A Brief History of Jewelry Making

Get a Quick Overview of Antique Fine Jewelry Making

Victorian Earrings

At Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers, we are fascinated by the history of fine jewelry and the artisans who make this wearable art. In the following brief history of jewelry, we cover some of the important highlights along the fine jewelry making timeline.

A Quick History of The Earliest Fine Jewelry

Fine Jewelry generally refers to jewelry made with precious metals and gemstones, and can be anything from simple wedding rings to highly detailed works of art. The first fine jewelry appeared as cities began to develop during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Gold was the metal of choice, due to its deep luster and malleability. The first true goldsmiths developed techniques like filigree and granulation as early as 2500 BC.

Sumerian craftsmen made earrings, necklaces, and rings using combinations of gold, silver, and precious stones. Fine gold jewelry illustrating these techniques has been found at Troy dating back to the same time, showing how the techniques themselves migrated.

Early Greek jewelry featured gold and gemstones as early as 1400 BC. The Greeks also began to make stone cameos in the early 6th century BC.

When the Roman Empire connected western Asia with European cultures, techniques and styles spread throughout the region.

A Quick History of Medieval Jewelry Making

Charlemagne united a large part of Europe in 800 AD, and monasteries became training centers for goldsmiths. By the 11th century, cities throughout Europe were stable enough to support these craftsmen, and the secular jeweler-goldsmith was born.

Following developments in architecture, jewelry makers gradually employed a Gothic style, including more pointed forms and simple, elegant designs.

Supplies of gemstones from the East increased, and the art of gem cutting advanced. Jewelry making evolved toward Renaissance ideals, though Gothic design prevailed in Northern Europe and England until the 16th century.

 A Quick History of Renaissance Jewelry Making

Many of the great Renaissance artists of the 16th & 17 centuries started their careers in goldsmith workshops, working as apprentices in guilds. The guild system allowed the craftsmen to specialize. Designing, casting, engraving, and stone setting was often done by different craftsmen.

With an increase in trade, gemstones were even more widely available, especially diamonds from India. Diamond cutting became more varied, and centers for diamond cutting grew in the great ports, particularly Lisbon.

Pendants became popular, featuring miniature sculptures or intricate designs of interwoven floral and fruit motifs called arabesques. Worn on necklaces, pendants varied widely, from depictions of biblical scenes to enamel portraits of ships, mermaids, and sea monsters.

Rings continued to be worn by both men and women, often on every finger. Rings featured a variety of gems highly ornamented settings.

Earrings were popular in the Renaissance, and featured jeweled drops, pearls, fantasy sea creatures, and jeweled letters.

 A Quick History of Baroque Jewelry

Fine jewelry during Baroque period (which stretched from the 17th-18th centuries) became even more naturalistic. Exotic flowers brought from the near East were represented on all kinds of jewelry.

The bow, originally a ribbon used to secure a jewel for clothing, was prevalent in Baroque jewelry. Made of precious metal and decorated with gemstones, pearls, and enamel, bows were worn as a brooch or pendant.

Diamonds became widely available, and gem mountings more delicate. Pearls from the Persian Gulf were worn as necklaces and incorporated into dresses. Girandole earrings were fashionable, and featured a central earring with three dangling ornaments.

A Quick History of Georgian Jewelry (1740-1830)

Georgian jewelry became distinct based on the time of day it was worn, with women wearing rings, necklaces, chatelaines, and bracelets during the day. The evening was for diamonds, with the use of tinted copper “foil” backing the gems. These “foil and closed back” settings allowed diamonds to twinkle in candlelight, and are a signature element in Georgian jewelry.

Parures became fashionable as well. These sets of jewelry usually included a brooch, earrings, a bracelet, and a necklace, but could contain as many as sixteen pieces. Parures featured matching gemstones, diamonds or pearls, and typically were themed to compliment each other and the lady’s gown.

Georgian goldsmiths used gold alloys of 18 karats and higher, and with the invention of the rolling mill, a device to roll out uniform sheets of silver and gold, the production of jewelry was greatly simplified.

A Quick History of Victorian Period Jewelry (1837-1885)

Early Victorian jewelry featured themes inspired by nostalgia for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Nature motifs were prevalent, including bouquets of flowers, leaves and grapes. Serpent rings and bracelets of gold, diamonds, and enamel were also popular.

Archeological discoveries fueled an interest in ancient civilizations, and styles from Greek, Egyptian, and Etruscan jewelry were meticulously re-created using old techniques of manufacture.

As electric lighting became more widespread, brightly colored jewelry fell from favor as it was thought too gaudy in the new light. Diamonds were discovered in South Africa, and steam powered machines made cut diamonds more available to jewelers. Settings became smaller, and the focus in jewelry design shifted more to the gemstone.

By the late Victorian period, jewelers began to reject opulence, industrialism, and the blatant copying of historic jewels. The Arts and Crafts movement in England marked a return to high quality, hand crafted jewelry designed for its intrinsic beauty.

A Brief History of 20th Century Jewelry Making

  • Art Nouveau Jewelry 1890-1915

The predominant theme in Art Nouveau jewelry was the free flowing line. Sometimes called the “whiplash line,” it was intended to imply movement. Feminine and fantasy figures were prevalent, as well as vines, leaves, and scrolls. A transparent enamel technique, plique-a-jour, was popular in pins and brooches, often depicting dragonflies and reptiles. Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Jules Lalique were the leading Art Nouveau jewelers.

  • Edwardian Jewelry 1901-1910

Edwardian jewelry is predominantly feminine in its motifs, with delicate, lacy bows, ribbons, and flowers. Diamonds were the favored gemstone, and were often set on platinum and yellow gold, giving the characteristic Edwardian all white appearance.

  • Art Deco 1920-1935

Geometrical patterns and strong angles borrowed from Cubism characterize Art Deco jewelry. Stones in various geometric shapes were set in platinum and gold. Jewelers used contrasting combinations of colored stones, including rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. Well known Art Deco designers included Cartier, Bucheron and Tiffany.

  • Retro Period 1935-1949

As precious metals were in demand for the war effort, colored gold alloys were developed, and pink, yellow and green gold became popular. Gemstones were scarce as well, and were often ‘recycled’ from earlier pieces. Designs took on a sculpted, three-dimensional look, incorporating ribbons and folds. Convertible jewelry was popular as well. Necklaces could be converted into bracelets or matching earrings.

  • Fifties Jewelry

The prosperity that followed World War II led to high demand for fine jewelry. Motifs included familiar ones, like animals, snowflakes, insects and flowers, but the construction was distinct. Fifties jewelry was lighter and more airy than the solid, heavy look of the Retro period. Innovator Harry Winston of New York returned gems to the central focus of jewelry, and designed flexible settings that invisibly showcased diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls and sapphires.

  • Contemporary Fine Jewelry

From the abstract and organic jewelry of the 1960s through the 1980s fascination with the ‘glitz and glamour’ of television shows “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” jewelry styles have changed with the rapidly changing culture. Princess Diana’s wedding returned a sense of refinement, but styles have continued to vary widely, from chunky, large pieces to minimalist looks.

If you wish to sell antique jewelry or sell modern fine jewelry, Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers is widely recognized as one of the best and most trusted estate jewelry buyers in the country. We are more than happy to share our expertise with you, along with a free verbal appraisal of your item.

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Would you like more information on estate and antique jewelry? Please check out our article: How to Identify Estate Jewelry Hallmarks.