Some of my favorite books, including the Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop and Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn, use jewelry as status symbols in their worldbuilding. The color of one's jewelry is a symbol of psychic strength in Bishop's works, and skill is telegraphed by the number of rings worn by Sunrunner witches in Rawn's. I've always liked the idea, but wanted to learn more about jewelry in history before I dive into expanding my worldbuilding in that direction.
- The ancient people of Denmark used to sacrifice jewelry and other items to the gods by burying them in wetlands and bogs.
- Eyeglasses made of emeralds were thought to soothe strained eyes, which may have led to Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) to commission a pair.
- A fibula is a brooch that functions as a giant safety pin; unlike other brooches, it has a practical purpose, like securing a cloak.
- Folks in the Danish Stone Age may have worn protective amber amulets with the power to make the wearer's hair stand on end.
- Chinese noblewomen stored their most valuable jewelry in elaborate canopied beds.
One of my favorite examples of ancient technology being impenetrable to modern experts is the 1814 case of Fortunato Pio Castellani, a skilled jeweler, being totally unable to figure out the science behind granulation — a goldsmithing technique involving soldering. It was mastered by Etruscans in the 8th century BCE.
Ears of wheat, widely considered a symbol of fertility and prosperity (& successful harvests), are popular motifs for jewelry because each ear can be crafted individually and then put into different configurations. For example, the 19th century Ears of Wheat tiara worn by Pauline Bonaparte was crafted from 18 individual "ears" of diamonds, silver and gold. They could also be worn as brooches, separately or bundled.
Letters for Names
Monogram jewelry evolved from rulers in antiquity who had coins struck with their initials. It was common on antiquity and continued by Byzantine rulers well into the Middle Ages — Henry VIII and his children were big fans. Some people even wore necklaces, brooches, and rings with "sacred monogram" I H S (which originates from the Greek rendering of Jesus' name) as a result of this tradition.
The oldest known ornate jewelry made by humans in Eurasia (as opposed to unadorned decorations made by aliens in Africa, I guess?) is a carved mammoth ivory pendant over 42,000 years old. As a child of the Polish diaspora, it amuses me that this pendant is from Poland, and predates the ones found in Germany & France by thousands of years. It's one more piece of evidence that Poland was an important center of culture in the Neolithic era.
📗 ICYMI: If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my previous newsletter about glass funerary offerings & the first man-made decorative glass.
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💎 Do you have any neat stories about weird old jewelry, or jewelry being used as a social signaller in an unusual way? Please reach out, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see — I'd love to get more inspiration on this topic.