History of jewelry in 10 minutes?

If you were going to give a history of jewelry in just 10 minutes,
what would you include?

Perhaps we can limit it to the modern studio jewelry movement.

I’m teaching an art history class which is primarily on painting and
sculpture but my assistant would like to present a bit on fiber
arts. So I figure if she’s going to do that, I must talk about
jewelry, but I don’t have a lot of time in the class.

What are your must be included artists or works?


If you were going to give a history of jewelry in just 10 minutes,
what would you include? 

A good reference is the book Contemporary Jewelry by Ralph Turner
subtitled: A Critical Assessment 1945-75



Post WW2 jewelry changed. This is a crucial point that sets the
stage for our Postmodern design of today. I would start there.


Perhaps you want to start with “Jewelry 7,000 years” edited by Hugh
Tait. Its an illustrated international history of the jewelry
collections at the British Museum. The illustrations are gorgeous!
beginning with Sumerian court jewelry from Ur (currently northern
Iraq) approximately 5000 - 2000 BC. The text indicates that
exceptional work including gold is rare outside of royal graves. The
gold work amazes me! What were the tools used to make jewelry a few
thousand years ago? It covers the fertile crescent, the
Mediterranean, Egypt, Europe and Western Asia, Phoenicia, Greece,
Etruscan work, Persian lands, China, Celtic Europe, Mexico, Peru,
Parthia, India, Roman Britain, Byzantium, Central and South America,
Tibet, West Africa and more. Jewelry for personal adornment is the
main theme of the book. It shows amulets, necklaces, vessels, head
and hair ornaments, arm cuffs, from gold, silver, also using beads,
shells and many precious and semi precious stones. I have read this
book twice and refer to it for inspiration often. Ten minutes is very
brief. Good luck.


This would be my rough outline, with more research needed especially
on Asian jewelry and gem history. I think I would try for both a
timeline approach and a multi-cultrual one, since there was so much
"cross pollination."

If you’re doing slides, show some Egyptian gold work, (lost wax)
then Roman (yea fibula!).Visigoth and Mongolian is a lot of belt
buckles and sword handles–things nomads could create. (I had two
whole semesters of early Christian and Medieval art, and we looked
at TONS of belt buckles and cloak pins)

Viking and Celtic stuff. Damascus steel.

Not sure where African work fits in (my art history was sadly
Euro-centric), but I’m picturing gold and thinking 10th century?
Gold coast?

Armor; chainmaille. Renaisannce-maybe even the Baptistry doors by
Ghilberti in Florence, if you want to get into what a goldsmith knew
in those days. Salt cellar by cellini. After that, I have some big
gaps in my art history. You could show the Vermeer painting, girl
with the pearl earring. Crown jewels need to go in somewhere. Henry
the Eighth, Sir Thomas More. Millifiori beads (which I think are
from Roman glass work-check out Jamie Allen for history) and many
issues of Ornament magazine.

Oops–Indonesian glass beads WAY predate Roman.

Japanese sword metalwork.

Guess I’m mostly mentioning metal work.

American silver at the time of the Revolution.

British in India and the riches of the Raj’s. Pearls-when?

Victorian (hair jewelry is a weird side road). Victorian jet.

Then there’s Fabrege and fantastic Russian enamel. Art Nouveau.

Hmm, Chinese enamels and laquerware fit in somewhere. Carved jade
and ivory. Granulation–no clue on the dates or history.

Pre-Columbain inlay (Olmec). There was trading between inland Mexico
and central America for coral and shell, though I think most of what
we know as Native American is post-Columbus. Feathers-part of
headresses, earrings, neckpieces.

Maori ear jewlery. I can’t picture Inuit jewelry, but there was so
much ivory work, jewelry must be there somewhere. Lakota (I’m
thinking of those wonderful cradle boards, but there were a number
of beaded useful objects)

And then you’re up to the 20th century! Ndelebe bead work is 20th
century, I think.

Guess I’ve gone over the 10 minutes. Let us know what you come up


Stone hammers and anvils - bronze tools and casting - iron tools and
the refining of gold - steel and the industrial revolution - micro
welders, wax printing and the silicon revolution.

Has the basic purpose of jewelery changed?

Just an idea. All the best in your presentation!


I’m pretty clueless on the modern and early modern history of
jewellery, but maybe I can provide some useful info on history before
that. This only really refers to Europe and it’s neighbours - I don’t
know much about Oriental art history, for example, except to say that
eras like the “bronze age” started and ended at different times in
different places around the world. This is also all my personal
opinion, and should be taken with a pinch of salt, or at the very
least, ask for references if there are particular topics you want to
use, and I’ll do my best to supply them.There are two aspects to the
history - the stylistic history, and the technical history.

