EVERY GEM or fine piece of jewellery has a story that can be traced across the globe from cultural tradition to design and sourcing. Each one has its own rich history and vibrant cultures, all of which are reflected in the wearable art that they produce. So, without another further ado, let’s pack our digging utensils, dust-off our walking boots and take a little trip around our big blue planet.
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Nowhere on Earth has the power of symbolism been more effectively and consistently channelled than in human’s ancient roaming ground, Africa. This massive expanse of sand, water, rock and earth has long been an abundant source of precious minerals, metals and organic materials. It was through the inherent utility of these materials that much of the African population learnt to decorate themselves, finding inventive ways to wear feathers, teeth, horns, skulls, jewels and other well-wrought ornaments. For example, the expansive Fulbe, a staggering 40 million-strong African tribe, would perform ritualistic social dances wearing jewellery that helped young women choose who was most beautiful. Similarly the Mongbetu and Mongo tribes would use shell pieces to cover their genitals and buttocks. These were often coloured with intricate geometric designs used to signify unions within clans, including marriages. Huge round labial plates were also worn by the African Mursi and Sara. This form of body modification is still very popular amongst women in Ethiopia, who use the wood, ivory or clay plate to stretch their lips and communicate how many cattle should be required for a wedding.
Throughout the industry Africa is perhaps best known for its exemplary prowess in beadwork. Generally speaking the African population has been particularly appreciative of beading and has given it a special cultural significance. In fact they are actually known as ‘trade beads’, due to the fact they were once used as a kind of currency to secure the exchange of goods and services. Aesthetically Zulu beads are beyond compare, reflecting the colourful artistry of those far-flung Bantu tribes. There’s also Maasai beaded jewellery, which is characterised by rigid tribal rules pertaining to colour and design. The Yoruba kings of Nigeria famously wore tall beaded crowns and the women of the Pokot tribe of Kenya and Uganda wore broad-beaded collars and necklaces.
Black Diamond is surely one of the most curious discoveries found in recent jewellery history. Most of the rare Black Diamonds that are available on the jewellery market can be traced to Africa. These strange polycrystalline diamonds formed deep in the earth millions of years ago. Since then they have been propelled up to the surface by staggered volcanic eruptions, which befits their obsidian colour. Another interesting discovery occurred in Kenya, at the otherworldly Enkapune Ya Muto, also known as the Twilight Cave. It was here that archaeologists dug-up a collection of 40,000 year old beads made from the perforated egg shells of ostriches. This finding helped to prove that thick ostrich eggs were used not only as water containers and flasks, but also as decoration often coloured with either teal-blue, orange or black hues.
It’s true that, given its size, Australia hasn’t had a significant impact on the jewellery industry. That being said, though, Australia is actually the world’s number one supplier of Opals. For a long time this rare form of hydrated silica was barely seen throughout Europe or South America. Then, many years later, it was found to be one of the most cherished gemstones across the Pacific. By the late 19th century the Australian Opal market had exploded and Opals were suddenly being celebrated for their speckled rainbows of colour and unmatched diversity.
However it would be erroneous to suggest that Australians contributed nothing but Opals. Their history is rich with accounts of fine European jewellery, exciting natural discoveries and ancient stone mining. In fact, certain historical theorists believe that Quartz is mentioned several times in Australian Aboriginal myths. Supposedly it is referred to as the coveted substance ‘maban’, which was assigned certain mystical characteristics, like the power to imbue their shaman with supernatural abilities.
Brazil is the largest country in South America and also a former colony of Portugal. Most of the Brazilian Gold and gemstones that travel the market were found in a crowded hub of early settlement. Today this hub is known as the state of Minas Gerais, which, in Portuguese, means ‘General Mines’. It was here that the Vianna family first began business as purveyors of fine jewellery and precious coloured gemstones. Their mission was to capture the essence of the vibrant and far-reaching Brazilian culture.
True to their values of classicality and cultural integrity, the Vianna family soon founded Vianna Brazil, and, by incorporating the tribal designs that pervaded the Americas, helped to popularise the tribal geometric patterns, crude skulls and other natural forms that were once cherished by the Aztecs, Mayans and other jungle-dwelling civilisations. In addition they also revived the use of bamboo and beads, especially for their bracelet collections, whilst simultaneously experimenting in unexpected mixtures of colour, as well as unusual marriages of traditional cuts with fancy cuts. Before long Vianna became a household name and Brazil entered the jewellery industry with an array of natural wonders that wore their imperfections as marks of authenticity, whilst also exhibiting fresh ways of beautifying organic sky-coloured stones, like Turquoise and Aquamarine.
Interestingly Brazil is also the tropical home of Natural Green Amethyst. In the mid ‘50s the first Natural Green Amethyst was discovered in its rough state. We can only speculate as to how those miners must’ve felt when they happened upon the faint watery lustre of those prismatic crystals, which were, coincidently, perfect for cutting and shaping. After being plucked from the weathered rock this stone was excitedly exported and treasured worldwide. Mostly Natural Green Amethyst is round-cut into a brilliant shape so as to accentuate a more uniformed colour when viewed from above, through the crown facet.
There are a number of distinct Chinese styles and designs that were swept-up with the spread of Buddhism 2000 years ago. Today the Chinese are known for their ability to repeatedly unlock and harness the aesthetic potential of Silver, whilst also being less inclined to feature Gold in their jewellery. Chinese designs can be recognised for their unique touches, such as the blue kingfisher feathers of their early designs and, thereafter, their unique cuts and arrangements of brilliant blue gems and glass. Interestingly the Chinese have often showed themselves to be averse to wearing or making earrings, which have, historically, been far less popular than other pieces like amulets or rings. Their oldest pieces often featured Chinese symbols or the mythical forms of writhing dragons and fiery phoenixes. Most of these early designs were recovered from the grave goods of the departed, along with a wide variation of gemstones. In fact, just last century, archaeologists discovered the final empress of China, Empress Dowager Tz’u, resting on a beautiful pillow of Pink Tourmaline.
