from The New Book of Knowledge®


Jewelry is the collective term used for objects of personal adornment worn on the body or clothes. It can be made from many different materials, from plastic to platinum, and can be decorative or practical.

People have worn jewelry since prehistoric times. The earliest pieces were probably amulets, designed to protect wearers against hostile forces. These and other primitive kinds of jewelry were made from many different items, including pebbles, shells, feathers, stones, and animal teeth.

As civilization developed, jewelry was used to indicate rank (religious or political) or social status. In some places, not everyone was allowed to wear it, and in many nonwestern civilizations, this is still the case.

Until the appearance of banks, people also used jewelry as a way to store and protect their wealth. The jewelry could be dismantled and melted down for the value of its materials. The practice of wearing one's wealth in jewelry form is still practiced in nomadic societies throughout the world.

Jewelry Value

Jewelry is often valued simply because it is made from expensive materials. This is called its intrinsic value. Great skill or craftsmanship can add value to a piece as well. Jewelry can also be valuable if it has an interesting history or was made or owned by someone famous. This is known as its provenance. Very old jewelry is quite valuable if it has remained in its original state, since it is common for jewelry to be taken apart, melted down, and reused.

Some jewelry is worth very little and is meant to be discarded when it is no longer fashionable. This includes costume jewelry and junk jewelry. Costume jewelry is any jewelry made with nonprecious materials. Made of silver or other metals and set with false gems of glass or plastic, it is often made to look real. Junk jewelry is jewelry that is inexpensive and not well made.

Types of Jewelry

The finger ring, worn since ancient times, is the most common type of jewelry. Throughout history, there have been many kinds of rings. Examples include coronation rings, mourning rings, engagement rings, wedding rings, cameo rings, coin rings, portrait rings, and signet rings (rings engraved with personal emblems).

Necklaces—jewelry worn around the neck—are popular as well. Some necklaces have many details; others are just simple chains. A pendant, which is attached to a chain, is also considered a necklace. Necklaces have been worn since ancient times.

Bracelets, sometimes designed to match necklaces, are pieces of jewelry worn on the wrist or forearm. A popular type of bracelet is a chain with small charms attached. Each charm may represent something to the wearer. There are also narrow rigid bracelets called bangles and wide rigid bracelets called cuff-bracelets.

Many people today also wear brooches, pins, and clips. In the past, these served as clasps to hold clothing together. The fibula, for example, was a large garment-fastener brooch worn usually on the left shoulder. Now these items are mainly decorative.

Earrings, also worn since ancient times, are pieces of jewelry suspended from a wire passed through a pierced earlobe, or attached to the ear with a clip. These can be made from many different materials.

Some hair ornaments are also considered jewelry, including decorative combs, aigrettes (sprays of gems), hairpins, and hair nets. These vary greatly in shape, size, and purpose, and have been worn by men and women around the world.

Today, many people also wear jewelry that is considered nontraditional. In North America, this includes nose ornaments and navel rings. Nose rings and nose studs are usually suspended from a wire passed through the nostril or through the base of the nose. Many peoples around the world have worn them in the past.

Jewelry Materials


Gems are divided into two categories, precious and semiprecious. The precious (and rarest) gems are diamonds, natural pearls, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. Semiprecious gems include garnet, amethyst, topaz, opal, aquamarine, jade, turquoise, coral, amber (fossilized tree sap), and jet (fossilized wood). These are often combined in settings with the precious gems. Most of these gems are minerals except for coral, amber, jet, and natural pearls.

Natural pearls are found in the pearl oyster. They are formed when the oyster coats a small irritating object in its shell with mother-of-pearl. Cultured pearls look similar to natural pearls but are not as valuable. They are formed in the same way, but the irritating object is put into the oyster's shell by a person.

Synthetic Stones

Jewelry is often set with imitation or synthetic stones. Imitation stones are made of glass or some other material that looks like a natural stone. Synthetic stones are made in the laboratory out of the same materials and by the same processes as natural stones.