I can’t say too much about the stylistic issues, except to say that
there are peaks of naturalistic figurative metalwork in the classical
(greek and roman) era, and the Renaissance (although this really
starts in the central middle ages). That doesn’t mean that the work
outside these periods was crude - far from it; there are many
examples of anglo-saxon jewellery which are awe-inspiring in terms
of the techniques used, but totally lacking in naturalistic human or
animal forms - everything tends to be stylised, and one particularly
insteresting form is “tiersalat”, a post-Roman style which
translates as “animal salad”, where empty spaces in metalwork are
filled with stylised animal body parts (arms, legs, and so
on).Although there are many, many different techniques used in
different times and places, I think it’s fair to say that the
earliest, prehistoric metalwork is done using naturally occuring
native metals; as time goes by, furnaces are used to smelt and alloy
the metals, and this takes us into the classical period, where
higher levels of social organisation introduce more uniform quality
standards - an example being the Minerva bowl in the Hildesheim
Treasure, which is breathtaking, and hard to imagine as something
made 2000 years ago! There is little in the way of technical writing
during this period, at least as far as jewellery is concerned, so we
only have the objects and a few vague references to work from.As we
progress into the post-Roman period, technical ability doesn’t drop,
at least not at the top end, but the lack of a monolithic culture
governing Europe does seem to cause a skill shortage, and it’s
assumed that many craftsmen during this time were itinerant. During
the early middle ages, as I said above, there are plenty of
impressive examples, of which the recently discovered Staffordshire
Hoard is just the tip of the iceberg.As we move through the middle
ages, we start to see some jewellery texts appear, but these tend to
be jumbled collections of recipes, often wrong or hard to
understand. That is, until we get to the 12th century, and
Theophilus writes his text, which you can buy translations of under
the name “On Divers Arts”. This books is really quite amazing, and
probably the earliest technical book for any trade which is written
in a style that the modern reader would feel familiar with. It’s
clear that Theo philus ran a workshop producing liturgical objects
like censers and musical instruments, and there is a gradual return
to naturalistic art, which culminates in the Renaissance.There is an
important technical shift in te Renaissance, when the use of strong
acids, like nitric acid, become common, and so all kinds of refining
and alloying was possible using very pure ingredients (many of the
acids were actually developed by the arabs circa 1000AD, but I don’t
think they became common in Europe for a few hundred years). We
start to texts appearing like Biringuccio’s “Pirotechnia”, which
details foundry work using a wide range of metals, including the
casting of cannon. Here, the foundations are being laid for the
beginning of the Enlightment, as alchemical mysticism gives way to
rational metallurgy and chemistry, but that’s outside my period, so
I’ll leave it to someone else to do a better job of explaining it.I
hope this is in some way useful to you - it’s obviously full of
sweeping statements, but as it covers several thousand years of
history, you’ll have to forgive me for it. If we’re lucky, others
will jump in and flesh it out, or even better, correct any mistakes
that I’ve made.PS. Any of you in north America should look out for
the new series of Museum Secrets - I’ll hopefully be appearing in
episode 13 (Vienna museum), where myself and Dr Martinon-Torres
successfuly transmute silver into gold (well, at least by gullible
17th century standards!).

Jamie Hall

To present History of Jewellery in 10 minutes is akin to reduce one
month seaside vacation experience to one microsecond view of a
postcard. The aftereffects are probably equal.

Leonid Surpin

you could divide your time in art movements eg: art nouveau, deco,
modernism, streamlining…etc highlighting their salient features
(nouveau: nature-inspired, intertwining…deco: curvilinear,
sunburst…) and substantiate with photos…broadly and very
generally I think you’ll be able to cover it

Good Luck!

...beginning with Sumerian court jewelry from Ur (currently
northern Iraq) approximately 5000 - 2000 BC. The text indicates
that exceptional work including gold is rare outside of royal
graves. The gold work amazes me! What were the tools used to make
jewelry a few thousand years ago? 

The Sumerian jewelry from Ur is indeed amazing. The question of what
tools were used is still an open one – presumably some of them were
stones (for hammering). In my research for my M.A. and Ph.D., I
looked for good evidence on tools, but only in tomb paintings from
ancient Egypt are metalworking tools lavishly depicted. BTW, Ur is in
southern, not northern, Iraq.

Judy Bjorkman

To present History of Jewellery in 10 minutes is akin to reduce
one month seaside vacation experience to one microsecond view of a
postcard. The aftereffects are probably equal. 

A rare thing, you made me laugh.


Did anyone notice that the questioner specifically mentioned wanting
to know about fiber in jewelry? For Fiber Techniques in jewelry see
the work of Mary Lee Hu or Arline Fisch. Actual fiber in jewelry
seems to be just dumped into the category of oddities like leather,
plastic, paper, feathers, etc. that occur in contemporary jewelry.
Perhaps someone here could speak to the history of fiber use in
jewelry. In fact, I wish they would, as inclusion of fiber is often
integral to my pieces. But that then raises the question, in some
minds, of whether these pieces are really jewelry. After following
the thread on how to define “fine” jewelry it would be interesting
to hear other’s thoughts on categories like conceptual, couture,
costume, or wearable art jewelry. Or is that not appropriate to this

Jean DeMouy

To present History of Jewellery in 10 minutes is akin to reduce
one month seaside vacation experience to one microsecond view of a
postcard. The aftereffects are probably equal. 

fantastic!!! actually, I have started a degree in design (but that is
another story) and we did a few centuries over 7 weeks, and even that
was the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know if it is modern life, or
modern people but we all want to have a “one source fix” I haven’t
been on Orchid for many many months, and I was glad to see you
providing the voice of reason still

Sincerely, Nola

I do generally agree with Leonid, and I suppose that on one level
his right about this, but to look at it another way, it’s an
interesting challenge, and I’m sorry that more people didn’t put
anything forward - why is that we can argue for weeks over what
constitutes fine jewellery, or how to measure a bezel, but no-one has
anything to say about the fascinating history of our trade. Consider
that I’ve never spent longer than 10 minutes reading an individual
message on the mailing list; I think there is a lot that could be
said in the space of 10 minutes. You might not do justice to the
subject - not even a lifetime of study will do it justice, but it’s
worthwhile trying. It reminds me a little of when I use to design
live roleplay games, and on one forum we once had a “rules haiku”
competition, laying down combat systems for games in three lines or
less. Totally impractical, of course, but excellent practice for
designing elegant rules.

Jamie Hall

I once did an article called, “If the Earth Lived a Year”. Four
billion years of geological epochs were crammed into one year’s
time. The article took about 10 minutes o read.