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From Shells To Precious Stones | The History of Wearable Art (Part Four)

MOSTLY THE NATIVE AMERICANS carved their jewellery from shells (sometimes oyster shells), wood, Turquoise or soapstone pieces. They also used teeth, bone, hide and vegetal fibre and within their loose hierarchy there were beaders, carbers, metalsmith workers, hardwood cutters and even precious gemstone collectors. In some rare cases vivid Turquoise stones have been found fitted into necklaces and earrings.

The Native Americans were an enterprising people who always travelled and often traded with other clans. Like the Maori tribes of New Zealand they had an individualistic approach to jewellery and appreciated unique body adornment. For this reason they produced countless styles of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, pins, ring, brooches and labrets. The different design choice for each piece serves to elucidate the diversity of the makers. That being said, though, there are distinct aesthetical patterns seemingly rooted in their collective artistic vision. Let’s not forget that this was a civilisation that rode and walked all their lives under the great biblical skies and across the endless plains of America.

Every language consists of various symbols arranged in different ways to stimulate vagaries of perception. Interestingly the absence of a written Native American language meant that jewellery was often used in place of these symbols. Each piece acquired a meaning and provided a small amount of information about its wearer. Since then this jewellery has been revived, along with feathered headpieces, to symbolise an on-going resistance to assimilation and urbanisation. These pieces now represent a restrained longing for tribal subsistence and harmony with nature. It’s important to note, though, that contemporary Native American jewellery often involves processed stones/shells and computer-fabricated Steel or Titanium.

Escaping The Revolution

The onset of the Industrial Revolution saw cities rising higher than ever before. A new mechanical mind-set was being wound around the wheels of technology and wired to the profits of industry. Soon great advances were made in the spheres of business in spite of what it cost the environment. Across the world machines of unprecedented complexity had emerged and the oily smoke of human progress was sprawling across the countryside.


Romanticism was first conceived in the late 18th century to counteract this insensate trudge towards widespread urbanisation. Not only did it birth a beautiful range of poetry, art and philosophy, but it also had a profound effect on western jewellery. While the working classes toiled in the smoke-filled veins of this revolution the middle classes prospered. New and fervent interests were formed, particularly in modern archaeology, which led to the uncovering of an array of Medieval and Renaissance art. Certain goldsmiths started to thrive by virtue of their superior artistry and technical prowess. They were also backed by wealthy patrons who desired to stand apart from the common jewellery of the masses and were inclined to commission lavish arrangements of precious stones with expensive metals. François-Désiré Meurice was one such example of a fledgling goldsmith who soared in the romantic period. He was a fatherless French goldsmith who adopted the naturalistic styles of his Mannerist and Baroque masters, creating ornate ceremonial cradles for some of the leading figureheads of state. Another way in which jewellery caught the philosophical tow of romanticism was through the invention of mourning jewellery. This new category was popularised by Queen Victoria who adorned a deep-black piece of Jet jewellery following the death of her husband Prince Albert. While jewellery transformed and gained grandeur in some respects in others it stayed pretty much the same. For example, the innovative new industrial processes provided more affordable alloys and stone substitutes and this encouraged the continuation of costume jewellery.

It was during the time of the Romantic Movement that the first major jewellery companies began to appear. In 1837 the now infamous Tiffany and Co. was founded in the United States by jewellery pioneer Charles Lewis Tiffany. Tiffany’s helped to open the United States up to the rest of the world – in terms of the jewellery trade – and also excelled due to the commissions it received from such high-profile figures as the wife of Abraham Lincoln. Little over a decade later, Pierre Cartier, who’d inherited a jewellery workshop from his grandfather, founded Cartier SA in France. Shortly after that, in 1884, a travelling visionary called Sotirios Voulgaris opened his second store in Via Sistina, Italy. Little did he knew he had just founded a company that would prosper for the next 130 years and later be known as Bulgari, a name now synonymous with Italian excellence. These companies quickly exceeded the limitations that restricted the former craftsmen, who were still dependent on consistent patronage.

