A Brief History of Jewellery




From as soon as out ancestors flopped out of the primordial soup they were picking up shiny stones, bones and shells to bling out their furs like a fabulous Captain Caveman. Palaeontologists and physical anthropologists can't wait to pass off their wild stabs in the dark as fact that early man used primitive jewellery to protect him against the many scary things his peanut brain couldn't comprehend.

When these guys discovered gold... boy, forget about it. It must have blown their tiny minds! They loved it so much that they started to bury themselves with it, in fact most archaeological jewellery is discovered by Lara Croft as she plunders the worlds tombs, barrows and tumuli like a common criminal.

As Cavy Wavy learned to poke about in the earth he discovered metals and how to work them with hammers fashioned from probably dinosaur bones. He soon realised the right blob of metal and rock worked like witchcraft with lady cavemen and so he honed his craft and over time the design of primitive jewellery because more intricate.

This collar was found in a bog in Shannongrove, Co. Limerick, Ireland, sometime before 1783. We do not know what it was used for, but it was probably a ceremonial collar. On the inner side of the collar, under each of the circular terminals, is a hole. The collar probably rested on the chest and was held in place by a chain running between the two holes and passing round the back of the neck.



In medieval times people were still stupid. As well as using jewellery to denote status (nothing like today then) they also used it to protect themselves from the spells and hexes cast by witches and wizards who were apparently running roughshod over the dark ages.

The royalty of the time (who had brilliant subtitles that described some stroke of fortune or massive cock up they'd made, like Aldrich the Spawny or Caledon the Baffled) were festooned in gold and silver set with with precious gemstones where as the plebs wore base metals and stones, shells and bones inscribed with mystic symbols and imbued with absolutely nothing at all.

Simple time, simple people.

Up until the back end of the 14th century people were too unskilled with their banana fingers to attempt cutting facets onto a gemstone so they just polished vague flats onto them. Without the internal majesty of a gemstone that has been fully realised by the exact and mathematically derived perfection of modern stone cutting they were left with 'funny shaped baked bean' jewellery and so the emphasis was on size and lustre. Colour was added to the jewellery by the newly discovered (though far from perfected) enameling using techniques that are still used today... kind of.

This scorpion etching dates from the 2nd or 1st century BC but has been reused in a medieval ring. Carved Greek or Roman stones were highly valued in the middle ages. They were found in excavations or in surviving earlier pieces of jewellery and traded across Europe.

The scorpion had an enduring reputation as a protective amulet. It was believed to heal patients from poisoning and also, as symbol of the Zodiac sign Scorpio, it was associated with water and therefore believed to have a cooling effect on fever. Remedies against poisoning were also made by infusing scorpions in oil and herbs. The Medici Grand Duke Francesco I (d. 1587) published a recipe for an anti-poison oil effective against 'all sorts of poisons ingested by mouth, stings and bites'.



Renaissance jewellery, like renaissance everything else, was crapulent on it's own ostentatiousness. Everything was bombarded with coloured enamel of a much more refined calibre than that medieval tat and for the first time, the faceting of stones became a thing.

People were still dumb and religious fundamentalism was a massive part of everyday life. Jewellery reflected this climate with a predominance of crosses... er, arks? ...and featured figures and scenes from classic mythology. Another cultural trend; rampant egotism, led to a demand for custom, unique commissioned pieces including the engraving of individual stones.

As enlightened as the age has become known it was not without is share of muppets who still clung to the belief that a certain gemstone or piece of jewellery could cure a toothache or protect the wearer from 'the evil eye' (known today as 'daggers', 'stink eye' or 'a mucky look') which people back then thought lead to ailments and misfortune. The fix? Obvious really; coloured stones and metal.

The images decorating the back of this cross were often used as a focus for meditation in the late medieval period. The scenes on the lid show the Instruments of the Passion - scourge, whip, lance, sponge and nails - which were used during the Crucifixion. A tiny fragment of one of them may have formed a relic, stored within the cross’s now empty interior. Pearls symbolised purity, and the red gems may have symbolised sacrificial blood shed by Christ.

17th Century


By the mid 17th century, modern dye technology (...yeah, it's a thing) meant that the toffs stopped looking like one of Dick Van Dykes chim-er-ney sweep pals and started to wear lighter pastel shades. Whereas dark fabrics had required gold heavy jewellery to pop, the newer dyed fabrics available offered a more elegant canvas for subtle gemstones and pearls. Coupled with expanding global trade, this saw a more diverse and available range of gemstones.