Gold is the oldest precious metal used in jewelry. Its use dates back to the ancient Egyptians. It is easily worked and strongly colored and does not easily tarnish. It was the most valuable metal until recently, when platinum came into use. But gold is still preferred by many people.

Pure gold is too soft for most jewelry. Therefore it is usually mixed (or alloyed) with silver, copper, or zinc. The purity of gold is measured in units called karats. Pure gold is 24-karat. A mixture of 18 parts of pure gold to 6 parts of alloy is called 18-karat gold. Fourteen-karat gold contains 14 parts of gold to 10 parts of alloy. Gold may be stamped 18K or 14K after alloying. By varying the amount and kind of the alloy, gold may be colored red, yellow, green, or white.


Platinum is the only metal that is more valuable than gold. Like gold, platinum is too soft to be used alone, so it is usually mixed with the metal iridium. This glistening, grayish-white combination of metals makes an especially attractive setting for diamonds.


Palladium is a rare metal that is similar to platinum. But it is lighter, cheaper, and easier to work with. It has a shimmering pearl-gray color and is sometimes used in engagement and wedding rings.


Silver is the most popular of the precious metals used in jewelry. It is the least expensive. Like the other precious metals, it is easily made into jewelry.

Sterling silver, according to U.S. law, may not contain less than 92.5 percent silver. The rest of it is copper. There is no legal limitation on the amount of silver in a silver-plated article. Silver plate is made by coating a base, or foundation, metal or alloy with a layer of pure silver.

Iron and Steel

Although jewelry made of iron or steel is not very common, some has been made. However, these are not popular jewelry materials because iron can rust and both can tarnish.


Aluminum was once considered rare and was more highly prized than gold. Some jewelry from the 1800's had aluminum set in gold. Aluminum is sometimes used in costume jewelry, since it can be colored.


This material is found in the inner lining of the pearl-producing shells (oyster, abalone, river-mussel). Mother-of-pearl is usually carved when used in jewelry. It is also used for watches, buttons, cuff links, brooches, earrings, and other items.

Jewelry Enamel

Often used in jewelry to add color, enamel is made by melting finely ground glass. It melts at a lower temperature than the metal it is applied to (usually bronze or gold), then turns it into a hard, glassy surface.

Faience (Clay)

Clay was one of the most popular jewelry materials in ancient times. Today it is less popular because it breaks easily. Many types of clay have been used in jewelry making. The ancient Egyptians even made jeweled dresses out of blue and green glazed clay beads for princesses to wear over linen dresses.


Plastics are becoming more popular in jewelry. They can be beautifully colored and easily shaped. Plastics can be shiny, matte (non-shiny), metallic, or transparent.

Jewelry Production

At one time, all jewelry was made by hand; the first machines were not used until 1869. Gradually various methods of machine production were developed. At first these were used only to make simple types of jewelry such as chains. As methods were refined, however, mass production was also used by manufacturers to create more delicate pieces.

The method used to make many identical pieces of fine jewelry is called casting. A master model is made, generally of metal. Then a rubber impression, or mold, is made of the master model. Molten wax is cast in the rubber mold to make a wax model. This wax model is used to form a second mold, made of plaster of paris. This plaster mold is placed in an oven, and the wax is melted out. A hole left in the plaster lets the wax escape and the precious metal enter. The plaster mold can be used only once. The first mold may be used hundreds of times.

Not all fine jewelry is made this way. Much of it starts as a flat piece of precious metal, which is turned into an original design. When a jeweler works this way, he or she uses many different hand tools, including files, punches, saws, mallets, and pliers. The jeweler also uses a blowtorch to solder (melt and join) the parts of an article together.

Jewelry is also made by stamping. In this process the metal is pressed between two shaped steel surfaces called dies. Dies are expensive to make, so stamping is used only to make large quantities of jewelry of the same pattern. Stamping usually makes the article in two halves, which must then be joined.

Other jewelry-making techniques include filigree, granulation, and engraving. For filigreed jewelry, which usually features gold threads shaped and fused together to create a design, a fine wire is used to decorate a metal surface. Granulation is the technique of placing tiny gold grains (granules) together to create a pattern. The granules are usually fixed to a metal base and fused together. Engraving consists of carving patterns on the surface of a hard material (metal or gem).