Throughout the history of wearable art styles had long been interchangeable and, of course, the manufacturing of jewellery was always interconnected. However, Romanticism did inspire the first known collaboration between East and West, which occurred at the Stoeffler firm in the German town of Pforzheim, on the verge of the Black Forest. This event involved German and Japanese artists who carefully wrought beautiful Shakudo plaques set into Filigree frames. In addition, a Russian artist called Peter Fabergé started to create a collection of unique marvels in the Imperial Russian court. It was as if he’d experienced some vague premonition and predicted the impending Art Nouveau period that was about to change the jewellery industry. You might’ve seen his many-jewelled Fabergé eggs before; they are world-famous and elaborately decorated pieces that are still used to exemplify the finest work of modern goldsmiths.

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau was predicated upon a kind of reflex philosophy that dismissed the structured strictures of academic art. Instead Art Nouveau preferred natural forms and structures that perpetuated the Romantic ideal of achieving harmony with nature. When this movement (and others like it) hit, in the 1890s, some jewellers allowed themselves to be taken by the current. Consequently their jewellery started to gain distinct differences in style, such as an abiding focus on the female form and a fresh emphasis on colours, which were adapted through enamelling techniques like cloisonné, champlevé, basse-taille and plique-à-jour. There was also an influx of decorative floral motifs like orchids, irises and pansies, as well as a variety of animals, such as snakes, dragonflies, swans and even mythological beings.

One of the leading pioneers of Art Nouveau was the artist René Lalique who worked in Paris for the somewhat unfortunately named Samuel Bling. René’s marvellously surreal corsage ornament, depicting a women with the body of a dragonfly, is used as an example of how Art Nouveau had shifted the focus from simple stone settings to the actual form of the piece itself. Enamels enabled the development of this technique, allowing for sinuous lines that conveyed the supple artistry of the elements, such as the ebb and flow of water. During this time there was also the patron-financed Darmstadt Artists’ Colony in (surprisingly) Darmstadt, Germany. This institution was the beating heart of the German Jugendstil movement, which was essentially the German version of Art Nouveau. Further north, in the capital of Denmark, Copenhagen, there was a bedraggled ceramic worker turned silversmith called Georg Jensen. Jensen utilised his early training in fine art and channelled the two disciplines into the creation of a coveted collection of beautiful Art Nouveau pieces. Years later, before the end of the 1920s, he opened a chain of esteemed stores across the world, including a flagship store in New York. Another significant influence on this movement was the founder of the London Guild and School of Handicraft, Charles Robert Ashbee. Ashbee acquired his craft ethic from the philanthropist, watercolour painter, art critic and art patron John Ruskin, producing more linear, yet still distinctive designs that were wrought to preserve the status of the craftsman.

In the end the lasting wave of Romanticism swept gently towards a seemingly distant shore, urged-on by the prevalent spirit of the Belle Époque, until it crashed suddenly into the sombre bluffs of the First World War.

A New Start: The Aftermath of the First World War

The aftermath of the First World War was marked by an uneventful and sober silence, such as a black-clad family experiences when they watch the coffin of a loved one being lowered into the ground. For a while it seemed as though creativity was being marred by an atmosphere of abandon and a period of global mourning. Meanwhile paradigms of jaded rebellion formed like Dadaism. This particular philosophy was conceived as a countermeasure to stem the accepted logic of the different world governments, which, in their supposed wisdom, had sacrificed ‘half the seed of Europe’. From the 1920s to the 1930s there was also a backlash against the perceived decadence of the pre-war society. A conservative impulse caused the development of subtle, simpler forms and fewer surrealist or Art Nouveau flourishes.

