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Jewelry or Ornament

Hi folks,

As it seems we’ve beaten to death the topic of backing materials in
bezel settings, I thought it might be fun to open a new can of

The question is, when does a personal ornament transition into
something that can be called jewelry?

Having grown up during the mid-century crafts explosion (60s-70s) I
dabbled in quite a number of crafts in my youth, before realizing
that my abiding passion was for jewelry. I learned to throw on the
wheel, did a fair amount of leather work, apprenticed one Summer to a
high end cabinet maker, made a bunch of macrame tchotchkes, etc. And
any number of these crafts could be put into the service of personal
ornament. But I’d hesitate to call a macrame necklace a piece of

Traditionally jewelry needed to be made of precious materials, and
in the commercial trade this remains true. That’s why there’s a
distinction between fine and costume jewelry. (Let’s not start that
"what is fine jewelry" discussion all over again but posit that to be
fine jewelry it needs to at least be of precious material, and other
metal ornament can fall into the category of costume jewelry)

But take as an example an articulated necklace made of intricately
carved and joined wood, it is certainly ornament, but ought one to
call it jewelry? Or a one of a kind or an art piece made of copper,
it certainly is not costume jewelry. Or a necklace of polymer clay;
ornament certainly, but ought one to call it jewelry?

In this the French have us at a disadvantage, as they have two words
for what in English we have only one. Joaillerie is always of
precious materials. Bijouterie may be precious either because of its
materials or its construction. But what are we Anglophones to do?

Let the debate begin.


ps. I have nothing against ornament, some are extraordinary. It’s
also a great magazine.

Elliot Nesterman

Here’s an interesting Master’s project. The pieces are mostly
bentwood and some have crystals included. (The student had a
scholarship from Swarovski)

Ornament certainly, but do we call something made of wood and glass


Here’s another project. Made of silicone and constructed and colored
to look like human skin. I personally find them a bit revolting,
because they don’t look like healthy skin, but rather damaged skin
from cadavers. Art? Arguably. Ornament? Certainly. Jewelry?


In this the French have us at a disadvantage, as they have two
words for what in English we have only one. Joaillerie is always of
precious materials. Bijouterie may be precious either because of
its materials or its construction. 

Not really. At least if you were to be strict. Bijouterie and
joaillerie present distinctive ideas. The prime object of joaillerie
are stones. Metal is only the construction medium, and the less you
see it, the better. For bijouterie, stones are accessory to the

We do have one distinction: “Bijoux fantaisie” is jewelry made from
non-precious metals, while “bijoux” are made from silver, gold or

Okay Elliot - I’ll bite. I think the key is “transition into
something that can be called jewelry”. So, the definitions I found
are the following 3 that meet my criteria and are listed separately
below and numbered.

The first one is no doubt adopted by the vast majority of people.
The second one…any ornaments for personal adornment…is one
that I think may apply through the ages considering that the Indians
wore things made from tusks etc., and then the broad 3rd one which
defines jewelry as objects that are worn considered collectively.

This is indeed a broad subject and I think that of all the topics we
have discussed, this one will no doubt be swayed by what you as a
little one learned about jewelry from your family OR over time
defined for yourself either because you “bought” it or “made it”.

I grew up in a very poor family, so our “jewels” were often berries
strung, things handed down (may or may not have been gold and
silver), things our relatives gave us which were purchased “no
doubt” in the “dime” store. Nobody I knew as a kid had any money,
but then I was born in 1931 which was not the most robust time in
our history.

So, in my personal world, I’d define jewelry most likely as the
definition given in No. 2. Any ornaments for personal adornment, as
necklaces etc… and it doesn’t really limit the construction to
being done by experts or beginners, to being precious metals or
natural or manmade materials.

I think it’s going to be a relatively personal definition for most
people. And I’d find one hard pressed to limit jewelry just to gold
and silver and precious stones.

And of course, if you choose, you can get into what we now term “art
jewelry” etc… So there you have it. Some people simply “wear” “what
they like” and to heck with what others think. Some people “need” to
know that what they wear is expensive, genuine,etc. so they can
identify with that “class” of people. And some people enjoy defying
the masses and simply wearing what they want!

You have to decide where you fit and what you personally like to do.
There is a market for most everything these days - one just needs to
find it.