Over time it has become apparent that the Chinese were not only captivated by the allure of Silver, they also revered Jade and fervently embraced its mystical and physical properties. In Chinese culture the forest effusion of Jade is related to the most important human values, being synonymous with hardness, integrity and, thereby, beauty. For centuries Jade has been the staple of Chinese carvings, evidence of which can be found all across China and Southeast Asia. In some cases rare Diamonds were sacrificed to make cutting tools that were chiefly used for the shaping of Jade. This gives some indication of its unrivalled value in Chinese culture. Surprisingly Jade was also sometimes ground into fruit juices and used to alleviate certain ailments like asthma and heartburn.
The colourful capital of Denmark, Copenhagen, has produced many interesting Art Nouveau pieces over the years. Denmark itself has also been instrumental in the commodification of wearable art, not least because it was the home of renowned silversmith Georg Jensen, who took his interest in fine art, founded a collaborative company and inspired a generation of artists and craftsmen. A lot of the designs that Georg Jensen wrought bear close resemblance to the work of his early associates, namely the younger and more modern designers. He wasn’t just some masterful plagiarist though it was just that he promoted the union of artists and a modernist approach to jewellery design. For ninety five years his company has employed over ninety designers, all of whom have intertwined their visions and found innovation by adapting each other’s designs. Consequently the former ceramic worker, Jensen, has bridged the gap between art and fashion, channelling an array of skills and perspectives to spirit his company with an abiding philosophy of interdependence.
Jewellery in the Dominican Republic is commonly available in colours appropriate to its climate and scenery, like the serene blue of a rock-cradled lagoon or the ruffled green of a forest canopy. Natural lava stones are also very popular, but generally colour seems to take precedence, especially over the transparency of other, more world-famous stones, like Diamonds.
Larimar – a rippled blue pectolite refined with hints of turquoise – is one example of a stone that shook the market because of its colour. The locals call it the Atlantis stone, referring to the old nautical myth that the island is actually part of that lost continent. Surprisingly Larimar is found nowhere else but on the islands of the Dominican Republic.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that Ancient Egypt owed its supreme wealth to the Nile. Indeed the longest river in the world was no small treasure; it was not only a thoroughfare for the Egyptians, but also the means to pump water into furrows used to irrigate their crops. Life grew in abundance and Egyptian society thrived. Soon they built mountainous tombs, called pyramids, wherein they kept the deified remains of their God-king Pharaohs. All the while Gold kept increasing in popularity, although it was strictly reserved for the wealthy upper echelons perched on the highest stratum of Egyptian society. While this reflected the fierce wealth disparity that split this ancient civilisation, it also meant that the jewellery was specifically tailored for rich recipients and was thereby of invariably high quality and exquisite design.
Fortunately for us Egyptian jewellery has been well-documented throughout history. Other findings include a 3500BC Garnet, a stone with a kaleidoscopic lustre, found fitted into the necklace of a mummified Egyptian. The olive-oil allure of Peridot was also first encountered by Egyptian miners on an island in the Red Sea. According to historical records they used to mine the gem at night because of its ability to absorb the suns light and glow in the dark, making it easier to discover.
Amongst the beautiful Egyptian pieces that have hitherto been recovered are an elaborate ram-headed falcon amulet and various Apis bulls, often used as an ethereal symbol of rebirth. Gold, Lapis, Turquoise and Cornelian seem to be the four preferred materials, as well as precious stones that are particularly prolific. It can also be gleaned, from the preserved collections of grave goods, that the Egyptian ruling class favoured Gold and Silver pieces, whilst also dabbling in coloured glass. Interestingly the Egyptians were inclined to use certain colours as representations of emotions, conditions and natural phenomena, such as green which was linked to fertility and spring, as it still is today.
Of all the greenstones the Egyptians possessed Emerald was surely their favourite. They associated its brilliant, leafy lustre with Venus, their Goddess of love and beauty. It was also seen as a holy gem reserved for the highest leader of Ancient Egypt and believed to instil wisdom and clairvoyance into its wearer. In fact the notoriously beautiful Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was famed for her love of Emeralds, so much so that she even had an Emerald mine named after her.
Let’s also not forget the Phoenicians – a nomadic people who lived around the fecund coastal region of the Fertile Crescent. They are remembered today for their seafaring merchants who worked around the ports of Tyre and Sidon and who also invented the earliest form of writing to record their business transactions. In their capacious wooden ships they cut daring paths across the Mediterranean seas and traded fine pieces of Turkish, Persian and Egyptian jewellery, using established trade routes that connected the Middle East and Europe.
At the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon Bonaparte was given the grand title ‘The Emperor of the French’. An intrepid republican with tousled hair, Napoleon set his austere charisma to the grandeur of jewellery and encouraged a number of new trends. He even went so far as to revive cameos with his cameo coronation crown. He also spurred the industry into creating suites of jewellery, called ‘parures’, which were essentially the first market groupings. An example of such a parure would be the Diamond tiaras, Diamond earrings, Diamond brooches and Diamond necklaces that were popularised by both of Napoleons wives. In addition several new terms were breathed into being; jewellers who used costly materials became known as ‘joailliers’, whereas cheap opportunists were branded with the condemnatory title ‘bijoutiers’.
Napoleon was followed closely by François-Désiré Meurice, a fledgling French goldsmith who perpetuated the Romantic Period using the naturalistic techniques of his Mannerist and Baroque masters. Meurice gained national status for his affiliations with several figures of state, as well as the opulent ceremonial cradles he made. When Art Nouveau swept the nation the jewellery industry was transformed and innovative designs became more widespread. It was during this movement that the artist René Lalique – a man who was much more than just a great moustache – brought a fresh style of jewellery to Paris, bearing such sinuous fluidity that the artistry involved became manifest. One way to understand this is to look closely at the surreal corsage ornament that elegantly depicts a woman with the body of a dragonfly. This unique design reflects how Art Nouveau had shifted the focus from the setting of the stone, or the composite materials, to the actual form of the piece itself.
