From the Ancient to the Contemporary: The History of Fine Jewelry

Carved ivory bracelets dating from the Paleolithic era have been found, suggesting that before there was written language, agriculture or settled communities there was jewelry.

In every era since then, jewelry has reflected the society that created it. It has been used for trade, to seek favor from the gods, as a symbol of royalty and as a sign of wealth. Its aesthetics, too, have reflected its origins: from the bold motifs on the warrior jewelry of the Masai tribe to the Christian symbols on European jewelry dating from the Middle Ages.

The present era of fine jewelry – characterized by jewelry made of gold, platinum and gems, and available in a variety of styles and price ranges – dates from the mid-19th century. The predominant styles of jewelry since then conform to the general artistic movement of their times.

These include the Art Nouveau period (circa 1900), which was characterized by flowing lines, abstractions and the use of such design subjects as women, serpents, flowers and butterflies. Pearls and enameled looks were popular. Art Nouveau gave way to Art Deco styles in the 1920s. Designs were based on the play of almost severe geometric forms; a mix of gems was often used to colorful effect.

The 1940s ushered in the Retro period. Large brooches, pink gold, extravagant use of gems, and lush styling characterize the dominant aesthetic. It is early to say how cultural historians will describe the jewelry of our own era but one notable emphasis has been on eclecticism. Designs reflect a wide range of influences, borrow freely from all the eras previously, and reflect the individualism of both the jewelry’s designer and its wearer.