Gemstones in Historical Jewelry

You might feel that the history of handcrafted jewelry cannot possibly be very interesting, but, in fact, it is quite intriguing to learn where this vital facet of our culture began.  


We can trace the history of adornment back to when man first walked on Earth. Of course, the jewelry worn back then was considerably less ornate than our current fashions. The ancient people wore jewelry made of feathers, bones, shells, and colored pebbles. These colored pebbles were soon replaced by gems––admired for their beauty and durability.


Diamonds did not become popular until our ancestors learned how to cut them to show off their brilliance, which began in Europe in the 1300s. Many types of jewelry items still made today began as functional objects. Pins and brooches originated from the clasps that held clothing together. Rings and pendants were used for early seals and signs of identification, rank, and authority.


The need to feel accepted, to belong, can be as important as the needs we fulfill in caring for our bodies. A sense of identity and self-esteem is not a frill, so belonging reflects a need, too. The first adornments were derived from the hunt; teeth, claws, horns, and bones. Hunters believed that wearing trophies would bring them good luck for the next hunt. Remember, the village lived day to day by the virtue of a good hunter, and this person deserved respect and privileges. Of course, the best hunter wanted to show they had courage and prowess.


The earliest traces of jewelry can be traced to the civilizations that bloomed in the Mediterranean and what is now called Iran around 3,000 to 400 BC. These were usually simple stone amulets and seals. Many of these amulets and seals carried spiritual meanings, stars, and floral designs.


Jewelry was offered to the gods and was used to dress up statues. The Royal Tombs in ancient Sumner, dating back to 3000 BC, delivered to us the greatest collection of all times. There they found mummies encrusted with every imaginable type of jewelry worn, headdresses, necklaces, earrings, rings, crowns, and pins.


Fast forward to the 16th century––although the French set fashion trends, English royalty Henry VIII wore the most extravagant of accessories. He boasted at least 234 rings, 324 brooches, and diamond and pearl studded necklets. His daughter, Elizabeth I, loved pearls so much that she had over 2000 dresses weighted down with pearls and precious gemstones. The Queen of Spain also wore dresses heavily jeweled and embroidered with pearls.


Let’s have a look at a few of the more famous pieces of historical jewelry in the world.


La Peregrina Pearl Necklace


After passing from the hands of Spanish, French, and English kings and queens (Bloody Mary included), La Peregrina Pearl eventually wound up perched prominently on the bosom of an American royal, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1969. Richard Burton purchased the pearl for her, even outbidding a prince. Taylor then misplaced La Peregrina in a Las Vegas hotel, only to find it in her dog’s mouth.


The Star of India


The world’s largest sapphire, allegedly around 2 billion years old, weighs 563 carats and is roughly the size of a golf ball. On Halloween eve in 1964 it was stolen in a heist at the Museum of Natural History, only to be found a few days later in a Miami bus terminal locker. Today, it’s safe in the American Museum of Natural History (with better security).


Princess Diana’s Sapphire Ring


Princess Di picked out her 18-carat oval sapphire engagement ring surrounded with diamonds in 1981. Her choice became legendary, because, at the time, the ring cost $60,000, which meant that just about anyone with the money could purchase it. Haters called it “the commoner’s sapphire” and turned up their noses at the fact that a royal would purchase something relatively plain. But the princess made the ring and rock iconic. Prince William slipped the same one on Kate Middleton’s finger on the day of their engagement in 2010.


Ziegfeld Pearl Necklaces


In the spirit of Gatsby, Tiffany & Co. designed this new collection in April. The two chains are made entirely out of freshwater pearls, with one featuring an Art Deco tassel with sterling silver. In the film, Daisy Buchanan rips the strands from her neck in tears when she receives a letter from Gatsby on her wedding day.


Princess Katharina Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s Emerald and Diamond Tiara


The tiara is composed of eleven rare Colombian emerald pear-shaped drops, which are rumored to have belonged to Empress Eugenie. The tiara was commissioned around 1900 by a German prince for his wife, Katharina, and was last sold at a Sotheby’s auction in Geneva for $12.7 million.


The Fabergé Egg


Now closely associated with the Russian Imperial family, the first-ever “Imperial Easter egg” was dreamt up by Tsar Alexander III to surprise his wife, Empress Marie Fedorovna. Following the first bedazzled egg, the Tsar made it a tradition to present an egg each year to his wife. Fifty eggs were made for the imperial family between 1885 to 1916.
Jewelry has long defined us as humans––our rituals, traditions, accomplishments, and social status. It seems that this practice won’t be ending any time soon, which should come as no surprise. While many new technologies have been developed for the creation of jewelry since we first began to wear it, many time-honored traditions still remain.


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