The free-spirited wind of Romanticism swept both the East and West into a torrent of artistic collaboration. One example is the German and Japanese artists who worked together to craft Shakudo plaques with Filigree frames in the German town of Pforzheim, close to the vast Black Forest. Like the Scandinavians the Germans also experienced the keen impact of Art Nouveau. The progressive city of Darmstadt became the soul of the German Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) movement, namely the patron-financed Darmstadt Artists’ Colony that hosted the revival of the Etruscan art of granulation. This method of fastening small particles of Gold was perhaps most notably used by artist, goldsmith and veritable force of nature Elisabeth Treskow.
Walter Gropius was another German artist who brought something new to the world of wearable art. He was a former sergeant and lieutenant who was twice awarded the Iron Cross for his valour in combat. He survived multiple tangles with the reaper, having fallen from the sky in a downed plane and been buried under an avalanche of bomb-blown rubble. Perhaps his most well-known design is the harrowing Monument to the March Dead. The fierce angular design cuts the soul like a blade and evoked the tortured war-veteran who was also the master of the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar. Later Gropius transformed this academy into the avant-garde art and crafts school, Bauhaus, which shook the industry with its simple yet invariably powerful designs.
Ancient Greece was one of the most significant influencers of western civilisation. It was in this now impoverished nation that the earliest forms of art, philosophy, geometry, discipline, sport, sanitation and education were first manifest. Greece may today be crippled by debt and yet the debt we owe to Greek culture is beyond comprehension.
One of the many things the Greeks became masters of were the intricacies of metalwork, stonecutting and beading. During the Mycenaean period, at the zenith of Bronze Age, there were professional jewellery guilds that sprouted across the nation and began making collections of brooches, pins, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. By 1500BC the Greeks had started to utilise Gold and various arrangements of precious gems, which they were also adept at cutting, as is evidenced by recovered Amethysts, Pearls and Emeralds traceable to that era. Furthermore they developed skilful ways of manipulating the shape of precious metal, creating Gold casts, twisted bars and wire. The zenith of their flourishing industry is perhaps best encapsulated by this 4th century BC ‘Gold Olive Wreath’, which was fastened with olive branches and awarded to the winner of the ancient Olympic Games.
Throughout Greek society jewellery was worn for a variety of purposes. For example, Indian Sardonyx, a striped and pinkish agate, was worn by women as a symbol of wealth and high social standing. Sardonyx was believed to repel the ‘Evil Eye’, a risible curse that was thought to be contracted simply by receiving a stare from someone with the ‘Evil Eye’. It isn’t surprising, in light of this, that a lot of stones were attributed superior powers and dedicated to the Gods of the colourful Greek pantheon.
Historical records suggest that there were two eminent styles in Greek design, one of which was the cast piece, while the other was hammered out of sheet metal. Funnily enough a lot of the diverse designs were actually derived from the foreign styles acquired through Alexander the Great’s conquest of the known world. That is the reason why a lot of Greek-crafted jewellery pieces are indistinguishable from those of the surrounding nations or factions. However this diversity faded when Greece was thrust under the yoke of Roman rule and thereby began to produce jewellery that was distinctly Roman in appearance.
Here on the other side of the globe, cradled by vast expanses of ocean, sits the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Oahu is known as ‘The Gathering Place’ and is the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands. It was on the beaches of this volcano-studded land that scattered grains of Peridot were found, partly hidden in the sand. By day it must’ve been impossible to see them, but at night they illuminated the whole beach and gave the coast a luminous green glow. Unsurprisingly the Hawaiian’s thought that this was the work of a deity, namely the wept tears of their volcanic Fire Goddess Pele.
The Indian subcontinent has perhaps the longest legacy of jewellery making with an impressive 5000 years spent honing this craft. The Indus Valley Civilisation (Pakistan and India) prospered in the basins of the Indus River and the once full-flowing Sarasvati River. It was one of the three earliest civilisations in the Old World, highly-advanced in the earliest forms of many contemporary arts, one of which was the fashioning of rudimentary jewellery, like clay or shell bracelets. Around 2100 BCE beading was presumably the most widespread trade throughout the arid Indus Valley. Those ancient lapidarists perpetuated what was most likely a hereditary discipline, shaping and polishing special stones to make beads often worn by women, who threaded them into their hair.
The pieces I’ve described above might befit the less refined sensibilities of a Neanderthal, yet the people of the Indus Valley were also known to craft beautiful bands of Gold, earrings, brooches, rings and chokers. Indeed Gold and Silver became the quintessential metals of Indian designs. Together these two metals signified the natural cycle of life, with Gold taking the role of the burning sun, while Silver came to represent the icy moon. Jewellery was also regarded as an indication of high status and was often strictly reserved for the Maharajas (emperors) and their royal relations, who were supposed to be intrinsically connected to the foundations of the world. In spite of this elitism jewellery was soon an integral part of Indian tradition, pervading every echelon. Before long Gold and coloured gemstones were the second largest export in India, which, being the land of life and colour, certainly wasn’t short of aspiring craftsmen drawn to the lucrative and aesthetic appeal of Diamonds and gemstones.
At the centre of this flourishing industry were the grounded principles and humble stoicism that is manifest all over India. Indeed almost all of the jewellers trading in Diamonds and coloured stones were family-owned. Owing to the persistent dedication of these many families India is today one of the leading Diamond processors in the world. They also have some of the world’s finest artisans who specialise in cutting and polishing small diamonds. It was their ingenuity that secured India’s place amongst the ‘big four’ diamond cutting centres, along with Antwerp (Belgium), New York (U.S.) and Ramat Gan (Israel).
