The idea of showing your identity through the jewellery you wear is an old one. So old, in fact, that it is how many groups of prehistoric people chose to display their position as part of a group. Prehistoric people also used other markers like tattoos and piercings – which, today, we tend to think of as modern!
The importance of group identity
For as far back as we can trace human history, it’s been important for people to feel like they belong. At one point, this might have been a matter of life and death. Anyone who didn’t have family and friends to protect them probably wouldn’t have survived very long!
Today, group identity is more about feeling accepted, understood, and secure. Most of us identify with a group in one way or another, even if it’s only defined by the websites we visit or the clothes we wear.
Fashion and identity
Our fashion choices are one of the key ways that we express our identity, both group and individual, to the outside world. Even if you think your clothes don’t say anything about you, they probably do! The shops you choose to buy from, the colours and patterns you wear, your accessories – they all add a little bit of information about who you are.
Some examples are more obvious than others. Goths and punks obviously use their clothes to say something about their group identity. But a mum wearing Lululemon leggings is just as much of a message in its own way!
Why is jewellery so connected to personal identity?
Jewellery is an especially powerful way to show a sense of personal identity. It can be small, unobtrusive and easy to wear every day and in any setting. Alternatively, it can be bold and obvious, making a statement all by itself.
We’ve also become used to using jewellery as a way of expressing identity. Wedding and engagement rings, purity rings, nametag necklaces, a girl’s first pair of earrings – jewellery in western culture has become very tightly linked to identity. It’s hardly surprising that so many people choose to adopt it in other ways as well!
Groups that use jewellery
It would be impossible to create a full list of all the different groups that use jewellery to show their identities – there are just too many. Some groups are clear-cut and obvious, while others are loose collections of people who might not even realise that they have anything in common.
Religious symbols – Christian, Jewish, Wiccan
Many religious groups use jewellery as a way of expressing their religious beliefs unobtrusively yet clearly. A cross for Christians, a Star of David for Jews, or a pentagram for Wiccans, are all symbols that identify a jewellery wearer as belonging to a particular religion.
Jewellery is also a powerful tool for subcultures to identify themselves. Gothic jewellery, for example, which tends to feature a lot of black, and many repeated symbols, is hugely popular with people who identify with a gothic or alternative style. It fits perfectly with similarly-styled clothes, or can be worn with more bland clothes to express identity in a subtle way.
A less obvious, but still interesting, example is the popularity of monogram necklaces. They instantly suggest that the woman wearing them subscribes to a preppy, classy sense of style, no matter what else she’s wearing.
Bohemian jewellery, made popular by travellers and backpackers, has become popular as a way of identifying as part of a particular movement or group. Wearing bohemian jewellery with an otherwise plain outfit suggests not just a sense of style but an entire lifestyle.
As you can see, not all of these people necessarily think of themselves as part of the same group as other people who wear the same jewellery. However, their jewellery choices still say a great deal about the groups they belong to, even if only subconsciously.