However there were a number of innovative artists who prospered despite the obvious lull and depression of that time. Indeed Germany hosted the revival of the Etruscan art of granulation; a method of fastening small particles of Gold that was reused by master goldsmith and keen artist Elizabeth Treskow. Treskow became famous for her love of ancient precious stones and traditional motifs, as well as recovering that antiquated technique of granulation, which then survived – if only for the most basic shapes – until the end of the century.


Not too far from where Treskow worked was an interesting character called Walter Gropius. During the war Gropius was twice awarded the Iron Cross for his valour in combat. He served as a sergeant and lieutenant and survived being entombed under mounds of rubble and falling from the sky in a flame-tailed plane with a dead pilot. Unsurprisingly he was another influential and charismatic figure who became the master of the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in the idyllic city of Weimar, Germany. Gropius and his faculty then transformed this academy into the experimental art and crafts school Bauhaus, which became renowned for its stylistically simple yet powerful designs. For example, in 1920, they built the angular and harrowing Monument to the March Dead. In addition the Bauhaus movement was defined by a strong theoretical undercurrent focused on tearing down the barriers between artists and craftsmen.

Before long the engines of war were placated and effective manufacturing ensued, encouraging the widespread production of high-quality jewellery. As momentum began to build many German-based artists, particularly those from the Bauhaus faculty, brought their share of marvellous and almost futuristic pieces to market, like the chrome-plated pendants of Russian master craftsman Naum Slutzky. However, simultaneously, there were also a number of modern materials like plastic and aluminium that began to appear in much cheaper jewellery collections.

A Rising Industry

The word jewellery is derived from the Latin word ‘jocale’ meaning ‘plaything’, but, of course, it’s so much more than that now. Modern commercial jewellery is available in a variety of traditional and more abstract styles. These pieces utilise countless materials and carefully wrought designs honed over centuries of diverse artistry. Innovative designers like the Danish silversmith Georg Jensen have made huge contributions to jewellery and encouraged people to instead perceive it as ‘wearable art’. The industry has also been transformed by the steady advent of new materials, such as plastics and precious metal clays, as well as cutting-edge techniques like hydraulic die forming, colouring and improved Pearl harvesting. The last of these examples was partly introduced by the Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi. Mikimoto once burnt several tonnes of lacklustre Pearls in order to cement his reputation and prove that his company only sold gems of the highest quality.

In addition to the technological advances that have helped to define jewellery today, there have also been many widespread discoveries of artificial gemstones, like the Diamond simulant moissanite. The introduction of ‘fake’ jewellery has, in some cases, pushed this once luxurious pursuit into the economic reach of the wider population. However this hasn’t stopped the bold march of the ‘jewellery as art’ movement, spearheaded by such eminent artisans as Robert Lee Morris; the German-born jewellery designer who’s worked with the likes of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Michael Kors. There have been countless others who’ve had a profound impact on the cultural narratives and styles that pervade our jewellery. Yet refined tradition hasn’t necessarily taken over and there has been plenty of subversion along the way, such as the ‘bling’ style popularised by gangster rap and grime artists of the late 20th century. Indeed no one, not even those who’d familiarised themselves with body modification, could’ve ever predicted that chrome grills would someday be invented and fitted into the wearers mouth.

We’ve come a long way since the first Neanderthals wore bracelets made of stone. Today, in spite of all that’s happened, different designs of wearable art continue to spread and evolve. At the end of the 20th century there were several marriages of European designs with oriental techniques like mokume-gane (a method of producing a mixed-metal laminate decorated with layered patterns). Recently the jewellery of skilled artisans has moved to the foreground and inspired a multitude of keen hobbyists and collectors. More and more students are opting to study jewellery design. Many are even handcrafting personal collections, especially using beads and semi-precious stones. Now the jewellery community is connected unlike ever before, boasting myriad high-end retailers, websites and magazines; there are multiple U.S. periodicals devoted just to beading. Suffice it to say that the demand for jewellery is more widespread than ever before and still increasing. Currently the largest jewellery market in the world is, unsurprisingly, the United States, followed closely by China and the oldest craftsmen in the business, India.