One of the major factors that ensured and protected India’s vibrant jewellery history was the relative absence of those skirmishes and conquests that often disrupted Europe. Of course there were several cultural and political incidents that interrupted the steady progress. Nonetheless designs developed at a perennial pace and over time a great quantity of jewellery was meticulously crafted in India and shipped to foreign buyers. The myriad stones, with their differing colours and properties, came to symbolise the totality of the polytheistic Hindu religion. As a result jewellery became a political and social lever used at opportune moments to influence their allies. The most effective leverage was undoubtedly found in the Diamond though. In fact, around 296BC, India was the first country to mine this world-renowned marvel. Unsurprisingly it was one of their most precious discoveries and in all the years thereafter Diamonds continued to play a significant role in Indian society. They were used to purchase military equipment, finance wars, power regimes, incite revolutions and sometimes even in surreptitious exchanges to inspire loyalty. Famously Shah Jahan, the architect of the flawless Taj Mahal, wore Diamonds as talismans, which were inscribed with his favourite lines from sacred doctrine.
Unsurprisingly the growth of jewellery trends has been sporadic across the Pacific, due, in part, to the vast swathes of ocean that carve the archipelagos and keep those far-flung communities apart. In fact it wasn’t until the first pre-Columbian seafarers voyaged across the Pacific to Polynesia that styles finally became uniformed. Early Pacific jewellery is mostly fashioned from bone, wood, and other natural pieces. Often these ancient designs have strictly masculine connotations and motifs that evoke fertility and power. Pacific jewellery was worn above the shoulders in the form of lavish headdresses, necklaces, earrings and hair pins. Interestingly there were tribes on the untouched islands of Papua New Guinea that used certain designs to signify the murder of an enemy, like the American prisoners who mark their cheeks with inky tears. Boar bones were also very popular and often worn slid through the nose septum like a bull.
Today Italy is widely regarded as one of the fashion capitals of the world. Indeed jewellery from Lo Stivale (The Boot) is valued very highly, not least because of such influential visionaries as Sotirios Voulgaris, who opened his flagship store in Via Sistina, Italy, and birthed Bulgari, a company that would thrive for the next 130 years and breach the surface of the industry. Today Bulgari is considered to be a paragon of excellence, unhindered by the restrictions that saddled former craftsmen with a need for patronage.
Though it may be hard to believe, there was a time when sporadic trends were created by wild barbarian tribes like the Celts. Then the Romans came marching across Europe in their uniformed ranks with their big, stomping iron-shod boots. The impact they had on the jewellery industry was that of a particularly facetious drill sergeant ‘fixing-up’ new recruits. They distributed their designs to the various factions of Europe and incorporated the variety of materials taken from resource deposits scattered across their vast empire. The Romans were known to have imported brilliant blue Sri Lankan Sapphires and Indian Diamonds. They worked mostly with Gold, Silver and Bronze used in ornate displays to embellish chariots, weapons and armour. However they were also known for their dexterous artistry, their cultivation of freshwater Pearls and their delicate shaping of fragile glass beads.
Being a multi-cultural society the Romans used a diverse range of jewellery making techniques that were taken from all over the European and Mediterranean continents. They journeyed on the ancient Silk Road from Persia to India and the Far East. From the blustery north of Roman-occupied England they learnt to use shards of fossilised wood called jet. From the ancient Egyptians and Greeks they acquired the elegant and intricately crafted knot of Hercules. The evolution of their designs also occurred very quickly. They suddenly went from being a small agricultural society to the most powerful civilisation in the world. Their artistry was far-reaching and extended to the making of fine clasps, earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pendants that carried perfume like a thurible. The Greek and Egyptian superstitions were soon carried into Roman jewellery and used to characterise their pieces. Roman soldiers famously wore the bold veined gem Onyx as a kind of talisman. They believed it was a magical stone that affirmed courage and fortitude. It was often emblazoned with a mythical warrior or heroic motif etched onto the surface.
Jewellery was a very important component of Roman fashion, especially amongst women, who were likely to wear multiple pieces, whereas men would often wear nothing more than a single finger ring. Sometimes these rings would feature inscribed gems used with wax to press seals onto letters. Garnet was the quintessential gemstone popularised by the Romans and commonly found fitted into their amulets, clothing fasteners and even detailed signet rings.
The ancient land of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), was bordered by two great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, which split the earth from the heights of Armenia to the sweltering coast of the Persian Gulf. The region was chequered with grasslands, marshes, mud flats and crowned with the snow-capped mountains of the rugged north. It was here that archaeologists recovered the Royal Cemetery of Ur and therein the tomb of Puabi, where an ancient queen lay on her funeral bed, surrounded by Gold and Silver artefacts and scatterings of semi-precious stones. Upon her head she wore a Golden leaf headdress, but what was most intriguing were the countless other artefacts preserved at her side, such as jewel-headed pins, Golden rings, bracelets, Gold figurines, Gold tableware, Lapis Lazuli cylindrical beads and a chariot emblazoned with a Silver lion’s head.
When someone mentions the jewellery industry it’s likely that Japan isn’t one of the countries that would immediately spring to mind. However, as we hope you’ve learnt already, popularity isn’t necessarily indicative of quality. Good marketing is also tantamount to a successful product. Therefore it should be noted that marketers can be misleading, as well as being drawn to those established players that have already made a name for themselves. So, as far as jewellery goes, Japan is just another unexploited country that’s yet to have its time in the sun.
What’s most promising about Japan’s jewellery is the way in which it has been cleverly linked to a diversified lifestyle focusing on beauty, comfort and meaning. But the demand for high quality jewellery, real though it is, still depends on a number of overseas suppliers. Pearl harvesting is one of the few jewellery practices that have flourished in Japan. It was popularised by the Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi who famously burnt several tonnes of dim Pearls in an eccentric attempt to posit the idea that his company only dealt in the finest Pearls.