I am simply a very creative person, love to design using unexpected
elements, over my career “made” things defined by many as “upper
class and genuine” or as"arty" because I was an “arty” person It
simply boils down to “Who really cares anyway”. or “how much money
you have, need, want, etc.”

Okay, the 3 definitions I have referenced are as follows:

  1. articles of gold, silver, precious stones, etc., for personal

  2. any ornaments for personal adornment, as necklaces or cuff links,
    including those of base metals, glass, plastic, or the like.

  3. objects that are worn for personal adornment, such as bracelets,
    rings, necklaces, etc, considered collectively

Kay Vontz, now retired from actively selling, but still make things
for grandkids, kids, and friends when I am in the mood. And as you
know, I am now 81, so my definitions of things (jewelry or whatever)
encompass a number of periods in history. Personally it doesn’t
really matter. You wear what you want and like (unless you are still
at the age where the opinion of others REALLY matters), call it what
you like, or don’t give it a name at all. It’s simply what you are
wearing for the day, event, etc…

In this the French have us at a disadvantage...what are we
Anglophones to do? 

Good one, Elliot. What English words do we have to describe
ornamental/jewelry stones? Let us make a list. My guess is that when
phrases are used, the list could extend to thousands. Stones may be
made into objects called -


What does one call a wall-hung plate in stone? I made one by taking
a ceramic (stone) plate and coating it with thin set mortar over wire
mesh. Then I mounted dozens of samples of gold ore from NWT and BC in
a stylized clock… so what do I title my Objet D’art (pardon my
French)? Geological Time?

Stone Objects of Art may go beyond the jewelry-ornament
classification too. The Amber Room is a room. Emperor Q’s giant jade
bowl is a giant jade bowl. A sandstone building can also be an
object of art. Of course you could call all of these “stone
ornaments” just by relaxing the criterion of size. What do we call it
if we carve the stone escaprment of a mountain into a rock garden?
How about “rock garden”?

Hello Elliot,

First of all, may I say that I looked up and cannot find
it. Can you enlighten?

Second, in my country (Canada), when in a court of law a word comes
into dispute, it is the accepted norm that the court turns to the
dictionary (Oxford) for a definition. And I did that here.

Definition of jewellery


  • [mass noun]*
  • personal ornaments, such as necklaces, rings, or bracelets, that
    are typically made from or contain jewels and precious metal: * she
    had silver hair and chunky gold jewellery* * [as modifier]:** a
    jewellery box *


late Middle English: from Old French juelerie, from juelier
’jeweller’, from joel (see jewel )

One of the key words here to me is “typically”. Typically is not

The other key words to me are found in the word origin — comes from
late Middle English and Old French. We live in now - the 21st
century. And there are many materials for talented people with
highly developed skills to work with to produce jewelry, ornament,
adornment. So — no, I personally do not accept your premise for
beginning the discussion. Others may. And now I will depart the
discussion because you and I are walking two diverging paths in the

Let the others join in if they will. I have jewelry to make. And
neither can I find the magazine you mention on the internet. Time for
research over. On with making…

Barbara still on the Island on October 10, 2012

Oh Elliot, what a can of worms indeed! Your point about the French
having 2 words to distinguish between fine and less-than-fine
jewelry is interesting, and was a point I have been thinking about
since the start of the bezel debacle. There is jewelry, and then
there is jewelry, which I believe you have correctly labeled

I call myself a goldsmith and engraver because my focus on my work is
quality craftsmanship, and precious metals. I have spent many years
continually trying to improve my skills with each and every job I do
(I do repairs, custom and mostly, hand-engraving services to the
trade.) I am appalled at some of the stuff which is being shown as
jewelry in Metalsmith Magazine, and at the ACC shows, where every
booth has jewelry items for sale that are created from whatever craft
they specialize in. Wood carvers and ceramists alike all sell
earrings and pendants in addition to their larger (more expensive)
works. While it may be ornament, it isn’t fine jewelry by any means.

I believe that the skill set, (and ethics that Leonid has alluded to
in a previous post) are the foundation of fine jewelry, and that
while untraditional metals may be involved, it is the handling and
transformation of the raw material into a unique and well-crafted
piece that makes the difference between jewelry and ornament. Sorry,
I can’t count wooden articulated pieces as jewelry per se any more
than I would count plastic cutouts or animal skulls or macrame. Thank
you for bringing “ornament” into the discussion.

Melissa Veres, engraver and goldsmith

Hi Elliot,

The question is, when does a personal ornament transition into
something that can be called jewelry? 

