Items of jewellery are objects of adornment worn for the purpose of personal decoration.
They differ from other forms of adornment in that they are, in general, not designed for a functional purpose, and are purely decorative. Some items of jewellery may have a limited function such as holding a garment together or keeping hair in place.
Jewellery comes in several different forms including necklaces, rings, brooches, earrings and bracelets. It can be made from any material used for its appealing visual aesthetic, but often utilises precious metals such as gold and silver, along with gemstones such as diamonds.
Jewellery is often worn as a statement of personal wealth, and it has traditionally been used as an investment of wealth, passed down through families as an inheritance, as the value of many pieces of jewellery appreciates with time. Pieces of costume jewellery and paste jewellery are designed with the appearance of precious materials, but made from cheaper materials such as glass and semi-precious gemstones.
Jewellery has also been used in different cultures to denote status or membership of a certain group, to display religious beliefs and as a form of currency.
The world's first jewellery
Early forms of jewellery were made from natural materials such as bone, animal teeth and stone.
The earliest known man-made jewellery is thought to be a set of snail shells perforated to be strung like beads, discovered in a cave in Blombos, South Africa and dating back to the Middle Stone Age, some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago.
The first signs of established jewellery making appeared in Ancient Egypt, around 3,000 - 5,000 years ago. It was during this period that craftsmen began to utilise technology and artistic skill to produce pieces of jewellery that were used as amulets and talismans.
Ancient Egyptian jewellery
The Egyptians favoured gold above all other metals, and softer gemstones such as lapis lazuli and turquoise were used both for their striking colours and ease of use.
Egyptian jewellery featured religious imagery and was used to ward off evil spirits as well as signifying wealth and status.
During this period jewellery making was also evident in China. Chinese jewellery of this period also featured religious symbolism and images in its design, and was used in Buddhist ceremonies. They predominantly used silver instead of gold, but the most prized material in Chinese culture was Jade, because of the human-like qualities they assigned to it.
Ancient Greek jewellery
The earliest jewellery from Ancient Greece consisted of beads shaped like shells and animals. The Greeks started using gold and gems in their jewellery around 1,400 BC, and by 300 BC they had begun to use coloured gemstones such as amethyst, pearls and emeralds engraving with intricate patterns.
In this culture jewellery was worn mainly by women as a symbol of status and beauty, although many pieces also had religious connotations such as warding off the ‘Evil Eye’.
Greek styles influenced much of the early jewellery from the Roman Empire, but as the empire spread they had access to a wide variety of natural resources found across the European and Mediterranean continents. Their jewellery became far more elaborate, using an extensive variety of gemstones such as emeralds and pearls which were made available through expanding trade routes.
Many items of Roman jewellery had a function, such as brooches designed to hold clothing together. Often men would wear signet rings with an engraved gemstone used as a seal on documents, a practice which remained popular after the fall of the empire and into the Middle Ages.
The functionality of jewellery continued during this period, but with the exception of signet rings the majority of items were worn by women.
Jewellery was worn almost exclusively by the wealthy noble classes and many items were buried with their owners, a practice that had its roots in Ancient Egyptian culture.
The rampant hardship and poverty throughout Europe during the Middle Ages meant the Church was one of the few sources of wealth, and much of the jewellery of the period came in the form of ecclesiastical vestments.
The main source of jewellery craftsmanship came in the form of the guilds, organisations of tradesmen ranging from goldsmiths to gem-cutters. Such skills were continued and developed throughout the Renaissance Period, when prosperity returned to Europe and the accumulation of wealth and luxury goods began in earnest.
The Renaissance saw the art of jewellery making taken to a new level, as wealthy patrons demanded ever more elaborate designs. While jewellery was already seen as sign of wealth, many now began to collect it solely for the purpose of protecting ones wealth.
Trade routes brought diamonds from India to Europe for the first time, and the Netherlands and Belgium became the dominant gem-cutting centres as new technology was developed to work with the harder stones.
18th century jewellery
The early 18th century also saw the birth of costume jewellery as well as a distinction between jewellers working with high and low-grade materials. Jewellers who worked in cheaper materials were termed ‘bijoutiers’, while jewellers who worked with expensive materials were termed ‘joailliers’.
The market for costume jewellery expanded with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, as changing social conditions led to the growth of the middle class. This distinction also led to important developments in the market for high-end pieces, as the upper classes sought jewellery with high levels of craftsmanship. The appearance of gemstones and precious metals could be reproduced in costume jewellery, but superior artistic design and craftsmanship could not.
19th century jewellery
The 19th century saw the founding of three of the most important jewellery houses of the modern era: Tiffany & Co in 1837, Cartier SA in 1847 and Bulgari in 1884. To this day these companies remain leaders in design and are associated with the highest-quality luxury jewellery.
The end of the 19th century saw the birth of the Art Nouveau movement and the work of Rene Lalique, but the end of the First World War brought with it a more conservative style.