According to official records jewellery revenue peaked in 1990 at the height of Japan’s economic boom. However this explosion soon slowed and dissipated. Then for two decades the exciting thunder turned to a guttural grumble, revenue dropped and the industry bottomed-out. For some time gem traders were left clinging to the lapels of underwhelmed clients, desperately trying to understand the inexplicable loss of interest. Eventually, in 2011, the jewellery revenue rose to ¥900 billion. There were many reasons why demand suddenly increased in this way, but perhaps the simplest can be summed-up by the single word and popular motif ‘kizuna’, which roughly means ‘lover’s bond’. This word was encapsulated by a young couple Rei Takahashi and Tomoe Haga, who became the faces of Japanese jewellery. This young couple came from the coastal Miyagi Prefecture that was ravaged by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Soon after the fierce walls of water hit the shore a frenetic Rei found his girlfriend, Tomoe, at a nearby shelter. Spirited by the tragedy Rei immediately proposed with his mother’s ring, which he’d recovered from the battered remains of his family home. This proposal appeared in countless advertising campaigns and became the single gesture used to encapsulate ‘kizuna’. It was suddenly apparent that jewellery could sustain the human heart and sinew; that precious metal and stone pieces were more than just decoration, they were talismans. This realisation contributed to the rise of jewellery sales. Soon Diamonds, Sapphires, Rubies and Pearls were widespread and Japanese men, who’d long been reluctant to wear any kind of jewellery, started wearing brooches to parties.
Carved into the former lands of Palestine the State of Israel was the crowning achievement of the Zionist Movement. It was created as a haven for the Jewish people and intended, as Lord Balfour stated in his famous letter, to be a peaceable homeland that didn’t prejudice the civil and religious rights of the settled non-Jewish communities. Unfortunately the creation of Israel became the catalyst for decades of war in the Middle East. It seems such a cruel destiny for a land of such spiritual significance that is host to such wild beauty (natural and manmade), as well as being steeped in history.
In the Old Testament Aaron was the older brother of Moses, as well as the leader of the Levitical tribe of Israel. The descendants of Aaron were high priests in Israel who served as mediators appointed to instruct men on the mind of God. They were seen to be able to talk to God and during one of these ‘celestial’ exchanges God supposedly told them to forge a ‘Breastplate of Judgment’, decorated with twelve jewels. These stones were set in gold filigree then emblazoned with the names of the sons of Moses and the signet of their respective tribes.
In Israel the styles of East and West have been blended like the subtle flavours of a good wine. These flavours have then fomented over the years and matured in such a way that Israeli designs should now sit high on any jewellery buyer’s list. There have, of course, been many other major influences. In the 1930s European immigrants brought Art Nouveau and the natural spirit of the Bauhaus. Oriental craftsmanship came next, in the 1950s and 1960s, following a period of widespread immigration from Islamic countries. Most lapidarists favoured traditional techniques and ancient designs, but some more nationalistic companies opted for a fresh and elegant style befitting the national identity of the newly-born state of Israel. Eventually that all-important transition was made from jewellery to wearable art and, in 1980s, several innovative Israeli artists earned international recognition for their unique designs. Contemporary works include the abstract, family-orientated designs of the award-winning Esther Knobel, who favours processes like assemblage, enamels and electroforming. A lot of other Israeli jewellery makers favoured the swirling lava-effusion of Chalcedony, which – along with Diamond and Amethyst – was among the twelve gems fitted onto the golden-fringed Breastplate of Aaron. Interestingly another variant of Chalcedony was also discovered in the foundations of ‘New Jerusalem’.
The strange art of body modification was very popular amongst the Padaung women of Myanmar (Burma) who used to wear golden rings wrapped around their necks. From the age of five girls would wear heavy neck rings, more of which would be added over time until their neck was elongated to as much as 10-15 inches. They were also inclined to stretch their earlobes until they sagged with huge tribal earrings. Interestingly Burma is the predominant producer of the love-symbol Ruby, one of the most popular gemstones in the jewellery industry. These brilliant Burmese Rubies are coloured with a slightly purplish tint and treasured worldwide for their evocative lustre.
New Zealand is made-up of two major landmasses that seem to have drifted east across the Tasman Sea like a detached shard of Australia. The landscape is as diverse as it is magnificent, recalling a more ancient and untouched world of timeless splendour. The South Island alone has everything from the snow-capped mountains and pale glacial lakes of the south-western coast, to the tropical northern forests of Abel Tasman.
Considering all this space it’s unsurprisingly that humans settled in New Zealand long ago, namely the fierce Maoris whose ancestral war dance, ‘the haka’, has been recently popularised by the widely feared All Blacks rugby team. This Spartan culture was defined by the individualism of its respective tribes and their members. Adornment was very popular amongst these proud individuals, their most cherished piece being the greenstone hei-tiki pendant, with its near-cartoonish design. The hei-tiki was usually hand-carved from bone, nephrite, pounamu or bowenite.
Other styles of Maori bone-carved pendants and bracelets have survived and are still being sold throughout New Zealand today. In some cases they are used to represent the multicultural identity of the modern nation. Often these ‘native’ pieces will reflect stylised hei matau fishhooks, as well as other ancient greenstone designs, keeping the tribal spirit alive at the heart of the industry.
Art Nouveau has been very popular throughout many Nordic countries, becoming the integrated style of such neighbourhoods as Katajanokka and Ullanlinna in the waterlocked city of Helsinki, Finland. Interestingly, after the Norwegian coastal town of Alesund was consumed by a fierce blaze in 1904 it was then rebuilt using uniform Art Nouveau architecture. Scandinavian jewellery, especially where the use of silver is concerned, has a distinctly modernist appearance, although vintage pieces are still popularised for being both known and timeless. These older designs often reflect durable Saxon and medieval influences, but neither come close to matching the impact of the warlike Viking culture. Viking jewellery often features Bronze axe blades, ornate depictions of scenes and characters from Viking mythology (as you might expect Thor’s hammer is a recurring motif), dragons, hounds, brazen swords and snake brooches. Ancient Viking smiths were famed for using the lost wax process whereby a wax master would pour molten bronze or silver into a mould before destroying the mould, removing the casting and polishing the solidified piece. In this way these seafaring smiths could intimately craft each individual piece and devise designs of astounding detail.
