The History and Evolution of Jewellery


The history of jewellery can be traced back to Prehistoric times and although it might be hard to believe, jewellery was first worn over 100,000 years ago. We look at how jewellery has evolved throughout the centuries.

Prehistoric era

During the Prehistoric era, jewellery was created using the most basic materials including sea shells and sea shell beads by Neanderthal living in Europe – these are the earliest forms of jewellery known to man. The Victoria and Albert Museum confirms that the wearer used jewellery as protection or to mark status or rank. Bones, tusks, claws, and animal teeth were also used as objects for personal adornment. As well as being ornamental, jewellery in its crudest form, was seen as a good luck charm. Over time, jewellery was increasingly used to decorate nearly all parts of the body.

A wealthy association

Virtually every single culture throughout the history of time has embraced jewellery in some form or another. Jewellery has long been associated with wealth and good fortune, the rich and famous and, of course, royalty and nobility. Jewellery has been linked with the ruling classes to denote social rank or standing. From the Egyptians to the Romans, to the modern day, all civilisations have created and worn jewellery.

All that glitters is gold

Although gold was first discovered in streams and in the ground of the ancient world, natural gold was discovered in Spanish caves dating back to 40,000 BC. It is thought that ancient Mesopotamians created some of the first gold jewellery in 2600 BC. Remote civilisations were known to bury the dead with their richest garments and ornaments, particularly gold which was rare and highly valued. Much archaeological jewellery comes from tombs and hoards. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo houses the biggest collection of gold and jewellery in the world.

Introducing gemstones

Between 1400 and 1200 BC Egyptians, the ancient Chinese and Mayans started to use other precious materials in the production of jewellery including jade, gold, bronze, and copper. Gemstones, such as amethyst and turquoise, start to become used, but it wasn’t until later that Greek jewellery regularly contained pearls, garnets, and emeralds. Amber and sapphires were also used by the Romans. Silver became popular during this time and around 800 BC, diamonds were first found in India, although not used in jewellery until 1074 AD.

Medieval jewellery

Metalwork became more intrinsic in the creation of medieval jewellery and during the Middle Ages. Jewellery was more sophisticated and religious themes were starting to emerge in designs. Pieces were frequently adorned with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds. Wearing jewellery was no longer limited to royalty and nobility, but the lower classes wore copper and pewter pieces. In 1179, a Guild of Goldsmiths was established in London – workers in both gold and silver. In 1477 the first diamond engagement ring was gifted when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy.

Renaissance jewellery

During the Renaissance period, jewellery became more intricate because of advances in techniques. It was popular across Europe, as fashions changed, and new styles were introduced. In Italy, jewellery making became a fine art and many Italian sculptors trained as goldsmiths. In the 1600s the highly ornate and dramatic Baroque style emerges and gemstones became widely available through global trading. Diamond cutting grows to be more sophisticated.

19th Century

During the Victorian era, industrialisation and greater production meant that jewellery became more accessible to all classes and the cost came down. Other, more cost-effective materials were used and both fashionable and luxury jewellery is worn by many for self-expression and creativity. Delicate flowers and foliage were popular designs with brooches widely worn. In 1867 the first authenticated diamond ‘Eureka’ is found in South Africa and the six-prong setting for diamonds, known as a Tiffany setting, is patented. Carl Fabergé opens a jeweller and Tiffany & Co. is established.

Jewellery’s modern age

With the 1900s came arts and crafts jewellery, the Art Nouveau style, and Art Deco all in relatively quick succession, despite enduring times of boom, bust, depression and war. Designs were vibrant, colourful, and bold. Jewellery fashion had become international. Other materials are used including textiles, leather, plastic, glass, and crystal in the production of jewellery and there was a rise in the creation of costume jewellery, with large stones and beads.

Contemporary jewellery

Contemporary jewellery is hard to define, as fashions are forever evolving and changing with the times. Vintage pieces from the past are often used as inspiration for the future. Contemporary jewellery is often more refined or subtle. Rules around who can buy and wear jewellery has completely shifted – women purchase their own and men wear more jewellery than ever before. Boundaries are being pushed as jewellery is worn to reflect style and individuality. New designs and creations are, after all, what make jewellery history.

Insuring your jewellery

At TH March, we offer specialist jewellery insurance providing cover worldwide for accidental damage, loss, and theft for your previous items.