Advances in lapidary techniques means that cut stones looked more appealing by candlelight... think about it, it's the 17th century, it's either candles or daylight. The most impressive of these gemstones were often used as the accents of bodice or breast ornaments stitched onto dress fabric (something we in the trade call 'boobellery') and styled with bows and botanical exclamations.

The central bow in this necklace is a magnificent example of a mid-17th century jewel. The painted opaque enamel was a recent innovation, said to have been developed by a Frenchman, Jean Toutin of Châteaudun. This striking colour combination was frequently used in enamels around this date.

18th Century


In the middle of the previous century, a new type of gemstone cut known as Mazarin was introduced. It was the first of the brilliant cuts and it's 17 crown facets made Diamonds sparkle like an Oscar Wilde put down and caused them to dominate jewellery design in the 18th century. It was normally plonked into silver settings to enhance the stones colour and because an essential accoutrement to court dress for the rich, privileged and chinless. Like the 'boobellery' of the past, the largest pieces were worn on the bodice. Very little original diamond jewellery from this period remains intact as it's owners often re-set the stones as fashion dictated a change in design.

Bro's in the 18th century had their own specific jewellery in the form of the épée de cour (also known as short sword, dress sword or court sword), an evolution of the rapier that catered towards thrusting and speed in line with the fencing techniques of the day. Men of nobility and breeding wore swords as a mark of distinction and to defend themselves from the dirty plebeian masses and this man-jewellery became more and more elaborately designed with gold and silver hilts mounted with precious stones.

These weapons were made by goldsmiths rather than swordsmiths and often given as rewards or denotations of exemplary service... so, it's like the engraved gold plated Rotary of it's day.

This sword is inscribed: ‘PRESENTED by the Committee of Merchants &c OF LONDON to LIEUT.T FRANCIS DOUGLAS for his Spirited and active conduct on board His Majesty’s Ship the REPULSE. Ja.s Alms Esq.r Commander during the MUTINY at the NORE in 1797. Marine Society Office, May 1o 1798 } Hugh Inglis Esq.r Chairman’.

Francis Douglas was rewarded for his role in suppressing a violent mutiny among sailors at the Nore, a Royal Navy anchorage in the Thames Estuary in 1797. According to an account by an eyewitness, published in The Sheerness Guardian 70 years later, the ship, Repulse, made a 'miraculous' escape from the mutineers reaching shore despite receiving 'as was calculated two hundred shot'.

James Morisset, one of London’s most celebrated makers of enamelled gold dress-swords and boxes, was commissioned to produce this sword.

19th Century


In the Dickensian workhouses of the 19th century, the child labour force was positively awash with diamond set jewellery. When they weren't collapsing of malnutrition or being worked to death by the bourgeoisie they were enjoying jewellery that displayed a return to classicism and evoked the glories of ancient Greece and Rome.

The guttersnipes' interest in antiquities was stimulated by fresh archaeological discoveries. The goldsmiths of the day, in an effort to meet the high expectation of this unwashed, uneducated customer base, attempted to revive ancient jewellery making techniques like tying stones onto sticks and howling at the moon.

There was also much interest in Medieval and Renaissance jewellery amongst plague sufferers and Jack the Ripper victims. Basically, people were into anything from any other period during the 19th century, it must have been a really horrible time to be alive!

As the century crested it's apex, the style was moving towards a more naturalistic bent. Flowers and fruit were starting to pop up an everything. Romantic poets like Wordsworth and his emo peers are entirely to blame for this shift in jewellery motifs with all their lonely cloud wandering.

This large spray of assorted flowers has a pin fastening at the back and would have been worn as a bodice ornament. Some of the diamond flowers are set on springs, which would increase their sparkle considerably as the wearer moved. Individual flower sprays could be removed and used as hair ornaments.

By the 1850s the delicate early designs had given way to more extravagant and complex compositions of flowers and foliage. At the same time, flowers were used to express love and friendship. The colours in nature were matched by coloured gemstones, and a 'language of flowers' spelt out special messages. In contrast with earlier periods, the more elaborate jewellery was worn almost exclusively by women.