Jewelry in the Ancient World
In the ancient world, gold was the dominant metal for jewelry. Gold jewelry can be traced as far back as 3000 B.C., to Egypt. The metal was malleable and did not tarnish. When the tombs of the pharaohs were discovered, the world was astonished by the stunning necklaces, rings, collars, head ornaments and bracelets that were produced by the Egyptians. The craftsmanship of Egyptian jewelry is exquisite, and jewelry makers trained carefully under experienced eyes. The gold jewelry was reserved for only the more elite of Egyptian society, such as kings and other rich individuals. The jewelry was finely crafted and often featured images of animals such as jackals and birds. The scarab beetle was another favorite creature depicted in jewelry designs. The Egyptians believed that treasures in the life could be taken to the afterlife, and so pharaohs and rich individuals were buried with their jewels.
The next great culture and world power, Greece, also used gold to make gorgeous jewelry. Bracelets and necklaces using gold beads in the shape of insects, flowers, shells and other objects were commonly found in Greek burial sites. The Greeks also used gemstones and made glass and enamel stones. They were fond of jewelry with scenes illustrating the stories of gods and goddesses, such as Zeus or Aphrodite. During the Hellenistic period, jewelry was passed throughout a family, however, it could be offered occasionally as an offering to the gods. Some jewelry was even made just to be worn when an individual was laid to rest. Museums today contain many brilliant examples of emeralds, pearls and garnets in Greek jewelry.
The Etruscans, who lived in the area that is modern-day Tuscany, made their own contributions to gold jewelry. They were fond of large stately pieces, and created huge necklaces, bracelets and earrings. They also made granulated textured gold work that still stands today with the finest quality gold jewelry. Etruscan jewelry was imported across the Mediterranean, and eventually the jewelers began engraving gemstones. Etruscans also worked with bronze and silver, as Etruria was rich in metal deposits.
Rome lead the way on the mining of 18 and 24 karat gold for their coinage. The metal was plentiful and it was incorporated into Roman jewelry, which was influenced greatly by the Etruscans. The Romans also used gemstones like sapphires and emeralds in their necklaces, earrings, bracelets and head-wear. They were especially fans of brooches, because they used these to fasten clothing. They obtained these materials through trade, using gemstones and more from exotic destinations such as Persia. The designs were ornate, yet in the beginning were quite conservative compared to their ancient counterparts. Designs of the jewelry featured animals, such as snakes, but also motifs featuring knots. One of the biggest Roman contributions to jewelry history is their invention of the hoop earring.
Opulent jewelry spread from Rome across Europe. By the time of the Middle Ages, many countries enacted Medieval Sumptuary Laws to cap luxury goods like clothing and jewelry. These laws specifically excluded commoners or merchants from wearing certain items. The development of the Sumptuary Laws demonstrates that wearing jewelry had caught on in the rest of the world.
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