Once a veritable paradise – unspoilt by small communities of tribesmen devoted to subsistence – the Americas were altered irrevocably by the invasion of Spanish conquistadors and the rest of wealthy western Europe. Towards the end of the 15th century these foreign forces suddenly arrived in huge warships, sailing onto the lukewarm waters off the coast of the Americas. With them they brought their technology; their gunpowder and steel and ravaged the primitive New World that was laid before them. During this time the white invaders seized vast quantities of Gold from deep within the steamy jungles and from the mountainous terrain thereafter.
Contrary to what some historical accounts might posit, jewellery making had actually existed in the Americas for almost 3500 years. The Aztecs, Mixtecs, Mayans, Andean and Peruvian Mochica cultures were highly advanced. They had constructed huge stepped temples emblazoned with baffling geometric patterns, sculptures and beautiful narrative panels. On a smaller scale they mostly worked with bone and stone, which was carved and sharpened for their weaponry, however they also weren’t averse to trading and collecting colourful beads or adapting precious metals. In fact, the nomadic Mochica were supposedly masters of Gold-work, capable of crafting complex pieces that are now fervently valued in modern Peruvian culture.
Tribal designs were often incorporated into ear and nose (worn through the septum) ornaments, commonly carved from bone or other more readily available materials. The finer pieces featured vivid inlays of Spondylus Shell, Turquoise and Amethyst. The Aztecs were perhaps the most advanced of all the jungle-dwelling tribes. They even cultivated a distinct purpose for their decorative Gold jewellery and headdresses, which became symbolic of nobility. Jade and Turquoise were also popularised by their High Priests and used to affirm status. Similarly the rulers of Mayan civilisation were inclined to wear very lavish headwear, sometimes adorned with feathers plucked from Quetzal birds. They also worked with an array of favoured metals and stones, like the Chinese favourite Jade, as well as Gold, Silver, Bronze and Copper.
Interestingly there is an evident link between the arrival of foreign cultures and the transformation of jewellery designs. This theory is also evidenced in certain parts of Borneo and Papua New Guinea, still untraveled by the voyaging Western nations. In these isolated, untouched pockets of nature jewellery seems to be simplistic, traditional and is characterised by a pagan quality. However the designs found on other islands, where Western missionaries settled, seem a lot more opulent and are usually marked with religious (especially Christian) motifs.
The vast expanses of open grassland, the endless rivers and forested mountains might seem like a gem hunter’s paradise, but, surprisingly, Russia has only had a relatively small impact on the jewellery industry. One of the most significant offerings came courtesy of Russian artist Peter Fabergé. He will surely be remembered for the collection of timeless marvels he conceived when he was working in the Imperial Russian Court. You might’ve heard of the famous jewelled Fabergé eggs? These hitherto unseen designs would’ve looked so abnormal at the time, although, in hindsight, they could perhaps be aptly characterised as a kind of premonition heralding the arrival of Art Nouveau. Today these curious creations are regarded as some of the most skilful work of modern goldsmiths.
Another of Russia’s contributions to the world of wearable art occurred in the icy outer-reaches of Eastern Siberia in 1988. It was there that Chrome Diopside, a chromium-rich gem that looks like a greenish mystical ball filled with a network of writhing futures, was found. Presently it is one of the youngest gems on the market.
Also known as the ‘Garden City’, Singapore is an almost futuristic city-state nestled on a wide island just off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Aside from being a leading city in the global marketplace it is also a natural wonderland with fecund stretches of ancient rainforest, where branches creak from monkey acrobatics and ripple with their chatter. There are also vast wetlands with giant lizards and far-flung farms where bananas, papayas and jackfruits grow in abundance. Suffice it to say that it is a veritable paradise, an effortless mixture of natural beauty and modernist innovation.
After a period of rapid development Singapore has effectively reinvented itself. Today it is an undoubtedly cosmopolitan city, benefiting from a variety of diverse cuisines and products. The streets are overlooked by curious feats of modern architecture and lined with high-end retailers. Cranes seem to rise and swing in perpetual toil, striping the sky with shimmering towers of metal and glass. Yet of all the industries presently soaring in Singapore, jewellery is perhaps the most promising. Lee Hwa Jewllery and Poh Heng Jewellery are two of the world’s finest jewellery companies. Both are as fashion savvy as the smartest of New York stores, with numerous boutiques cleverly tailored to suit their respective customers. They recently revamped their collections, redesigning several old motifs and making the vital transition from yellow Gold to white Gold, in an attempt to enhance the elegance of their pieces. True to Asian tastes they place a particular emphasis on Jade, whilst also keeping abreast of gem-set jewellery trends. Other prospering retailers, like Jewellery City, offer vintage pieces of traditional Asian craftsmanship, an example of which would be their fine-as-flax Silver bangles that are at once both subtle and chic.
South Africa, the blunted multi-ethnic tip of this vast continent, seems to have been somewhat overlooked in the history of jewellery – unfairly so, in our opinion, since it has produced an array of fine jewellery expertly shaped to complement the body’s lustre. Such masterpieces were designed to be tokens of love, as well as signs of endearment and cherished heirlooms. But, in this wide world of glittering splendour, it would take more than a few exquisite individual pieces for us to jump into South Africa’s corner. What we really love is the sheer amount of authentic designs that have flooded south from the vast northern grasslands and resident patchwork communities. These seemingly ancient designs feature displays of African wildlife and enigmatic tribal motifs. They serve to furnish an already flourishing market with a style of jewellery that is specific to that continent and also redolent of the earliest conception of human civilisation.
