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

OF ALL THE NATIONS in the world India has the longest legacy of jewellery making, having spent almost 5000 years honing this craft. The first evidence of rudimentary pieces were carved and left by the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization (northeast Afghanistan, modern day Pakistan and north-western India). This was one of the three earliest known civilisations that populated the Old World. Of those three it was the largest and most widespread, flourishing on the basins alongside the Indus River. Amongst the many findings that have been recovered from this lost people there are also collections of intact Gold earrings and necklaces, as well as crude metallic bangles and myriad beaded pieces. Before 2100 BC and the wider usage of metals, beads were presumed to be the most popular trade throughout the Indus Valley. They were fashioned using a series of simple techniques, starting with a rough source stone – most likely bought from a stone trader – which would then be held in an oven and heated until it transformed to a burning red. Ancient historians posit the likelihood that this colour was highly prized by the people of the Indus valley. When the stone had gained this coveted red it would be chipped and ground to a suitable size. Then a hole would be bored through the middle of the stone using a primitive auger. Finally these ancient lapidarists would polish the stone and perhaps even paint a personal design on its smooth surface, creating a bead.

It is widely believed that the craft of bead making was a hereditary discipline passed down through each family. According to this theory children would be trained as bead cutters from a very young age. Most commonly the beads would then be worn by women, cut into smaller shapes, often about one millimetre long, and threaded into their hair. Clay or painted shell bracelets cut into hoops were also very popular. Then as the Indus civilisation became more advanced these clay bangles were discarded for more durable pieces. Nowadays clay has almost disappeared from India entirely and bangles are instead made from metal or glass. Other jewellery found in the Indus Valley includes skinny bands of Gold, earrings, simple brooches, chokers and rings.

It would be erroneous to imply that the Indian Subcontinent was the only region that was producing jewellery at this time. In fact there are whole collections of jewellery that can be traced to China from around the same period. Many of the distinct styles and designs were carried with the spread of Buddhism, approximately 2000 years ago. From these plentiful findings historians have gleaned that Chinese favoured the use of Silver and were less appreciative of Gold. In many cases delicate blue kingfisher feathers were left tied to early pieces of Chinese jewellery and later designs were comprised of brilliant blue gems and glass. Funnily enough China was averse to wearing or making earrings, which were worn by neither men nor women. Amulets, on the other hand, were very popular and often embellished with Chinese symbols or legendary animals such as the dragons or phoenixes. This kind of special decorative jewellery was usually recovered amongst the assorted grave goods that accompanied the departed on their journey to the afterlife.

Of all the natural treasures that were prevalent in Chinese jewellery design, none were more highly cherished than Jade. Indeed the Chinese revered Jade for its mystical and physical properties, which they likened to the most desirable human values: hardness, durability and beauty. The first Jade pieces that were recovered are distinguishable for their simplicity. However the designs soon became much more complex and Jade rings came into use some time between the 4th – 7th centuries BC. Interestingly these rings exhibit evidence that they were shaped using a compound milling machine. What’s most staggering about this is the fact that if such a machine was used, it would’ve been hundreds of years prior to the first mention of such technology in the West. This would give testimony to the Eastern superiority of this era.

Despite the fact that the Indian Subcontinent escaped much of the turmoil that interrupted European jewellery design, there were several cultural and political incidents whereby the steady progress fluctuated. That being said, though, India always boasted an ample supply of precious metals and gems. This was one of their chief exports and also a key asset used at opportune moments to sweeten exchanges with other countries. Unlike Europe, which was beset by the conquests of squabbling empires, India profited from the perpetual development of its art forms. In time they adopted Persian styles and characterised their stones in relation to the vivid stories that colour Hinduism. This belief system also dictated that Gold and Silver were sacred and thereby became the quintessential metals used in Indian jewellery. In fact Gold was symbolic of the burning sun, while silver was supposed to recall the icy moon. Indian poetry maintains that, since pure Gold doesn’t oxidise or corrode, it should be associated with immortality. Furthermore Gold imagery has suffused ancient Indian literature, reaching as far back as the Vedic story of cosmological creation. In this story the original source of physical and spiritual human life is described as a great golden womb, or, in Hindu terms, a ‘hiranyagarbha’. This alludes to the significance of the sun in the story of life. The Vedic text also then refers to an ethereal light raised from the primordial waters of an infant Earth. Suffice it to say that the Indians don’t share the Chinese’s relative disinterest in Gold. Indeed they have since used it to affirm the sanctity of some of their most important religious sites, such as the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