When does a personal ornament transition into something that can be
called jewellery?

As soon as the personal ornament is worn to show something about the
wearer then it becomes jewellery, regardless of what material it’s
made from.

I remember seeing a documentary a looooooooooong time ago and there
was an African gent with enlarged earlobes due to stretching a
pierced hole. The earlobes were unusual, but there was an empty coca
cola can in the “hole”. To him it was jewellery.

Bones, wood, shell, copper, bronze, silver, gold, platinum, plastic,
paper etc have all been use in the creation of jewellery, and not
all in modern times.

Regards Charles A.

So, in my personal world, I'd define jewelry most likely as
thedefinition given in No. 2. 

Just a good random quote. Since the question was asked {tongue in
cheek but not by much} - like “Is it Handmade?”, it’s one of those
things jewelry students debate endlessly over lattes, or pompous
bores speak oh-so-loudly about at whine and cheese openings. Beyond
that, to me, it’s meh… Times have been slow here on Orchid,
why not another eternal topic?

If it must contain precious metals to be thought of as jewelry, what
is the current trend of stringing pearls (real ones) on elastic cord?
Does attaching a pendant (enhancer) to the strand of pearls make it
jewelery where the plain version is not?

I have my own set of feelings and opinions on what I PERSONALLY will
call jewelry. Wilma Flintstone might disagree. Da Vinci might disagree
with Warhol that he was a painter because he used acrylics.
Photographers from before digital might not say digital photography
is not real photography. The list can go on. It is subjective.

If it is value that defines it, what of the little old lady who her
whole life just scraped by, and had one brooch considered to be
costume jewelry. To her it was valuable and she wore it proudly. To
someone like the Vanderbilt’s it was trash. Again it is subjective.

Workmanship is another item that could be used in definition. Would
that ring say a Boy Scout made for his mother be any less precious to
her than a ring her husband bought her?

How would a Neanderthal look at our modern day jewelry compared to
the first bits of organic material they used to make some sort of body

Is it location? Place in time? Culture? Level of expertise? Cost of
goods incorporated? Designation of precious materials? What really,
and I might ask WHO decides? When it is a question of who decides, ask
yourself who decided shit was a bad word? You will get about as many
varied ideas. personal ideas are the Crux of it all. You personally
have to decide what value you give to the topic of debate. 

Does it convey a message about the wearer? Well yes, but what that
message is I can’t fathom. CIA

Looks like a woodworkers nightmare… definitely not jewelery by any

Ornament certainly, but do we call something made of wood and
glass "jewelry." 

That does blur the lines between clothing and jewellery… not my cup
of tea, but definitely pushing the boundaries. CIA

To me, jewels=jewelry. Now let’s define jewels.

Jo Haemer

While I make a fair amount of jewelry from precious metals, my most
popular item is the bracelets that I make from cotton string. If
someone wants to call it jewelry, I’m not going to argue with them.

That being said, a young lady asked me, once, if I could make her
bracelet special in some way, so I added a closed silver jump ring
while I was tying it. There you go: it’s got precious metal in it,
now. :slight_smile:


I can remember the discussion about “handmade” and that the term was
cast in stone in law in the USA at least – but would calling a piece
of jewelry “made by hands” be classified the same under the law? Just
asking because I’m curious.

Barbara on another sunny day on the island after the storm

The question is, when does a personal ornament transition into
something that can be called jewelry? 

Last summer I bought some stone eggs which are about the size of
hens eggs and they sit on a detachable base. The patterning in them
makes them look like natural stone but they could be glass. They are
Asian imports. Very pretty but not Faberge egg ornaments. So IMO the
question is, When does a non-wearable ornament like this transition
into an objet d’art worth millions?


- personal ornaments, such as necklaces, rings, or bracelets, that
are typically made from or contain jewels and precious metal: *
she had silver hair and chunky gold jewellery* * [as modifier]:** a
jewellery box * 

Barbara Ettles looked up the Oxford dictionary definition below. I
was wondering if I took a 100 ton boulder and cut and carved and
polished it into a personal and highly ornamental throne with some
precious stones and metals as part of the work, would that be

I have lots of chunky gold and chunky platinum and chunky silver, all
as chunks of rock with polymetallic clusters which I sample while
prospecting. Low grade of course but still proven by assay to be
what I say.

Thanks for adding this, Jo you’re a real jewel!!!