Not only is South Africa a leading supplier of Diamonds, Gold, Silver and precious stones, it also boasts a long history of devotion to the craft of jewellery making. Long ago the widespread clans of north and southern Africa would adorn themselves with pieces cut from the shells or sea snails. Archaeologists also discovered a collection of perforated beads in the dank caverns of the Blombos Cave near Cape Town. The subsequent discovery that these beads were 76,000 years old pushed back – by 30,000 years – our understanding of when early man first developed symbolic communication. Much more recently South Africa was producing the largest and most valuable Diamonds in the whole industry. Today there are a huge number of high-end stores scattered throughout malls and shopping centres, across the country.
In the industry Sri Lanka is known as the ‘gem island’ and widely regarded as one of the leading providers of high quality jewellery. For over 3,000 years its inhabitants have been crafting fine polished gemstones and beads. The tropical landscape of Sri Lanka is traversed by over a hundred rivers, the longest of which is the Mahaweli River. These snaking waterways split the forested hills, pour over waterfalls and create countless alluvial deposits along the way. Really this is the key to Sri Lanka’s wealth. The weathered gravel found in their pits is known for being some of the richest in the world, yielding an abundance of precious gemstones.
It seems surprising that this little republic, isolated on a tiny teardrop island, close to India, would have such an important role to play in the history of wearable art. Yet it’s also one of the most successful producers of pure, crystalline Blue Sapphires, as well as Pink Sapphires, which have recently risen in popularity, due, in part, to their rarity and bold colouration. In spite of the fact that Sapphires are sourced from many different countries they, like Rubies, are considered to be much more valuable when traced to one particular country. In the case of Rubies that country is Burma, but with Sapphires it’s Sri Lanka. In Britain Sapphires from Sri Lanka are referred to as Ceylon Sapphires and it was this exact stone that featured on Princess Diana’s exquisite engagement ring.
It might not take you long to figure out which gemstone Tanzania is famous for producing. It is, of course, Tanzanite, which is one of the rarest gemstones in the world. It was first unearthed in the shrub-covered Mererani Hills of Northern Tanzania in 1967. Tanzanite can only be found in its natural form at this isolated deposit, crammed onto a five-square-mile hilltop. It is the only known place on Earth where it is mined. How cool is that?
It was Campbell Bridges, a white-bearded Scottish gemmologist travelling Tanzania, who happened upon the first natural deposit of Tsavorite. This deep green variety of garnet captivated him in such a way that he traced it all the way back to Tsavo National Park in Kenya, where the gem received its name. In 1974 the American goliath Tiffany and Co. caught wind of Campbell’s discovery and decided to put their resources into promoting its rarity. In fact it was the company’s president who chose the stone’s name and poured time and money into creating its identity. Such was the power of their investment that Tsavorite became one of the most popular gems on the jewellery market and was soon being distributed across the globe.
Due to the fact that Tanzanite is pleochroic it can acquire a variety of hues depending on the angle it’s viewed from. Sometimes it will effuse a radiant Sapphire blue with purple overtones. More often it holds a faint violet tint, especially when illuminated by a burning light. Tanzania is also famous for its production of Sapphires, like the unique Yellow Sapphire found in blissful shades of canary yellow. Indeed some of the finest Sapphires discovered hitherto are presently being plucked from the sun-baked soil of Songea, Tanzania.
Sadly the perception of jewellery from Thailand has been poisoned by scams and overt manipulation. Anyone who has taken a taxi or tuk-tuk around Beijing will most likely have experienced a surreptitious detour to a local jewellery store. In some cases jewellery is seen as a highly-priced product used to entice ill-informed western tourists into draining their bank accounts.
Refined techniques of stone cutting are popular throughout Thailand, particularly for Rubies, Sapphires and other coloured stones. Sapphires sourced from Thailand are often dark or hued with autumnal colours like brownish yellows or greens. It’s not uncommon for stones to be treated in order to enhance their colour nor is it unlikely that composite stones will be included amongst natural collections. Indeed Thailand’s labyrinths of commercial markets have become bloated with cheap tat owing to the on-going influx of tourists. The once plentiful Ruby deposits have been all but exhausted and the bulk of the Rubies on offer in Thailand are now imported from Madagascar and Mozambique. Thailand also doesn’t produce either Diamonds or Emeralds.
If you’d like to discern a cheap stone you should examine the cut and colour (make sure it’s not too dark). A cheap stone will lack that glint of fire, meaning no light will be refracted through the stone. Check the surface for uniformed colour, as well as dark or transparent areas. Blackened colouration is common among Thai Sapphires, some of which are given beguiling romantic names like ‘galaxy’ Sapphire, presumably to increase their value.
Jewellery has long been a highly-valued luxury throughout Turkey, whether it’s changing hands in the crowded labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, or fitted into the profligate displays that beautify a sultan’s palace. Since the industry began to flourish countless workshops and machine-crowded factories have been built across the country. But that isn’t to say that Turkey has only recently joined the sparkling jewellery bandwagon. In fact, Turquoise was first mined over 6000 years ago in Sinai and thereafter it pervaded the sprawled Persian Empire, popularised by their upper echelons who believed it would make them invincible. Many years later this sanative holystone was famously imported to Europe through Turkey and for that reason it became known as the ‘Turkish Stone’, derived from the French designation ‘turques’.
During Late Antiquity the Greek-speaking eastern region of the Roman Empire survived and became known as the Byzantine Empire. Soon this conquering empire came to encircle the Mediterranean Sea, having acquired many more territories after the distending reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great. The Byzantines took on a lot of refined Roman customs and designs, as well as the languid Roman affinity for public bathing. They also acquired the old religious motifs and yet at the same time they developed a bold, nonconformist flair, experimenting with assorted colourful stones and gems. Interestingly they abandoned solid Gold for its lighter cousin Gold Leaf and quickly became proponents of much more delicate techniques of jewellery making. The intricate designs they produced were popularised by wealthy Byzantine women, including lavish headgear with engraved kolts, embroidered clothing with glinting trims and all kinds of jewellery recovered from diverse collections of grave goods. Their most treasured pieces were chosen to frame their figures of high-society, buried with them for their worldly departure and safely preserved before the Byzantine Empire fell to Mehmed the Conqueror and the Ottoman Turks, in 1453.
