Jewellery through the ages
Jewellery has found a place in the hearts of men and women alike, for their beauty, grace and enormous value. They are pieces of art, mouthpieces of tradition and serve as an identity to one’s persona. The course of humanity is spiced with the shimmer of ornaments, our wealth of jewellery acts as a window to our history. Jewellery is not only a treasure from the past but also a powerful indicator of the splendor of bygone eras. The best jewels and ornaments always belonged to the royalty and the elites, and for this reason, jewellery has forever been considered as status symbols. Cultures around the world have had their own individual styles in ornamentation and jewellery making. The inception of the word ‘jewellery’is from the Old French word ‘jouel’ and a Latin word ‘jocale’ that translates to toy. The French and European countries also used ‘joaillerie’ to signify art works and ornamentation.
The first jewellery
Irrespective of how far we have progressed, we are always fascinated with the beginnings, and the very inception of a style. It is believed that the world's most ancient piece of jewellery, a beaded necklace sculpted from shells, is almost 1,00,000 years old. The pearly luster of seashells was treasured even then and used for ornamentation.
Kenyans were known to make necklaces out of perforated Ostrich eggs, around 40,000 years ago, by stringing them together. As we browse through history, we see that the materials used for ornaments have evolved over time to finer, well-defined choices. By 11000 BC, engraved pendants were prevalent in Britain and mammoth tusks were carved on bracelets in parts of Russia. Use of metals like copper has been traced back to 7000 years, after the discovery of a fossil believed to be that of a female jewellery worker. This unusual discovery meant that women were engaged in male-dominated professions long ago, and even called for a fresh take on prehistoric gender roles.
Different materials used for jewellery making
Experimenting with jewellery still continues by and large, and we have an endless choice of raw materials available today. The earlier versions of ornaments were crude, mostly handmade and without much refinement. A glimpse into the past reveals the following about our history in jewellery making
- Shells were a steady contestant due to their natural intricate detailing.
- Carved wood, twines, animal bones and ivory were favourites too, due to the easy availability, and considering the fact that they were pliable and easy to carve.
- Another important aspect is strength, the jewellery made had to last for quite a while. As civilizations became more advanced, a certain level of sophistication followed, and clay and polymers were used to shape and model ornaments from scratch.
- Fused glass and enamel were high points for coloured jewellery, owing to their luster and radiance.
- Stones, both coloured and clear, were equally fascinating for the way they reflected light and added beauty to the jewellery.
Exploring regional tastes in finery
As different civilizations progressed at their own pace in the past, each country has had it’s own beautiful history in jewellery transformations. Metals that were considered precious and the objects of pride varied across regions.
Egyptian lust for gold: Some of the most embellished and highly decorated pieces of jewellery to ever exist were made in Egypt. Egyptians believed in luxurious rarity. The metals they preferred were hard to procure and the stones they used required hard labour to sparkle. The intricate detailing seen in the ancient Egyptian jewellery was their specialty, and required master craftsmen to create them. The history of Egyptian jewellery making started about 5000 years back, and jewellery was perceived as strong indicators of wealth as they belonged to royal families. Egyptian culture believed in an afterlife, and in the notion of carrying with them their possessions post death, and for this reason, the tombs were often rife with artifacts and the best of glittering jewels. Egyptian culture rubbed off on the Middle East, Tunisia and the Phoenician countries, and the women in these regions started adorning themselves in grand jewellery crafted in both silver and gold.
The Greek streak of charm
While beads, shells and animal horn jewellery were prevalent much earlier, the use of carefully crafted gold and precious stones began only by 1600 BC. Greeks were adept in techniques and detailing, and used casting, twisting and wired techniques for their jewellery. By 300 BC, coloured jewellery became prevalent, leading to the rising popularity of precious stones like Amethyst, Pearl and Emerald. One fine example of their artistic taste can be seen from the 4th century treasure of the ‘Gold Olive Wreath’, which is still hailed as the Olympic crown. Specialty jewellery in this region included arm cuffs, brooches and finger rings. Greeks rarely wore their jewellery, except for public appearances, and ornaments were often gifted to women as a sign of love. They also believed in certain jewellery having the power to ward off the evil eye and even believed that jewellery could protect the wearer’s spirit.
Romans embraced their jewellery obsession and were particularly smitten by brooches that were used to secure their clothes. Gold was preferred by the elite while glass, beads and bones were also used in conjunction with the metal to enhance its beauty. Romans liked necklaces with huge pendants, even those that could house perfumes! Women were lavish with the number of ornaments they wore, while men were expected to wear a ring at least on the ring finger. These rings bore their seals and were often used to wax seal documents for confidentiality.
Middle ages of revival and cultural intermingling
As the Roman Empire fell, higher quality jewels and accessories emerged with brooches, amulets and signet rings taking center stage. The Celtic ‘Tara brooch’ of this era is a classic example of fine taste. In the Byzantine empire, the Roman jewellery tradition inspired religious themes, and baroque jewellery studded with pearls, rubies and precious gems on light weight gold leaves gained popularity. The women in this region predominantly wore jewellery with a special headband called ‘kolt’, the practice later gained high popularity.
Renaissance and magnificence!
The Renaissance period, one of the most defining and influential periods in the history of Europe, saw drastic transformations in the arena of jewellery as well. This period saw the focus shift to precious stones, crystals and intricate settings, from the previously popular hefty gold necklaces and arm pieces that highlighted metals. Trade links that flourished during this period brought in gems like Columbian Emerald, Afghani Lapis Lazuli, Persian Turquoise, English Rubies and Hungarian Opal. During his time, Napoleon had refashioned and reinvented the jewellery scene. He brought to life ‘parures’, the style of matching jewellery sets (necklaces, brooches, bangles and rings of the same style). The ‘cameo’ phase that followed saw drastic and colourful costumes and jewellery, essentially dividing the artists who worked with cheaper jewellery to be called ‘bijoutiers’, and the finer craftsmen to be called ‘joulliers’.