A method similar to engraving is used to create cameos. The gems used have different layers of colors, so when the ornaments or figures are carved, they stand out in a different color from the flat background.

Jewelry in History


The Ancient World

Jewelry from the ancient world was based largely on gold, which was mined primarily in Egypt, Nubia (modern day Sudan), Arabia, and Anatolia (now Turkey). Until the Romans developed tunnel mining, gold was usually found in rivers and brooks.

Since most jewelry made throughout history did not survive intact, much of what we know about ancient jewelry has come from archaeological digs. Jewelry from the ancient world was made mostly from thin gold sheets that were crafted into three-dimensional or cut-out shapes. Other pieces were created by casting or granulation.

Jewelry in Egypt was connected to ceremonial practices. Crowns, necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings were used. Ancient Egyptians also wore heavy jeweled collars, breastplates, and headdresses. They were buried with their jewelry as well.

Jewelry from ancient Greece evolved from the Minoan civilization of Crete (an island off Greece). The Minoans were known for the techniques of filigree, granulation, colored stone inlay, and embossing. The jewelry of Greece was at its most advanced during the Hellenistic period, as the spoils of war were brought back from Alexander the Great's military campaigns (around 322 B.C.). The Greeks, who liked necklaces, bracelets, and rings, usually wore necklaces from shoulder to shoulder rather than directly on the neck. Their rings were often made with engraved gems and cameos portraying mythological themes.

The most beautiful jewelry in the ancient world was made by the Etruscans, who lived in northern Italy. Instead of a shiny surface, their gold jewelry had a grainy (granulated) surface, as if tiny gold beads had been evenly sprinkled on it. The Etruscans wore large pieces of jewelry as well as distinctive earrings that featured little boxes. It is thought that these may have held perfume or amulets.

The Romans borrowed their jewelry styles from those they conquered but eventually found their own style. Both men and women wore elaborate jewelry designed to show off their wealth, including large gems and many rings. The Romans also became famous for carving stones to make intaglios (gems with patterns) and cameos, as well as carved amber and jet for necklaces.

In A.D. 395 the Roman Empire split in two. The eastern portion, called the Byzantine Empire, became the most powerful state in the Mediterranean area. Byzantine jewelry styles, which were beautiful and complex, greatly influenced the Western world. This jewelry was based on Roman designs, with symbols and formal patterns, but included decorative Christian elements. During this period, only those in imperial circles were allowed to wear large quantities of jewelry.

Jewelry of the Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages, most of the jewelry craftspeople were goldsmiths who made religious decorations for churches. Many of the gems used were part of the loot that Crusaders brought back from trips to the Holy Land. Although much of this jewelry featured images of pagan or mythological gods, Christians still used it for religious decoration.

The jewelry of the Middle Ages gradually became more complex and sophisticated. People began to wear more of it and leave it behind when they died (rather than be buried with it). People also started to wear more jewelry that had some religious significance. Talismans (believed to hold magical powers) and amulets (believed to protect wearers) were often worn as well.

Guilds began sometime after the 800's. By 1327, goldsmiths had formed their own association in London. This, called the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths of London, valued its reputation and required members to produce high-quality work.

Renaissance Jewelry

The Renaissance, a time of renewed interest in art and knowledge, began about 1300 in Italy. Jewelry production was influenced as well, and new techniques were developed. In the 1400's, gem cutters learned to cut a diamond to give it brilliant, sparkling lights. This was significant because without this brilliance, a diamond looks like a piece of dull glass.

The jewelry of the Renaissance was colorful. One piece might include many different stones, enamels, and pearls. Many Europeans wore large quantities of jewelry. For instance, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) is said to have owned 324 brooches and 234 rings. He wore many rings at once.

Before the 1500's men wore as much jewelry as women, and sometimes more, to indicate wealth or social rank. As this changed and women began to wear more jewelry, new types of designs emerged. Popular new motifs were introduced. Some of these were geometric and others were figurative, such as people and animals.

