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Ancient Objects of Adornment



I’ve loved jewelry since I was a kid. I used to play dress up and my mom bought me some bling at yard sales. As an adult I began looking at jewelry more seriously and now have a small but distinctive collection. On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I was amazed at some of the ancient jewelry on display. What can you tell me about this early jewelry? How far back was it used?



The earliest traces of jewelry can be traced to the civilizations that grew in around the Mediterranean Sea and in the area now called Iran around 3,000 to 400 BCE. These were usually simple stone amulets and seals. Many of these amulets and seals carried spiritual meanings, stars, and floral designs.

The word jewelry itself is derived from the word jewel, which was anglicized from the Old French "jouel", and beyond that, to the Latin word "jocale", meaning plaything. Since ancient times, jewelry has consisted of decorative items worn for personal adornment, such as brooches, rings, necklaces, earrings, pendants, bracelets, and cufflinks. Jewelry may be attached to the body or the clothes.

The earliest jewelry discovered was from a cave in Monaco, a necklace made of fish bones, 25,000 years ago. Ancient peoples wore jewelry made of feathers, bones, shells, and colored pebbles. These colored pebbles were gems and gems have been admired for their beauty and durability and made into adornments. Diamonds weren’t popular until people learned how to cut them to show their brilliance, which began in Europe sometime around the 1300. Many types of jewelry items still made today began as functional objects. Pins and brooches originated from the clasps that held clothing together. People used rings and pendants as signs of identification, rank, and authority, as well as for early seals.

The need to feel accepted, to belong, can be as important as the needs we fulfill in caring for our bodies. A sense of identity and self-esteem is not a frill, so belonging reflects a need, too. The first adornments were derived from the hunt; teeth, claws, horns, and bones. Hunters believed that wearing trophies would bring them good luck for the next hunt. Remember, the village lived day to day by the virtue of a good hunter and this person deserved respect and privileges. Of course, the best hunter wanted to show they had courage and prowess. And in early societies, people wore jewelry as amulets to protect them against bad luck and illness.

Ancient people found luck and fortune because of gemstones and jewelry. They made jewelry into symbols they believed would give them control over fertility, wealth, and love. Some even wore jewelry for its magical properties.

People offered jewelry to the gods and often adorned statues of them with it. The Royal Tombs in ancient Sumner, dating back to 3000 BCE offered up a great jewelry collection. Archaeologists discovered mummies encrusted with every imaginable type of jewelry, including headdresses, necklaces, earrings, rings, crowns, and pins.

Then there were the ancient Egyptians; who also wore amulets and talismans, One of the most common motifs was the scarab, a carving of a small beetle. Another common one was the ankh, the symbol of life. Many ancient Egyptians wore multiple strands of beads in a variety of colors. The Egyptians also created bracelets of multiple strands of colored gemstones---amethyst, carnelian, green feldspar, and turquoise—embedded in gold.

The Egyptians also used symbols to show territorial pride—the vulture represented Nekhbet, patron of the Upper Egypt and the cobra stood for Lower Egypt. The royal jewelers used gold, silver, turquoise, chalcedony, amethyst, and lapis lazuli The ancient Egyptians were also famous for their faience, a glass-like tin glaze on clay, and inlays of glass.

Color played a significant role in ancient Egyptian culture. They believed strongly that color reflected people’s personalities, and as a result, color symbolism became an important part of jewelry design. The Egyptians associated yellow and gold with the sun, and thus used them in crowns and ornaments for the pharaoh and his priests. They placed a green stone in the mouths of the pharaohs to restore speech in the other world and believed the red AB or heart amulet preserves the soul. The golden Udjat provided health and protection.

Ancient Greek jewelry was rich and varied and reflected the prosperity of the society. At first, they copied Eastern Motifs but then later developed their own style following their beliefs in the gods and symbols. Greek jewelry included crowns, earrings, bracelets, rings, hairpins, necklaces, and brooches. Greek women sometimes wore necklaces with 75 or more dangling miniature vases.

By the Roman era, most gem stones used in jewelry today had been discovered. Myth and magic was the rule of the day, and the Romans treated gemstones with respect. Another form of jewelry preferred by the Romans was the cameo, which they cherished it for its beauty. Bracelets for the wrist and upper arms as well as necklaces became popular, as did jewelry made from gold coins.

In most ancient cultures, people cherished jewelry for its material properties, its patterns, or its meaningful symbols.

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