Saturday, December 15, 2012


By Guest Contributor

History of Jewelry

Numero China August 2012, Armani, Givenchy (Photos courtesy of Zimbio)

Humans are the only living creatures with a penchant for adorning themselves. As far back as history can reach, ornamentation has been of paramount importance. Jewels have fulfilled numerous roles throughout the ages. They have granted luck, performed spells, demonstrated religious tenets and worshiped gods. The powers attributed to jewels are complex and vast. They have been the stuff of legends, works of art and icons of patriotism that have divided cultures. All that glitters is not gold and while precious metals and stones can fetch admiring glances and large sums of money, beads hold their own place in jewelers` work through history.

The ancient world`s attributed value to jewels is vastly different to contemporary valuations and even today, certain cultures place such enormous value on beads that they outweigh the worth of precious metals. In the Western world, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires are unmatched in terms of their preciousness, but on African soil, beads fetch the fattest fortunes.

Egyptian jewelry (Photo courtesy of My Jewelry Box)

Christianity split the Egyptian culture into two distinct artistic segments. During pre-Christian times, faience beads were iconographic of Egyptian culture, spanning across class divides and touching peasants and kings. Beaded talismans chased away evil spirits and healed disease. On death, they were assigned to personal tombs to sustain the dead in the afterlife. The Egyptians were adept at crafting metal and some of their techniques are still in use today. Their semi-precious gems were inlaid into precious metal and were used to make jewels that symbolized various deities. After Coptic Egyptians converted to Christianity, the afterlife lost meaning and jewelry symbols changed to suit their beliefs. Necklaces and earrings became more minimalist and were absent of traditional scarabs and symbols representing gods that had been rejected.

The ancient Mali culture used stones that seemed dreary until they were backlit. When they caught the sun, their vibrant hues turned translucent and they fetch prices of up to $4,000 today. Beads range in rarity, with the most intricate quartz being among the most highly valued.

African tribal jewelry (Photo courtesy of Interact China)

In other African cultures, glass and ceramic beads were used as currency. Painted patterns gave them their value, with chevrons fetching the highest price even to this day. South Africa is home to the site where the oldest dated jewels were unearthed. Archaeologists discovered beads made from marine snail shells that are believed to be 75,000 years old. Tribal jewels were later made from bone, seeds, animal teeth, hair and stone. The humble cowrie shell was the most treasured material for jewels and was worn as an icon of female fertility and spirituality. Seeds were donned around the ankles as part of coming of age rituals and South African tribes showed respect for their deities by wearing knotted elephant hair bracelets representing the elements.

 Traditional Berber silver jewelry, Tiznit, Morocco (Photo courtesy of Maella)

Tribal cultures still use beads as a central part of their spiritual rituals. Superstitious tribes believe that copper will protect its wearers and that Berber beads will give their owners beauty, power and supernatural abilities.

In the medieval world, jewels continued to harness magical potency. Hue signified the specific powers of every bead and magical inscriptions channeled gems` protective powers. The Renaissance`s rich splendor transformed beads into glittering, elaborate artworks. Each gem was individually engraved with portraits and mythological depictions that reflected the artistic values and class of its wearer.

The industrialized world became a contentious topic during the 19th century, so jewelers sought to combat it through less expensive arts and crafts. Symbolism returned to jewelry, with beads that emphasized the natural luminescence of their materials. Contemporary fashion consistently draws from ancient cultures. Beads (check Cooksongold for a great selection!) emerge in haute couture collections seasonally, in constantly evolving aesthetics. Tribal trends were pushed to the foreground in 2012 fashion weeks, while end of year runways predict the fresh emergence of Pop Art`s fun addition to 2013 jewelry. Primary palettes will take over beading aesthetics for a funkier style that always approaches fashion with a sense of humor.

LFW SS12: Swirling hoop designs at KTZ (Photo courtesy of Professional Jeweller)

LFW SS12: Tribal-inspired beaded earrings and layered necklaces at KTZ.

Givenchy 2012 (photo courtesy of Zimbio)

Alexandra Richards for Harper's Bazaar © Benjamin Kanarek

Carmen Kass by Mario Testino for Vogue UK May 2012 (Photo courtesy of Vogue)

See more unique jewelry pieces on our Pinterest page!

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