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Jewelry, An Art As Old As Man

She wore a ribbon of gold in her dark hair. On her head was a crown of gold with flowers that had nodded as she walked. Massive ear rings of gold glowed against her olive cheeks. Her throat was encircled with a dog collar of fitted gold and lapis lazuli triangles.

Necklaces of carnelian, of agate, of jasper, of lazuli and of gold completely covered her breast. Rings of gold set with lazuli and enamel and rings of coiled gold wire adorned her fingers and toes. She wore, too, gold pins with gold capped lapis lazuli heads and pendants. Her lazuli seal, carved in perfect intaglio for stamping her identity, was put to hand. Thus Shubad, Queen of Ur in biblical Mesopotamia, was laid in her tomb almost four thousand years ago.

In Crete jewelers were shaping bronze and gold and jeweled horse collars and harness rings as well as jewelry for humans. In far off Chin (China) artists were carving jade into ornaments. India was polishing cabochon rubies, emeralds, sapphires and topaz for the adornment of ancient rulers and gods. Ceylon and Ophir were diving for pearls which predecessors of Sheba's Queen and Egypt's Cleopatra wore with pride.

Indeed, centuries before Shubad lived, Egypt's Queen Zer of the First Dynasty, went to her tomb with her bracelets of braided gold wire and hair, and of hammered and chiseled gold inlaid with amethysts and turquoise.


This jewelry of ancient cultural centers was a far cry from the shells and bones, colored stones and chunks of bright metal carved, shaped, pierced, strung and combined by primitive man. For expert ancient jewelers cut, chiseled and engraved both stones and metals. They hammered metal into shape or cast it, sometimes using the "lost wax" process-the wax ran out of the mold as the hot metal was poured in.

They blended metals for color effects, using 20 percent or more of silver to pale the gold to electrum, named for amber which its color imitated. They put in 30 to 40 percent silver for greenish gold, or added copper to turn gold orange or russet. They combined iron with it to get a bluish cast. They brushed the surface of gold with "brown iron" (iron oxide) then heated it for the purple gold of the ancients-and of Tutankhamen's sequins.

They hammered out and rolled gold into sheets which they cut into strips and folded into threads or pulled into wires. The finest they used for granulation, cutting tiny beads from the wire, heating and invisibly soldering them to the gold ground in elaborate and minute pattern. The heavier wire was plaited or linked into chains.

Sheet gold was plated over other materials or placed over shaped forms and tooled to a raised design or repousse work. Cells gouged out or fenced in with wire, had stones or colored glass inlaid with self colored cement and called dry enamel or polychrome work-a favorite later with the Byzantines. Champleve and cloisonne enamels too were made. Perfection of stone carving is shown by the many ancient Babylonian seals of lapis lazuli, agate, crystal, alabaster and sardonyx at the University of Chicago's Oriental Museum.


Greece's delicate jewelry, her ear rings with swaying drops, her braided and enamel flowered necklaces, still thrill the world. Romans liked heavier jewelry. They loaded their fingers with rings and their garments with fancied up safety pins they called fibulae.

Byzantium blended the spiral lines of Crete, with the animal designs of the Scythians (Western Turkestan and Russia), and the animal and human designs of the Persians. She made rich miniature pictures using enamel, stone inlay or dry enamel, or Roman mosaic. Even her effigies of Christ and the saints in church walls, or of kings and queens (see Theodora's and Justinian's portraits at St. Vitale in Ravenna) were set with rich jewels.

This Byzantine jewelry of interlaced design, colorful stone inlay, and often, enamel pictures, spread over Europe as Gothic jewelry. Garnets and turquoise (Turkey stone) were favorite jewels. St. Patrick's bell, the Tara brooch, Arthur's Jewel, and the run of Scandinavian, German, English and French brooches show this heavy gold, stone inlaid jewelry.

China's golden age produced head dresses of silver filigree generally gilt to keep them from tarnishing, and jeweled with rose quartz, coral, amber, jade, and rare, blended, changeable-blue kingfisher feathers. Chinese did not cut their jewels with facets but polished them cabochon. Hair pins, armlets, finger rings, brooches, fan frames and finger nail protectors were made of jade, silver gilt, or, rarely, gold, or of copper surfaced with silver or gold, for gold was scarce.

American Indians polished emerald, topaz, jade, agate, amethyst, turquoise, and crystal. Rich in gold and silver, they shaped these metals by casting, and by the "lost wax" process. They chiseled, engraved, carved, hammered, and made repousse work. Most of their gold and silver ornaments were melted into bars by the conquering Spanish.


With advancing wealth and culture in Europe, the Renaissance, dominated by the Bourbons of France, turned from heavy gold to light and gemmed jewelry. Delicate flower sprays, bright plumaged birds, bow knots, stars or crescents, topped combs and made handsome brooches.

In Germany iron jewelry of real beauty was made, some of choice Prussian smith.craft. It was given out by the government to those patriots who sacrificed their valuable jewelry to pay for Germany's wars. A trickle of these fine iron ornaments came to America.

Victoria's Age of Empire in India, with India's precious stone trade, and America's gold and industrial wealth, let jewelry take an even richer turn. Swinging chatelaines with chained toilet and sewing articles gave way to jeweled lorgnettes. Tiaras for the daughters of tycoons vied with queens' crowns.

Jeweled evening bags and card cases, chased gold buckles, eye-glass frames, umbrella handles and purse frames, plus ropes of pearls, and solitaire diamonds became vogue. Men had gold cased watches, heavy chains, jeweled charms, rings with intaglio or single set stones, and similar tie pins of great value.

Cameos for and from Victoria started a cameo rage. Her widowhood promoted "mourning jewelry" such as the hair of the dear departed, plaited and entwined with gold, or curled safely in a locket. Black enameled bracelets, brooches and lockets were framed and flowered with gold. Similar, and other "mourning" rings were provided for in wills.

Pinchbeck "invented" his alloy of a little zinc to a lot of copper. It looked like gold and may have been thinly surfaced with it. Pinchbeck's alloy did make rich appearing settings for those who could not afford gold. Jewel glass, an ancient art which had flourished through medieval France, was revitalized. And artificial pearls, generally made of glass coated with fish scales, gave beautiful imitation pearls to all.


Color beauty, toughness, rarity, and that intangible choice we call fashion, set the value of stones. The spinel in the British crown was considered one of the world's choicest stones as long as it was believed to be a ruby.

For centuries the Chinese preferred mutton tallow or white jade, but the American Indians chose emerald green jade as their imperial stone. India, it is said, used to gather all jewel stones and sell them unpolished by the box full.

Only in modern times has the diamond come into first place. Of the jewel stones, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires rank first. Amber and jet are ancient tree products. Coral is calcium carbonate made by tiny sea animals, its valued red due to its iron content. Pearls with their wondrous beauty and unrivaled orient or lustrous sheen, are the product of injured pearl-producing oysters.

Stones or jewels of the earth are cold to the lips and warm more slowly than glass. Some stones, like lapis lazuli, "look like stone" where the hole is cut for stringing. Most jewels seem to have a "waxy" quality so a drop of water stands on them instead of spreading out, as it does on glass. The harder stones, from quartz on up through diamonds, are hard to scratch. A razor or file will scratch them but a pin won't. Old jewel glass is often dimmed with wear and scratching.

Today modern science has furnished us with synthetic stones of great beauty and durability. Now jewels that once were limited to kings, queens, and merchant princes have become the property of the people.

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