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A brief look at the history of jewellery through the ages

As someone with a lifelong interest in history, it’s amazing to see just how important jewellery has been for most of human history. Even more amazing? Some of the styles we wear today have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years! Simple, classic styles are some of the easiest jewellery pieces to create, so could still be made by ancient people, who had less refined jewellery-making techniques than modern jewellers.

The history of jewellery is a fascinating subject. Humans have long felt the urge to make and wear beautiful things, so jewellery-making developed early in history. Pieces of jewellery made from organic material like bone and shell began to appear as early as 100,000 years ago – a staggering length of time! Many parts of the world have jewellery that is over 40,000 years old.

Ancient jewellery

It was not until about 7,000 years ago, however, that metal jewellery began to appear, with pieces of copper jewellery beginning to be made. This developed into far more advanced jewellery-making in Egypt and the Middle East, then gradually began to appear across Europe.

In western Europe, the Celts in particular came to be known for their incredibly skilled metalwork, sometimes described as “the work of angels” because it is so detailed and beautiful. Some of our modern jewellery styles can actually be traced all the way back to the Iron Age Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland. Others draw on Anglo-Saxon or medieval traditions.

Celtic Torc

During the Iron Age in Europe, the torc became one of the most popular items of jewellery and was worn all the way from Ireland to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Essentially, a torc (also spelled torque) is a large metal neck-ring. It could be a single piece of metal, whether thin or thick, or it could be made from multiple metal strands woven together. You might have seen some of the famous British Celtic examples, which tended to open at the front. One problem that has long puzzled archaeologists is how torcs were worn – it is possible that they were designed to never be taken off!

Today, torc-influenced necklace styles are still popular, although most modern wearers opt for something more slender and subtle. Modern torcs also tend to have some sort of hinge so that they can be removed! Perhaps the famous Cartier Love bracelet, which screws onto the wrist, would be a close modern descendant of the classic Celtic torc.

Anglo-Saxon arm ring

Another piece of jewellery with surprisingly ancient origins is the simple hammered-silver arm-ring or bracelet. Today, these bracelets are enjoying a boom in popularity thanks to how easy they are to customise with stamped pictures and words. You might also have noticed twisted metal bangles appearing in jewellery shops.

These different bracelet styles are beautiful and stylish. But did you know that they were worn by Anglo-Saxon warriors? Even though, today, we tend to think of jewellery as feminine, Anglo-Saxon men used precious metal arm-rings to show their wealth and skill in battle. A successful warrior would collect an entire armful of bracelets, then perhaps distribute them as rewards to the men who served him. Most of these arm-rings were probably worn on the upper arms, although some might also have been worn on the wrist. It was a safe and convenient way to store wealth (most Anglo-Saxons used precious metals instead of coins) as well as showing wealth and good taste.

Signet rings

In the twenty-first century, signet rings have become almost a cliche. They are a common birthday present for teenagers, or an inheritance from older relatives. But, once upon a time, signet rings were hugely important in their own right.

The word ’signet’ is actually connected to ’signature’. When few people could read and write, most wealthy people would sign a pre-written document by stamping their signet ring into liquid wax, rather than signing their name. The wax seals could also be used to literally seal documents and letters, so that the person receiving them would know that no one else had read the contents.

Over time, signet rings came to be an important indicator of wealth, power, and family connections. Even as the practical use of signet rings disappeared, they remained a classic piece of jewellery. Today, we all recognise the shape and style of a signet ring!

20 Feb 2017

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