Jewelry and Culture
Jewelry Defined
…an item of personal adornment, such
as a necklace, ring, brooch or bracelet,
that is worn by a person.
Jewelry Defined
It may be made from gemstones or precious metals,
but may be from any other material, and may be
appreciated because of geometric or other patterns, or
meaningful symbols.
Earrings and other body rings are also considered to be
jewelry, while body art is not.
Jewelry is one of the oldest forms of body adornment;
recently found 100,000 year-old beads made from
Nassarius shells are thought to be the oldest known
The first pieces of jewelry were made from natural
materials, such as bone, animal teeth, shell, wood and
carved stone. More exotic jewelry was probably made
for wealthy people or as indications of social status. In
some cases people were buried with their jewelry.
Jewelry has been made to adorn nearly every body
part, from hairpins to toe rings and many more types of
jewelry. While high-quality jewelry is made with
gemstones and precious metals, such as silver or gold,
there is also a growing demand for art jewelry where
design and creativity is prized above material value.
Jewelry, Form and Function
Jewelry has been used for a number of reasons:
Currency, wealth display, and storage
Functional use (such as clasps, pins and buckles)
Symbolism (to show membership or status)
Protection (in the form of amulets and magical wards)
Artistic display
Currency, wealth display, and storage
Most cultures have at some point had a practice of keeping large
amounts of wealth stored in the form of jewelry. Numerous
cultures move wedding dowries in the form of jewelry (ancient
custom that is widely practiced in Europe that refers to the estate
or goods brought into a marriage by a woman), or create jewelry
as a means to store or display coins. Alternatively, jewelry has
been used as a currency or trade good; an example being the use
of slave beads (were otherwise decorative glass beads used
between the 16th and 20th century as a currency to exchange for
goods, services and slaves).
Millefiori (thousand flower) beads from Venice,
Italy were one of the most commonly traded
beads, and are commonly known as "African
trade beads."
Currency, wealth display, and storage cont’d
Jewelry has been used to denote status. In ancient Rome, for instance, only
certain ranks could wear rings. Later, laws dictated who could wear what type of
jewelry; again based on rank. Culture also dictates social norms, i.e the wearing
of earrings by Western men was considered "effeminate" in the 19th and early
20th centuries. More recently, the display of body jewelry, such as piercings,
has become a mark of acceptance or seen as a badge of courage within some
groups, but is completely rejected in others.
Religion has also played a role: Islam, for instance, considers the wearing of
gold by men as a social taboo, and many religions have edicts against
excessive display.
Jewelry, Form and Function
Functional use (such as clasps, pins and buckles)
Many items of jewelry, such as brooches (sometimes referred to as
a fibula) and buckles originated as purely functional items, but
evolved into decorative items as their functional requirement
Braganza Fibula/Brooch, Hellenistic art, 250-200 BC, British Museum
Jewelry, Form and Function
Buckles were historically taken for granted and overlooked, the
invention of the buckle has been indispensable in securing two
ends before the invention of the zipper.
Archeological bronze buckles from southern Sweden
Jewelry, Form and Function
Symbolism (to show membership or status)
Jewelry can also be symbolic of group membership, as in the case
of the Christian crucifix or Jewish Star of David, or of status, as in
the case of chains of office, or the Western practice of married
people wearing a wedding ring.
A livery collar or chain of office is a collar or heavy chain, usually of gold, worn as
insignia of office or a mark of pledge or other association in Europe from the
Middle Ages onwards.
Jewelry, Form and Function
Protection (in the form of amulets and magical wards)
Wearing of amulets (meaning "an object that protects a person
from trouble"), and devotional medals to provide protection or ward
off evil is common in some cultures; these may take the form of
symbols (such as the ankh), stones, plants, animals, body parts
(such as the Khamsa), or glyphs (such as stylized versions of the
Throne Verse in Islamic art).
The ankh, also known as the ‘key of life‘ or ‘the key of the Nile', was the Egyptian
hieroglyphic character that read "eternal life
A palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North
Africa. The khamsa is often incorporated in jewelry and wall hangings,
as a defense against the evil eye. Symbol known as Throne Verse in
Islamic art.
Artistic display
Jewelry, Form and Function
Although artistic display has clearly been a
function of jewelry from the very beginning,
the other roles described tended to take
priority. It was only in the late 19th century,
with the work of such masters as Peter
Carl Fabergé and René Lalique, that
jewelry as a true art form began to take an
important role in society.
Portrait of Medusa by René Lalique, a
respected French artist (1860-1945)
Gold and enamel pectoral by
René Lalique, Museu Gulbenkian,
Bouquet of Lilies or Madonna Lily Egg by
Materials and Methods
In creating jewelry, gemstones, coins, or other precious items
are often used, and they are typically set into precious metals.
Other commonly used materials include glass, such as fusedglass or enamel; wood, often carved or turned; shells and other
natural animal substances such as bone and ivory; natural clay;
polymer clay; and even plastics. Hemp and other twines have
been used as well to create jewelry that has more of a natural
Beads and glass are often incorporated into jewelry pieces.

Jewelry and Culture