Jewelry History is a giant topic that would take years to cover in its entirety. This post is an oversimplification of jewelry history and necessarily truncated to one region. There are so many beautiful pieces to choose from and so many active regions to explore. To do the topic justice we will revisit these centuries from different angles including sub-Saharan Africa, the Andes mountains of South America, and the coastal region of China. We have gathered here, arguably, the five most iconic pieces of jewelry for the first five hundred years of the current era in the Western world.
Five hundred years is a long time to distill into five pieces of jewelry. The Roman Empire spread, slowly overtaking its Etruscan neighbors, building an empire to replace the Greeks and Mycenaeans. They reached their height, then declined, at least in the West. In the Near East, the Byzantine Empire carried the remnants of Rome into the Middle Ages, while the Merovingians mimed Roman practices in the West. The outer reaches of the former Roman empire dissolved with infighting.
The jewelry design that comes to us from that part of the world during the first century may be (is almost undoubtedly) older than it seems. This most iconic jewelry design was eventually adopted by the Catholic Church as they gained power and converts. They carried our first design in pockets of devotees from their earliest days into the current century. That sticking power is what led us to choose this design as the most iconic of the first century CE.
Year 0 to Year 100
From The Met, we have a simple gold chain, composed of small gold beads threaded on gold S-shaped lengths of wire, pinched together to form links. We still use this design in jewelry construction. The Catholic church maintained it over the centuries in the construction of Rosary beads.
Year 101 to 200
From the second century, we see an uptick in the use of semi-precious stones in cup bezels. Cup bezels are hollow spaces made of the same material as the rest of the jewelry item. Red stones like Carnelian and Ruby, and even some instances of red glass remain in various museums and personal collections. The stones were also made into beads for necklaces. The red and gold combination was very popular, so our most iconic piece of the second century is a Gold finger ring with a carved Carnelian stone housed in a cup bezel.
Year 201 to 300
Stones became passé during the third century leading to an increased focus on metal craftsmanship. The detailed goldsmithing from the third century focused on realistic representations of the natural world. Rosettes were especially popular and fine petal work showed off two things, the goldsmith’s techniques and the money it took to procure such skill.
Year 301 to 400
After establishing the gem-work and the smithing required for the task, artisans in the fourth century combined those skills, with ever finer details. Stone usage returned, and included previously “unworkable” soft stones like opal and pearl. The inclusion of soft stones was accompanied by a resurgence of wire-wrapping. The most popular technique of the century involved wire springs soldered together in hollow rings, and in place around soft stone cups. The cups had changed too. Many soft stones like pearls need to breathe. Learning how to keep pearls in a ring was a feat of imagination on behalf of some historical jewelry hero. The following ring is a stunning example of these design elements from the far north during the fourth century.
Year 401 to 500
The last century in today’s post is an interesting historical period. As corruption increased and culture declined, the Western Roman Empire shuddered. The fall of Rome took place in 476. Byzantium continued and Roman influence continued, but Rome itself was in sad shape. Germanic chieftain Odoacer usurped the Roman Emperor and took the crown for himself. There were notable changes in jewelry design regarding the number and placement of stones on metal. The term Lombardic defines the era. Lombardic pieces are encrusted with numerous stone settings in every piece. These designs foreshadow the later Baroque period.
The history of jewelry is, again, a huge topic. There is always more to explore and room for debate in the world of jewelry! Thank you for joining us for the first 500 years of Modern Western Jewelry History. Subscribe for the next installment from the year 501 to 1000 CE.
See you next time on Pendant and Ring.