Long ago Europe was a wild region that was home to scattered tribes of painted Merovingians and Celts. The Merovingians made jewellery with stylised animal figures, whereas the Celts preferred subtler decorations with interconnected patterns, angular motifs and organic designs. The stereotypical image of the Celts is a green-painted barbaric people associated with primal living and ferocity in battle. In actual fact they were masters of jewellery making who deserved great acclaim for their refined skill, artistry and eye for minutiae, all of which are evidenced by the seven-inch long Tara Brooch. This impeccable piece is undoubtedly one of the most cherished treasures of Irish history. It hardly seems possible that it was once washed up on the rugged shores of Bettystown, near Laytown, in the mid-1800s. Then two young boys, the sons of a local peasant, found this alien box in the sand, opened it and were met with the eye-widening gleam of this eighth century Celtic brooch. It was decorated with a variety of tiny, interwoven details like panelled studs of Amber, Enamel and glass. A closer look reveals delicate strands of Copper set against an intertwined mosaic of Gold and Silver. It hardly seems to fit that such fine metalwork was achieved by a bunch of supposed painted savages, but their complex techniques of interlaced decoration were accompanied with other astounding feats of metalwork like filigree and inlaying.
Smokey Quartz is a misted brown stone also known as the Cairngorm Quartz, after the raggedy Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland, where it was first mined. It has since been revered as Scotland’s national gemstone, seeming to contain, somewhere within its brooding tangles of stormy colour, the brackened hills and still grey Lochs of the untamed highlands. A little further south, on the isolated Isle of Arran, Natural Citrine was also mined, as well as in France and Spain. Citrine is a glassy golden quartz that looks like a crystallised shaft of waning sunlight. The Irish famously referred to it as the ‘stone of the sun’, recognising its unique sky-tone effusion. Accounts of this vein and rock crystal stone date as far back as Prehistoric Ireland, when it was frequently incorporated into manifestations of lithic technology.
During the Romantic Period there was a curious trend in the U.K. known as ‘mourning jewellery’. This melancholy style was popularised by Queen Victoria, who wore a purposefully crafted piece of Jet jewellery after the passing of her husband, Prince Albert. That was just one instance in which the royals intervened and bent the arc of jewellery fashion. Another starts with Sapphire, a brilliant blue gemstone, which has acquired widespread esteem from its association with British royalty. Last century Prince Charles wed Princess Diana with an elegant Ceylon Blue Sapphire engagement ring. Following Diana’s tragic death this ring was then given to their eldest son, Prince William, who matched its beauty with that of the unfailingly chic Kate Middleton. Shortly afterwards there were a number of other trends that swept across blighty. Many of these were huge deviations from the royal contribution, like chrome grills, for example, which were part of the ‘bling’ style commonly found in the gangster rap and grime of the late 20th century.
Hundreds of years ago nomadic clans of Native Americans roamed North America and made their homes on the Great Plains, in the forests and amongst the mountains of this vast country. Throughout the course of their industrious existence they carved a variety of jewellery with assorted shells (sometimes oyster shells), wood, soapstone and Turquoise. They also used bone, teeth, hide and vegetal fibre to craft varied organic creations. Their society included a variety of highly-trained craftsmen with unnamed vocations; beaders, carvers, metalsmith workers, hardwood cutters and even gemstone collectors. Of the small range of gemstones they used the vivid Turquoise is evidently the most prolific. The Native Americans immortalised this stone in their legends. They said that when one of their founding clans performed a rain-dance their joyful tears soaked into Mother Earth’s skin, solidified and became the ‘Fallen Sky Stone’ Turquoise.
Like a lot of those wilder and smaller human communities the Native Americans had an individualistic approach to jewellery. It can be gleaned from the diversity of their designs that they always aspired to create unique forms of body adornment. Their culture was replete with disparate styles of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, brooches, pins and labrets. That being said, though, certain colourful patterns do recur and insinuate a collective artistic vision. The absence of a written Native American language meant that jewellery often replaced letters as a form of communication, for example, eagle-feathered halo headdresses and warbonnets, popularised by the tribes of the Great Plains, conferred high-status.
Due, in part, to America’s sheer size and range of landscape the craftsmen were never short of natural-occurring materials. Agate is so prolific that it’s actually regarded as the national gemstone of several US states, from Kentucky to Minnesota. Green Quartz is one of a number of quartz varieties hidden in the Earth’s continental crust. It can also be found in the forested Thunder Bay of sun-drenched California. It is an exceptionally rare stone predominantly used in jewellery settings and sometimes enhanced through heat treatment. Morganite was another, fairly recent, discovery found in the early 20th century, as well as Tourmaline and Aquamarine in the peaceful Pala Indian Reservation, California. But undoubtedly the most infamous discovery that happened in California began in the Sacramento Valley in 1848, when several Gold nuggets were discovered. Soon these few nuggets became whole collections that speckled the riverbed and were plucked from the shallow earth. This finding sparked the frenetic Gold Rush that has since been regarded by many as the most significant event in American History. The news quickly spread and thousands of prospective miners amassed and travelled by any means necessary to the shining beacon of San Francisco. By the end of 1849 a staggering $2 billion worth of precious metal had been taken from California.
Of course the Native Americans were not the only jewellery makers to grace the great land of opportunity. In 1837, after the United States was formed, the now infamous Tiffany and Co. was founded by jewellery pioneer Charles Lewis Tiffany. This fledgling company became a kind of cultural phenomenon, aided by the commissions it received from such influential figures as the wife of Abraham Lincoln. Competition wasn’t far behind and soon a plethora of other ambitious companies were founded. Consequently high-end retailers sprouted up across the nation. The rest is, as they, history; presently there are a large number of U.S. periodicals reserved simply for beading and the United States now prospers as the largest jewellery market in the world.