Jewellery has always been a part of our culture, and through time, has been produced from various kinds of materials. Journey with us through different eras to see the evolution of jewellery from the early modern era right up to the 21st century, from poison rings to suffragette jewellery. Perhaps a brief history of jewellery may inspire some creative designs for your own jewellery making projects.

The Evolution of Jewellery

A History of Jewellery: The Early Years (1100-1400)

Jewellery has always been at the forefront of symbolising people’s status and wealth. Social ranking and hierarchy can be defined by a single jewel on a simple bracelet, and this was no different for early modern jewellery. Gold, silver and precious gems were worn exclusively by royalty and the nobility, whereas lower ranks usually wore base metals, such as copper. Men used jewellery to prominently symbolise wealth and power – rings were especially worn to portray this, as well as brooches attached to garments, expertly signifying their wealth and status.

Expansion of trade and commerce allowed for a larger middle class to afford jewellery, but this merely boosted the nobility’s determination to differentiate rank, creating more extravagant jewels to distinguish themselves from the masses. A key feature to note about the historical jewellery of the Early Modern Era was their inability to jewel-cut – jewellery polishing was mainly used, meaning their jewels often appeared dull and lacked colour. This encouraged the use of jewellery enamelling to add colour to their designs, adding another way to separate class and hierarchy.

the evolution of jewellery

Download our history of jewellery infographic and trace jewellery designs back to their historical routes.

Renaissance Jewellery: (1400 – 1700)

Remembered for the vast expansion of technology, knowledge and exploration, the Renaissance period had a lasting effect on the history of jewellery. As jewellery cutting ability improved, more elaborate designs were created with the use of enamels. With Renaissance jewellery, religion was heavily imbedded into designs, and the ancient art of engraving gems was revived – the history of jewellery was developing, with individual pieces wearers could use to identify themselves.

Due to rising interest in spirituality, the scorpion etching was a popular choice for Renaissance jewellery designs. As the Zodiac symbol for Scorpio, the scorpion was also believed to have a cooling effect on an illness or fever, which would be transferred to the wearer. Large chains or pendants were often worn by men to symbolise their status in the Renaissance world whereas rings and brooches gained popularity.

Poison Rings

The 16th century coined the term ‘poison rings’. Taken from Ancient Greek origin, and its history of lockets and rings for containing useful items like perfume, locks of hair and pictures, the poison ring was believed to facilitate the death of an enemy. This was easily managed with the flip of the poison ring lid into food or drinks. Another use for the poison ring? To save the wearer from torture in the event of capture by an enemy.

The delicate flip-lid of the poison ring remains popular today in the form of both antique and contemporary versions. As recently as 2013, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered a ring which could have led to political murders several hundred years ago, showing that poison rings are still adding a relevant and fascinating element to our history of jewellery even today.

17th Century Jewellery

The 17th century saw a change in fashion, which in turn, brought a change in jewellery style. This pinnacle moment in the history of jewellery saw fashion together with accessories for the first time. Dark clothing was associated with gold jewellery, whereas pastels and whites were an elegant setting for silvers, gemstones and pearls.

19th Century Jewellery: (1800s – 1900s)

With the 18th century came the reign of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to Europe – and a large cultural change shifted to the popularity of the single gem – the diamond. As a keen diamond enthusiastic, Napoleon influenced 19th century jewellery over the continent to create a desirable gem holding the highest rankings in society. This turn in jewellery history brought the diamond into the prominent position which it still enjoys today.

Victorian Jewellery and Mourning Jewellery

Largely associated with the Victorian era, mourning jewellery became a fascinating aspect of our history of jewellery. Its popular origin is believed to be entwined with the death of Prince Albert in 1861, where Queen Victoria was seen wearing her black mourning clothes with black jewellery to match.

As well as using jewellery colours to match the clothes of the mourner, using human hair was also a common theme amongst Victorian jewellery. Held inside lockets, and actually used to make necklaces containing strands of hair from a lost one, this created that unbreakable connection with the deceased. Fifty tons of human hair was exported to England in the 19th century per year – meaning mourning jewellery had well and truly infiltrated the history of jewellery.

The Arts And Crafts Movement

The late 1800s saw the Arts and Crafts movement, derived from the unease the machinery systems created in this era. Focussing more on the artistic elements and beauty of design, jewellers began to reject machinery to make their precious projects. The Arts and Crafts movement meant that handcrafted jewellery was brought back into fashion, using less precious metals and expensive stones such as diamonds. Instead silver, copper and brass were used to create designs.

20th Century Jewellery: (1800 – 1960)

The Industrial Revolution brought about change in many areas, and jewellery was no exception. 20th century jewellery was still seen as a status symbol, but at a much more affordable price to the middle class market. Metal alloy replaced gold and silver, and imitation stones were used to create jewellery applicable for this new market.

The era of 1895 – 1910 brought the Art Nouveau style, causing a noticeable shift in the history of jewellery. Distancing themselves from traditional floral designs and precious stones, 20th century jewellery makers turned towards creating an effect or a design which was memorable. They focused on symbolic work including eroticism and death, using glass, enamel and horn.

The Impact of Suffragette Jewellery

The early 20th century also saw the rise of the suffragette movement, with women advocating the right to vote in public elections. This social change inspired women to wear suffragette colours; green, symbolising hope; purple, symbolising dignity; and white, symbolising purity. This radical change of fashion and statement was incorporated into the jewellery worn in this era – delicate brooches, necklaces and earrings were designed in these colours, representing these women and what they stood for.

Contemporary Jewellery: (1960 – Present)

Contemporary jewellery can never be truly identified as, since the 1960s, jewellery design and innovation has constantly been redefined. Taking a blend from the history of jewellery is how some jeweller’s work, extracting hints of designs and concepts from one era and transporting them to another. People often look back to the past with vintage jewellery or elements of different periods to create new and interesting art that will attract people’s attention.

Men’s jewellery is openly worn in the modern day – rings and chains have remained a prominent feature of men’s jewellery, whereas brooches for men have been lost somewhat. Watches are especially important for the modern man, with an array of styles and brands, once again, symbolising wealth is worn. Non-metals have been introduced into contemporary jewellery design, such as plastics and textiles to push the boundaries of jewellery making as we know it. Today, those boundaries are still being pushed to create innovative designs and creations that make jewellery history.

Inspired by our journey through jewellery history to start making your own? Pick up all the materials and jewellery supplies you need from Cooksongold today.


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