In the Indian Subcontinent, as with every civilisation on record, jewellery was regarded as a symbol of high status. It was also often associated with royalty and other elitist factions to such a degree that the Indians once even established strict laws to limit the wearing of jewellery to their most valued figureheads. This conservatism was continued by some followers of the Muslim faith, whereby women are still restricted to wearing only subtle ear jewellery. During this authoritarian period there were a few others who were awarded the right to dress their feet with Gold ornaments, although this was seen by some to undermine the enforced sanctity of their sacred metals. For the most part Indian culture dictated that only their Maharajas (emperors) and their royal relations would have the right to sport finely crafted pieces jewellery. It was believed that the Maharajas not only deserved, but were also the only ones capable of having an intimate connection with jewellery. Hindu philosophers described them as being intrinsically linked to the shaping of the world. They were seen as a divine being; a deity incarnate, instated to uphold and maintain dharma, which they saw as the moral light of the universe.

Despite the fact that jewellery was a luxury – in the most definite sense of the word – in early India it still had a profound impact on the whole country. One example of a jewellery style that had cultural significance across India (connecting all its various religions) comes under the term Navaratna, meaning nine gems. Navaratna styled jewellery would often be worn only by the Maharaja. In one instance this  the creation of an amulet of astounding beauty, complete with Diamonds, Rubies, Pears, Sapphires, Emeralds, Topaz, Coral, Cat’s Eye and Hyacinth (Red Zircon). Within these most-powerful pieces each stone would be assigned a respective deity. Together they symbolised the totality of the diverse Hindu roster of Gods. Yet the most revered of all of them was undoubtedly Diamond, which was considered the most powerful, and, as with a few of their other prized gemstones, was thought to deserve a variety of refined cuts.

It’s not surprising that India was so fond of the Diamond considering it was the first country to mine them around 296 BC. No doubt enthralled by the overwhelming beauty of this treasure the Indians soon began to trade Diamonds. In the beginning they were prized as the highest expressions of tribute and devotion. By the early 16th century the Indian emperors and kings of the Mughal Empire had started to relate Diamonds with immortality. For this reason they held them close to their hearts and etched their names and worldly designations into their starlight surface. Throughout the years Diamonds played a significant role in Indian society; they were used at key moments to acquire military equipment, finance long wars, bolster regimes, spark revolutions and sometimes even to tempt dissent. In one particularly gruesome turn of events some well-connected assassin hid crushed Diamond in the food of an important politician to kill him. Meritorious military heroes were also honoured with diamond rewards.

Daybreak After the Dark Ages

Something very interesting happened in the world of jewellery after the sprawled fingers of Rome receded and the empire released its grip on Europe. While some of the old Roman styles were preserved, rooted in the cultures they had obtained and claimed as their own, a new wave took over, driven by an entirely unique perspective.


The wild, wandering Celts and the conspiracy-wrapped Merovingians were celebrated for – amongst many other things – their unique prowess at jewellery making, which is commonly compared to that of the ancient Greek colony Byzantium from the same period. While the Merovingians were seen to prefer stylised animal figures and subtler decorations the Celts took a more direct approach in their jewellery design. By around 700 AD the Celts had bent the curve of fashion with strong interconnected patterns, angular shapes and natural designs, which were their speciality. It is often the case that the Celts are portrayed as a feral and green-painted people, esteemed for their primal barbarism, simplicity and ferocity in combat. There is, however, a single piece of jewellery that gives testimony to their precise skill, artistry and eye for minutiae. The seven-inch long Tara Brooch is a piece of Celtic jewellery beautified by intricate, interlaced decoration and complex techniques of metalwork like filigree and inlaying. It is comprised of precious metals, mainly silver-gilt, and coloured with semi-precious stones. For some reason it is also classified as a Christian Irish brooch (despite the fact it features no Christian motifs) and was found in 1850, whereupon it was immediately recognised as a refined piece of astounding complexity most certainly used to adorn an individual of high status. Throughout Europe the torc, a stiff neck ring often found with metal strands woven together like a thick rope chain, was also used as a symbol of status and power. In fact the torc has the almost gothic appearance of a modern day choker.

By the turn of the 8th Century jewels were popularly being used to augment the allure and magnificence of weaponry. This was often found in the form of gem-studded sword hilts and metal-patterned shields. At the same time, while men had taken to wielding their jewellery in a more ‘masculine’ fashion, it seemed as though wearable jewellery had become the chief possession of women, save the odd signet ring and brave eccentric.

