By Katie Austin
For most of my college classmates, our introductory Art History class was the perfect backdrop for a mid-afternoon nap or a less-than-discreet texting marathon underneath the vast tables. For me, on the other hand, Art History was anything but a throwaway Gen. Ed. requirement. Every class was like visiting a different museum in a new, far-flung corner of the world and I not only learned more about artistic technique and historical periods, but also how fine art reflects the hopes, fears, values and vices of the people who walked the earth when each period of paintings and sculptures came to be.
The reason that I treasured my Art History class is the same reason why working here at The Jewelbox is so engaging. Every day, I am surrounded by the end result of the beauty that can transpire when the human hand learns to shape and tame the little caches of shimmering beauty that Mother Nature has secreted away all over the world. I’ve gotten lost in the electric flashes of the bluest opals and seen myself in the high sheen of purest platinum. I’ve run my fingers over our Twig Bracelets and felt nature meet man.
Most of all, the work here makes me wonder about how jewelry came to be as an art form. Who started the trend? What do generations upon generations of jewelry have to say about the generations upon generations of people who wore it? The short answer is that I don’t really know. The long answer is that I really want to know. So let’s take a page from my Art History book and travel back in time to learn the (abridged) history of jewelry.
Recorded history of human beings making and wearing jewelry dates back to roughly 100,000 years ago. To put that in perspective, we as a species have existed for -you guessed it- about 100,000 years. So it seems that as long as humans have walked the earth, they have also had the undeniable urge to adorn themselves with little pieces of it. According to our archaeological records, jewelry started with beads made from the shells of various species of the nassa mud snail, a type of scavenger snail found all over the world. Apparently, our species found these shiny, natural baubles positively irresistible.
But why? Experts haven’t really pinpointed why human beings are attracted to collecting and wearing luminescent objects. Some theorize that it’s a means of drawing attention to ourselves from a social-status and reproductive standpoint like the posturing peacock, while others liken the practice to some sort of vestigial, impulsive urge, much like how crows love to steal and stockpile small, shiny things. Others still write it off as mere sensory satisfaction; shiny things simply catch our eyes easily and are, well, pretty.
Whatever the reason, mud snail beads as jewelry were so popular that the trend lasted for at least a quarter of mankind’s existence on earth. While the 100,000-year-old beads were unearthed in Israel, more recently-minted beads have been uncovered in Morocco (from about 80,000 years ago) and South Africa (from around 75,000 years ago). It’s interesting to note that even at The Jewelbox, our cases currently contain ancient Saharan shells that have been fossilized and crusted over with a shimmering coating of white drusy quartz. The allure, clearly, lives on.
About 40,000 years ago, humans branched out to bead jewelry made of perforated pieces of ostrich eggshells, bones, teeth, stones, mother of pearl and even berries strung on string or animal sinew cords. This tells us quite a bit about our early ancestors. Much like us, they were, in some ways, very practical. Since we started as a nomadic, survivalist species, it makes sense that the first jewelry would be light and easy to carry on one’s ever-moving person and that it would also be a quick and easy application of materials readily available in nature. But also like us, early humans craved novelty and loved to tinker with and customize their available jewelry-making materials. Because of this, our ancestors in present-day Eastern Europe advanced to carving beads out of pieces of mammoth tusks between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. Once our species cut its teeth at tweaking jewelry-making media, it was only a matter of time before precious metals and gems came into play.