Updated: Mar 6, 2021
The history of jewelry can be traced back more than 100,000 years ago when the Neanderthals first discovered how to adorn their bodies. These early ancestors of the humans used materials such as fish bones, rocks, feathers, and shells found in their natural environment. According to Douglas S. LeGrand, a graduate gemologist with the International Gem Society (IGS), the use of jewelry during this early period (and even today) was fashioned out of our human desire to belong. By wearing jewelry made out of animal remains (and easily accessible materials such as stones), the wearer was able to convey what community they belonged to. It was a way of identifying yourself before you had a chance to verbally communicate your affiliated tribe.
Much of the evidence that supports the use of jewelry during these early times can be found in Europe, The Middle East, Asia and Africa. The cultural differences in these regions impacted the kinds of materials that were used in jewelry as well as the social implications of its use. For instance, according to the British Museum, the Greeks began using harder materials such as gold and gems in their jewelry in 1600 B.C. Whereas, societies in the Middle East and Europe began using gold much later in 2300 B.C. It was in the Middle East, where jewelry-making was popularized and established as a significant and legitimate craft.
The use of these harder materials such as gold and silver served as the foundation for our modern use of jewelry.
LeGrand’s research also found that in early human (Homo sapien) societies, jewelry wasn’t just a way of identifying a person’s position in their community. It also functioned as a way to ward off illness, wicked spirits, and general bad luck. Even today, there are certain gems, crystals, and metals that are marketed to the superstitious for this very same reason. It’s important to note that the word jewelry is typically associated with the body. However, in these early times, jewelry was also worn on clothes. During the time of the Roman Empire, items such as hairpins and broaches were worn to demarcate royalty from the common class. The Romans even had laws that decided who was allowed to wear jewelry. It was a luxury that many people during this time were unable to afford or even had legal access to.
The Romans have been widely credited with streamlining the design of jewelry. During the earlier times, jewelry was diverse and indicative of a certain region. The use of a native flower in a necklace could immediately signal the wearers affiliation or place of origin. However, as the Romans began conquering most of Europe, these early designs were lost and replaced with the homogenized Roman technique. These techniques included making jewelry smaller and using materials such as bronze, glass, and pearls. They even imported gems, such as sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds from India. During this time, both Roman men and women wore jewelry. Historians have found evidence to support that some Roman men even wore rings on every finger.
The early Italians worked to create our modern ideas of jewelry, such as necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets.
As jewelry evolved and technology advanced. Humans were able to mine the earth more efficiently for materials such as gold, silver, and precious stones. According to Business Insider, it takes anywhere from 2-ton to 91-ton of ore (rock) to produce just one ounce of gold. Diamonds are usually found more than a hundred meters underground where the Earth’s intense heat and pressure allow them to form. And then volcanic eruption brings it closer to the earth's surface where it can be mined.
Could you imagine having to dig into the earth’s crust during Roman times without controlled detonation, an industrial drill, or an excavator truck? This gives you an idea, how in even today’s times, with all of our modern advances, just how much effort it takes to mine for these minerals.
In the 20th century, the use of gold and diamonds underwent a radical rebrand and became associated with special occasions such as engagements, weddings, and anniversaries. The most common engagement rings are designed using gold, white gold, or platinum and diamonds. This ubiquitous style choice can be seen across many Western cultures and regions. According to the Diamond Council, 84% of U.S. brides receive a diamond engagement ring. This high rate accounts for more than half of the revenue generated by the entire bridal market. But this isn’t a coincidence. The desire to have a diamond engagement ring comes from a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign which began in the 1950s.
According to sociologist Chrys Ingraham, who authored the text, White Weddings. The idea of the diamond engagement ring originated with jewelry companies who wanted to commodify love. Ingraham’s research discovered that prior to the 1950s and the industrial revolution, marriage was used as a means for agricultural families to expand their workforce.
It was more of a business arrangement than a declaration of romantic feelings. However, as the post-industrial age hit and agricultural practices were replaced by factories, people found it less appealing to marry. This cultural shift left a gap for jewelers to capitalize on. And thus, the idea of marrying for love was born.
Jewelry companies such as Tiffany began to generate advertisements that merged jewelry and love together. Western societies instantly adopted this idea, which resulted in the increase demand for the diamond engagement ring. According to Tiffany (and other jewelers), if a woman wasn’t proposed with a diamond ring, then the marriage was not rooted in love.
These days, especially with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the tradition persists. Which has doubled the demand and the supply of the diamond engagement ring. The same marketing strategy was used to popularize the wedding band for both men and women. In the case of women, jewelers often market a thin band made from gold, white gold, or platinum to complement the engagement ring.
These days, materials are abundantly mined (but finite) and this has resulted in more diverse jewelry designs. We have gone back in time, before the Romans to create more varied pieces that can be used beyond celebratory occasions. Now, men and women use jewelry as a way to accessorize their outfits, signal their education level, or highlight their service to society (such as the military, engineers, etc.).
Throughout this blog series we will be spotlighting different aspects of the jewelry industry. Our goal is to share as much knowledge as possible with our BoBen family and to inspire your future jewelry designs.