Jumping onto the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution was kick started, which resulted in the emergence of the middle class. Everyone could afford jewellery in this period, thanks to the synthetic methods of manufacture that created jewellery from cheaper varieties of alloys and gems. Precious gems and ornaments still continued to have patrons among the rich and wealthy, and continued to stay apart in style. Unusual jewellery trends also developed during this period, like the introduction of ‘mourning’jewellery, which was supposed to be worn after the husband’s death. The famous and iconic jeweller in the US, Tiffany and Co. came to being in this period and still remains one of the most cherished jewellers in the world.
The Indian legacy of jewellery
The remnants of Indian jewellery are strewn all over the historic site of Indus valley where the civilization first began. Traced back to almost 5000 years, the first of these pieces discovered were simple and basic, as in all other cultures. They were strings, beads, shells and stones, strung, pulled or tied together. Over time, the ornaments gained a lot more structure, fine jewellery started appearing and defined styles came to the fore. By the 11th century, Mughals had come to the country, adding to the already rich culture their own particular appeal, which resonates all over the Indian wedding scene to this date. Specialty works and heavy and intricate detailing that required long hours and the use of large quantities of precious stones, diamonds and pearls to be produced began emerging in the form of Kundan, Jadau and Polki designs. Coloured stones were also used to bring flair and elegance to these dream pieces. The jewellery created during this period were embodiments of ultimate sophistication, with enamel colours to accentuate the curves and corners, and were in fact truly royal ornaments.
India was rich in precious metals and gemstones and thrived on their export during this period. With this trade relations also came inspirations in designs and styles from across the globe.
Colonial rule brought in even more intermingling of cultures and styles. Some of the most famous stores around the world, Cartier, Chaumet and Melleiro catered to the Indian royalty. Maharajas and ranis are believed to have had ornaments designed exclusively by these labels.
Some of the remarkable mentions of Indian jewellery in history are that of the Navaratna jewels, these gems have had a place in the jewellery scene since their inception. Navaratna jewellery consists of nine gems and boast of physical and psychological well-being. They have been centerpieces of jewellery, rings and necklaces alike, for both genders, and the trend has been going strong even after centuries. The Mangalsutra, or the holy thread worn by married women to avoid evil eye consists of tiny black beads strung on a gold necklace. Bracelets in gold and silver with black beads also in trend.
The historic past of Kerala's own jewellery is hard to trace, but our past is undeniably marked by the presence of some remarkable jewellery designs. We have such delicate and timeless ornaments in our trunks that whisper to us about their bygone charm. The revered ‘kaasu maala’ (coin necklace), ‘karimani maala’ (black bead necklace), ‘oddayanam’, ‘thalikkotam’, ‘paalaka maala’, etc. are ornate ornaments with finely crafted gold bezels and beads, enriched with precious stones and coloured crystals for a burst of hue.
Gold has always been an asset, a heritage, and a defining symbol of power and wealth in Kerala. Kerala’s history is marked by social reforms, especially the ‘kallumaala samaram’ to break the restriction on the lower caste that forbade them from wearing gold jewellery.
Modern, Circa 2019
We have come a long way through the ages and our jewellery has evolved, transformed and has been reimagined with time. The modern jewellery is a pleasant blend of innumerable styles from different parts of the world. Designers find inspiration in almost anything today, and adapting to different styles is what the world has come to. In the olden times, a style from another country was alien to us and it was even a taboo to flaunt it. But globalization has changed this phase forever and has pulled us closer and together, instead of merely conforming to local fashion. Our taste in jewellery has changed and we have started thinking out of the box. We embrace the western trends of minimal jewellery, crisp fashion neckpieces and abstract tones and textures. At the same time, traditional designs, especially elaborate Mughal necklaces, still charm their way into our jewellery boxes and will be an evergreen presence and integral part of our weddings. Even in the Indian subcontinent, the north meets south and the west meets the east. The modern world offers delightful contrasts and choices, on the one hand we have South Indian brides yearning to wear Meenakari necklaces on their weddings, while on the other hand, we have North Indian brides who crave the royalty of temple jewellery.
Mass production of jewellery, both in gold and in alloys, to cater to the booming fashion industry has brought down costs and has started offering a larger assortment of styles to the masses. Both designer and curated jewellery collections continue to flourish with steady patronage from the rich and powerful and with celebrities endorsing them. The connectivity offered by the modern world has considerably expanded the scope of jewellery markets, enabling global designs to be made available at doorsteps across the world in a jiffy. The Indian market is a curry of traditional designs and regional styles, and features Indian jewellers as well as western luxury brands.
Even in the 21st century, ornamentation continues to be a major marker of the identity of a person, offering a peek into her personality and also defining her sense of style. We have progressed through time from the crude, basic jewellery in the past, to the elaborate and intricately detailed modern jewellery. Today, style is considered volatile and the panache with which a woman wears her choice of jewellery is what sets her apart. Whatever your taste is, modern jewellery has a pick for you. Style, price or sophistication is no more an issue as we have a wide range of collections to choose from. In conclusion, the modern jewellery market has done justice to our splendid history by preserving the timeless beauty of ancient jewellery and also by adding countless modern designs that gracefully blend the old and the new.