since I studied history, there are foreign influences in my jewelry collection. Find it out yourself by visiting FlorenceJewelshop.
It is important to me that you have enough information and inspiration for wearing the right jewelry. Jewelry that makes you look beautiful, feel confident, and give you a lot of compliments.
Therefore FlorenceJewelshop published a PDF with a lot of tips on how to accentuate your best features by wearing the right jewelry (for you). The PFD is free of charge. Just let me know where I can send it to.
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