During this period, the pendant was the most popular form of jewelry. This was often decorated with a religious or mythological scene. Also popular among women was a girdle (a flexible belt worn over outer clothing) on which small jewelry pieces were hung.

Jewelry from 1600 to 1800

After the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), gems became more important in jewelry design, and more symmetrical settings replaced those that were popular during the Renaissance. As women's clothing began to expose the neck and shoulder area, more jewelry was worn. Jewelry also became more valuable as large quantities of diamonds, rubies and sapphires became available from India. Floral designs were favored, as were bows, particularly on brooches, earrings, and necklaces. During the 1600's, jewelry honoring the dead was also fashionable.

During the 1700's there were great changes in the way jewelry was made and worn, with opulent pieces reserved for evening and simpler pieces for daytime. Floral patterns were still favored, as well as classical elements from ancient Greece and Rome. Gems, particularly diamonds, became the primary focus in jewelry design and new cutting techniques made the stones more reflective (shinier). About 1799, when Napoleon I (1769-1821) became ruler of France, cameos also became popular because Empress Josephine (1763-1814) was fond of them.

In the 1800's, technological advances such as steam power and electricity changed the way jewelry was manufactured. Also, many styles were revived, including those borrowed from ancient cultures. As the century evolved, gold jewelry with enamel and colored gems were worn for the day and by the middle class. Large pearls and diamonds set in gold (later with platinum) were worn primarily for evening and by the very wealthy. By the end of the 1800's, during a period called the Belle Époque, it was fashionable to wear many necklaces and bracelets at once.

Truly new styles such as art nouveau began to appear at the end of the century. Art nouveau, meaning "new art" in French, did not copy old styles but featured flowing, curved lines. It also used less-expensive materials such as horn, molded glass, rock crystal, and semiprecious gems.

1900 to the Present

Beginning about 1910, jewelry became more stylized and geometric. By 1925 this new style became even more geometric and came to be known as art deco. The style featured sleek, streamlined designs and innovative use of gems. Precious and semiprecious stones were mixed together, and some pieces were entirely covered with gems.

Since the late 1960's, many artists and jewelry designers have used traditional and nontraditional materials and techniques. Various materials, from feathers to paper to plastics, have changed our definition of jewelry. Contemporary jewelry designs tend to take abstract forms, and are often inspired by motifs based on technology. The jewelry can also borrow directly from the shape of machine parts or other high-tech elements.

The Non-Western World

In parts of the non-Western world, jewelry styles and production methods have not changed much over time.

In India, many kinds of jewelry have been worn throughout history, including necklaces, earrings, nose ornaments, bracelets, girdles, ankle bracelets, and turban ornaments. Indian jewelry includes pearls and brightly colored gems with gold and enamel.

In China and Japan, jewelry has been less important than in other areas. Carved jade has been greatly valued, however, and has been used for many items.

The Indians of the Chavin civilization in Peru were working gold about 800 B.C. Techniques included hammering, cutting, and soldering. Later, other peoples of the Andes developed casting and gilding (covering with a thin layer of gold) as well as an alloy of gold and copper.

In Africa, one of the most sophisticated jewelry traditions comes from the Ashanti people of Ghana, widely known for their goldwork. Since the 1200's, each tribe has produced its own necklaces, amulets, bracelets, and rings. Other African jewelry is similar to that of primitive peoples.

The Jewelry Industry

The jewelry business has flourished for centuries. In ancient Egypt, in India, in Renaissance Europe, in colonial America, and in all corners of the world, there have been many talented goldsmiths and silversmiths.

Good jewelers and craftspeople learned their trade thoroughly. A person had to learn every part of the business, from melting the metal to finishing the pieces made.

The jewelry industry today is actually a family of many different industries that makes and sells products primarily through jewelers and jewelry stores. Many of these industries are based in New York City, one of the most important centers for gems and jewelry design.

Stéphane Houy-Towner
The Costume Institute
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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