The 1920s and 30s were defined by the Art Deco style and the Bahaus movement, which both favoured simpler styles and modern materials.
During the last 20 years jewellery making has become a popular hobby with hundreds of publications on the subject and dedicated stores selling materials. And the practice of storing wealth in high-end jewellery such as diamonds has gone from strength to strength, with world-record prices being consistently broken at international auction houses.
Types of jewellery
Some examples of the types of jewellery people wear include necklaces, rings, brooches, earrings, and specifically for men, cufflinks.
There are thousands of styles which jewellery can be crafted in. Sometimes these styles are linked to a wider artistic movement in society, such as art deco or art nouveau. Sometimes they are specific to the designer or material, and sometimes to a theme. For example, vintage Italian mosaic jewelry uses small pieces of stone in an ancient mosaic theme. Vintage Irish Connemara jewelry is constructed from one particular type of green marble that originates from the west of Ireland.
Some examples of notable jewellery designers include Cartier, one of the oldest luxury jewellers in the world, Bvlgari, Chopard, Tiffany & Co, Harry Winston Inc, Bentley & Skinner, David Morris (jeweller), Hancocks (jeweller), Mappin & Webb, Weiss, Miriam Haskell, Charles Lomoma, Jean Michel Schlumberger, and William Spratling.
Notable items of jewellery
The most valuable pieces of jewellery are often remarkable diamonds set into the form of a ring, necklace or bracelet.
- The 24.78 carat ‘fancy intense’ Graff Pink Diamond set into a ring is the most expensive diamond and most expensive piece of jewellery ever sold at auction, fetching $45.75 million at Sotheby’s in 2010.
- The 6.04-carat Fancy Vivid Blue diamond sold for HKD$61,927,50 in 2007. At the time it was the most expensive item of jewellery ever sold.
- The Blue Empress pear-shaped diamond set into a necklace was the most expensive diamond ever sold in 2003, when it fetched £10 million.
- The Bvlgari Blue is a rare two stone diamond ring, sold for $15.76 million in 2010.
- The De Beers Millennium Jewel 11 is a 5.16 carat diamond ring, sold for £4.12 million in 2010.
- The Diamond Rivière Necklace made up of 50 white diamonds sold for $6.7 million in 2010.
- The Heart of the Kingdom is a 40.63-carat Burmese ruby, set into a 155-carat diamond necklace. It is estimate to be worth £8.48 million, making it the world’s most expensive necklace.
- The Hope Diamond is a rare deep blue diamond set into a necklace, reputedly worth up to $250 million.
- The Kashmir Bracelet is a unique sapphire and diamond bracelet by Cartier, circa 1960. It achieved $6.9 million in 2010, a world record price for a bracelet at auction.
- The Millennium Star is a unique pear-shaped diamond, reputedly worth around £200 million.
Guide to Collecting
Collectors may select jewellery in order to wear it, and/or as a method of alternative investment. Collections may focus on one era of design, one jewellery designer in particular, a particular style or material, even a colour, such as the black jewellery which came into fashion during Queen Victoria’s long mourning for Albert. Some may collect pieces because they know their jewellery will appreciate in value, others may collect any piece they like the look or style of, even if it is not particularly valuable.
Jewellery collectors can be anyone from a small child who takes a fancy to costume jewellery, to rich and famous celebrities, politicians and royalty, such as Imelda Marcos and Wallis Simpson. Some jewellery collections are impressive enough to warrant exhibitions, such as the William and Judith Bollinger gallery displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Collections of notable figures often result in both the collection, and individual pieces within the collection, being named after the owners, such as the Portland Jewellery Collection once owned by the Dukedom of Portland, amongst which is the Portland Ruby.
Jewellery from the great names of design will almost surely hold their value, particularly if good condition is maintained.
Jewellery is often more valuable if it comes from an interesting collection like this. Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery collection. High-end collectors tend to invest in pieces with a unique design, rare precious stones, historical importance and celebrated provenance – such as a connection to a celebrity or member of royalty.
There are of course many collectors of jewellery who cannot afford these unique and illustrious pieces, but still amass impressive collections. Paste jewellery was widely collected by all members of society from the Victorian time onwards, as well as jewellery made using semi-precious stones. A stunning collection can be created on a budget, without splashing out on diamonds.
Interest in antique, vintage and costume jewellery is widespread. Jewellery represents the culture and design of the era in which it was created, each piece a fascinating insight into the styles of the day. Many of these fashions come around again, and jewellery is an essential part of completing a look.
If you need to brush up on the terminology of jewellery collecting, glance over our list of jewellery collecting terms.
Jewellery can be found everywhere: at auction, jewellery fairs, in second hand stores, at flea markets, in charity shops, car boot sales, on eBay, and from specialist dealers.
See our list of jewellery dealers to find a reputable one in your area. Jewellery dealers associations also exist, such as the American gem society and the American Gem Trade Association.