The far-Eastern successor of Rome’s fallen empire was undoubtedly the colourful Byzantine Empire. As is often the case with the successive civilisations, the Byzantines took on a fair amount of Roman customs and designs (unsurprisingly they happily took on the Roman affinity for public bathing), although religious motifs strode boldly to the foreground. Unlike the Romans, Franks and Celts, Byzantium was recognised for its nonconformist flair and ability to embrace the limitless potential of assorted stones and gems. Indeed they practically abandoned solid Gold for its finer, subtler and lighter cousin Gold Leaf. Just like the Celts their unashamed techniques of jewellery making were appropriated by wealthy Byzantine women, as seen in their unique headgear, which often featured engraved kolts, or finely embroidered clothing with glinting trims. True to the longstanding traditions wearable art Byzantine jewellery was also commonly included amongst grave good collections. They would often use their most treasured pieces to frame their figures of high-society when they were laid to rest and set to depart the world.

Sophisticated Roman society might have limped back to Italy but the traces of its former presence were manifest. Cloisonné had fast become a favoured technique of post-Roman Europe and, according to our archaeological findings, Garnet was the quintessential gemstone. Commonly found artefacts include amulets, clothing fasteners and even detailed signet rings like this golden Byzantine wedding ring.

‘The Rebirth’

From the gloomy, disease-riddled caverns of the Dark Ages a shivering movement occurred that was bent towards the light. This movement quickly gained shape and momentum, spurred by the classical teachings of Ancient Greece and Rome. It was an instinct embodied by an enlightened fraternity of humanistic intellectuals. These great pioneers collectively created the paradigm we now call the Renaissance, which roughly translates to ‘rebirth’. Essentially they ushered-in a vibrant elixir that permeated every level of culture – art, architecture, science, etc… – stirring innovation at every turn, until humanity gained the hard-won blueprint for the wide Western society we have conceived today.


Globalisation was also integral to this period of intellectual expansion. Humanity’s widespread exposure to other far-flung cultures was essential to the expansion of many varied disciplines, including jewellery making. Indeed exploration was the spark that ignited the widespread blaze of our modern day jewellery industry. It was during the Renaissance, sometime in the late 17th century, that Jean-Baptiste Tavernier carefully delivered the precursor stone of the infamous Hope Diamond to France. This gesture was symbolic of the sudden variety of gemstones on offer, as well as the fact that Europe was blooming from the light of other exotic cultures. Perhaps the best example of this diversity can be gleaned from the Cheapside Hoard. This profligate collection of jewellery was found in a London cellar that pickaxe-wielding workmen uncovered in the early 20th century. As it transpired the hoard dated as far back as the late 16th century and included everything from Colombian Emerald and Topaz to Hungarian Opal and Amethyst.

Prior to the newfound availability of precious stones the use of Gold and precious metal was undoubtedly most popular. However the Renaissance led to a much wider appreciation of gemstones and their settings. Soon larger stones were being fitted in box-bezels for enamelled rings, whereas the smaller ones were sometimes used to form artistic mosaics. For the first time it appeared as though the origins of each stone were being taken into consideration. And not only that; they were also being used – predominantly in the pre-enlightenment era – as a symbol to augment the wearer’s status by affirming how well-travelled they were.

At the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon Bonaparte – the illustrious military leader – received the highest honour of being granted the grandiose title ‘The Emperor of the French’. As it happens one of the lesser known things he achieved during his time as emperor was to do with jewellery. Indeed Napoleon essentially helped to recover the grandeur of jewellery, inspiring new trends in styles and reviving cameos with his cameo coronation crown, which was often depicted as a laurel leaf. Another effect of his influence was that lapidarists started to create suites of jewellery; the earliest indications of market groupings, which they called ‘parures’. A great example of this was the Diamond tiaras, Diamond earrings, Diamond brooches and Diamond necklaces that were often sported by both of Napoleons wives. During this time there were also several new terms that came into use to differentiate between the various manifestations of jewellery making. For example, opportunists who tried to hawk cheaper materials became ‘bijoutiers’, whereas those that were honest and stuck to the more costly materials were known as ‘joailliers’ and celebrated.

Despite what the picture we’ve just painted suggests, Renaissance jewellery wasn’t all about high-glamour, country zeal and solemnity. Around this time there was also the earliest known appearance of costume and mock-jewellery. The arrival of fish scale encased glass beads to replace pearls, or conch shell cameos, placed a new emphasis on the already popular Renaissance theatre and suddenly imbued wearable art with a vital sense of fun and levity.