By Katie Austin
In Part 3 of The Jewelblog’s (Abridged) History of Jewelry, we were introduced to findings and the history of jewelry at the dawn of human civilization, focusing specifically on the incredible jewelry art of ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians, however, weren’t the only innovators in the jewelry of early human civilization. As man settled down in permanent spots all over the world, shifting food acquisition from nomadic hunting and gathering to localized hunting and agriculture, there were more resources and time to develop art and specialized trades. Since there are so many early civilizations with beautiful contributions to the world of jewelry, let’s take a quick, whirlwind peek into the jewelry boxes of several ancient cultures!
Settled along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, the Turkey-Syria border and the Iran-Iraq border, Mesopotamia was responsible for the invention of the wheel, the first growing of cereal (grain) crops and, in Sumer, one of the earliest developments of written language. Focus on jewelry in Mesopotamia was heavily concentrated in the southern portion, namely in Sumer and Akkad. The Mesopotamians practically coated themselves in jewelry. Men were decked out in earrings, pectoral decorations, bracelets, arm cuffs, necklaces and headbands made of sheet gold, gold beads and gemstone beads. Women wore all of these, plus elaborate headdresses made of sheet gold that was cut into leaves, flowers and other shapes, with filigree and hand engraving so intricate that modern jewelers refer to the civilization as “the cradle of the goldsmith’s art.” Jewelry signified social and royal statuses, as well as vocations. Mesopotamia’s biggest contribution to jewelry, interestingly, was because of the civilization’s spiritual beliefs. The Mesopotamians worshipped planets, believing them to be gods that controlled their fates. The Mesopotamians assigned a special gemstone to each planet-god, leading to the advent of what we now know as birthstones, our culture’s special gemstones that signify specific months of the calendar year.
Ancient Greece is perhaps one of the most influential early cultures. There is practically no facet of modern life that hasn’t somehow been touched by the influence of Ancient Grecian society, from sculpture to medical procedures to mathematical formulas. The same is true of jewelry. As with Mesopotamia, Ancient Greeks worked in gold, expertly engraving, molding and carving elaborate plant motifs, animals motifs and scenes portraying gods -specifically Aphrodite and Eros- on pins, armbands, pendants, earrings, rings, thigh cuffs, arm cuffs, bracelets, laurel-style diadems and wreaths. Much like Micky Roof’s jewelry pieces of today, Greek jewelry was bedecked in a staggering variety of stones and gems, from pearl, emerald and garnet to agate, sardonyx and rock crystal. They believed that stones held special powers, which is evident in the name that they gave to amethyst, meaning “not intoxicated,” out of the belief that wearing the stone -with its special connection to Dionysus, the god of wine- would prevent them from getting drunk from excessive alcohol consumption during festivals. Ancient Greek jewelry was also significant because of their use of enamel to offset color against bright gold. Culturally, the ancient Greeks saw jewelry as both sacred and special, not only leaving pieces on altars to the gods but also establishing the passing on of treasured “heirloom jewelry” from generation to generation as we do to this day.
Ancient Rome (753 BCE-473 CE)
Ancient Rome was the most far-reaching and long-lasting empire in human history. Their military and political might were unsurpassed and they had a knack for absorbing and subsequently improving upon inventions and ideas from the territories that they conquered. The Ancient Romans were also very serious when it came to matters of law, commerce and personal property. Interestingly, this meticulous attention to legal matters influenced their jewelry. A popular piece of Ancient Roman jewelry was the seal ring, a ring with a stamp-like design on the top that would be used to emblazon a person’s unique, official seal on a document, which was as legally-binding on contracts then as signatures are now. Besides seal rings, ancient Romans perfected the jewelry art of cameo, jewelry pieces in shell or stone that feature relief pictures on carved backgrounds, and intaglio, which are jewelry pieces in shell or stone that featured incised carvings of portraits and scenic pictures. Italy is still known to this day for its beautiful cameo art.
What is considered Ancient China is tough to delineate because China, as a series of dynasties and republics, has existed for over five millennia. For the sake of early jewelry, though, major ancient accomplishments in jewelry-making date from 5,000 to 2,500 years ago. China stands out as a jewelry-making early civilization for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while many other major civilizations focused on gold as its major metallic medium, the early Chinese favored silver, introducing the world to unisex silver hairpieces, amulets, headdresses, headbands, rings and earrings that were every bit as lovely as gold. While Egyptians, Sumerians, Etruscans and others coveted pearls, carnelian and colored, translucent gems, the Chinese had (and still have) a special place in their hearts for jade. They had a beautiful reason for their love of jade, too. To the Chinese, jade was the perfect metaphor for the human being: strong, hardy and beautiful. While jade may not have the status in modern Western culture that a diamond has, enough people recognize the unique loveliness of Chinese jade jewelry that pieces have become major collectors’ items the world over. The history of Chinese jewelry is also unique because of the advanced technology involved; the Chinese invented and used a compound milling machine to process their jewelry that the rest of the jewelry-making world didn’t catch onto until several centuries later.
This is just scratching the surface of the jewelry-making habits of ancient civilizations but the end result is a lasting affinity for gold, interest in silver and a plethora of gemstones, great innovations in the production and fine-detailing of jewelry pieces, the familial and religious importance of jewelry and, most of all, a love of getting completely decked out in metal and gems! Let’s skip ahead next week to see what the world of jewelry was up to in the Middle Ages!