Humankind has long been fascinated by the beauty of gold and since the earliest days of civilization gold has been used to adorn us in the form of jewelry. Let's take a look at how gold jewelry has been used in the various parts of the world during the last five thousand years.
The Sumerian Civilization, located in present-day Iraq, is well known as the place where one of the first systems of writing was developed. There gold was used to make necklaces earrings, rings, bracelets and other ornaments as early as 2500 BC.
Sumerian goldsmiths used sophisticated metalworking techniques such as cold hammering, casting, soldering, and were particularly skilled in decorating with filigree (fine-wire ornamentation). They also practiced "granulation" using minute drops of gold to enhance the beauty of the jewelry.
Jewelry played an important role in Egyptian civilization where its use dates back to 3000 BC. A tomb painting of late 15th century BC shows a metalworker using tongs and a blowpipe to anneal gold. The famous tomb of Tutankhamun or King Tut contains numerous pieces of fine gold jewelry embedded with precious stones. These pieces of jewelry are on display in the national museum in Cairo and thousands of visitors each day marvel at the skill of these early goldsmiths and jewelers.
On Mediterranean island of Crete, now part of Greece, gold jewelry also played an important role as early as 2400 BC. The jewelers of Crete may have gotten their knowledge from West Asia and they were experts in fashioning gold jewelry.
Diadems, hair ornaments, beads, bracelets, and complex chains have been found in Minoan tombs on Crete. It is also believed that Asian techniques of filigree and granulation were introduced to Crete around 2000 BC.
Around 1550 BC Minoan culture and its jewelry styles spread to Greece, then dominated by the city-state of Mycenea, located 90 miles southwest of present-day Athens.
Metalworking techniques spread outward from Greece and reached northern Europe as early as 1800 BC. There is also evidence that the Celtic and early British people traded with the eastern Mediterranean civilizations by this time and exchanged their products for gold beads.
By 1200 BC jewelry making was flourishing in Central and Western Europe. Bronze and gold was used to make jewelry and the spiral was the most common type of decoration. Twisted gold torcs were made in the British Isles and northern France from the 5th to the 1st century BC. Torcs, also spelled Torq, were rigid circular neck rings or necklaces that were open-ended at the front. Massive circlets for the necks and arms were the characteristic ornament of the chiefs of the Celtic race. The Celts also used enamel and inlay to decorate jewelry.
In the 7th century BC the Etruscans of central Italy were also making fine gold jewelry. The Etruscans perfected the difficult technique of granulation, a technique in which the surface of the metal is covered with tiny gold grains.
In Greece during the Hellenistic Age (the period just after the time of Alexander the Great, 323-30 BC) Greek jewelry was characterized by its great variety of forms and fine workmanship. Naturalistic wreaths were made for the head, and a variety of miniatures -- human, animal, and plant -- were made into necklaces and earrings.
The Heracles-knot, developed in Greece, remained a popular motif into Roman times.
Colorful jewelry was an important characteristic of the Migration period (4th to 8th centuries AD) which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Mediterranean goldsmiths continued to produce refined jewelry but the jewelry of the European tribes dominated the period. They produced abstract styles and worked in enamels and inlaid stones. This is also the period of the penannular, or nearly circular, brooches of Ireland and Scotland.
From the 9th to the 13th century, the technique of cloisonne -- enameling on gold -- became widespread in Europe and the Near East, with the best jewelry of this type emanating from Constantinople (present day Istanbul) the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Gold Jewelry in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
In the year 962 AD, just after the creation of the Holy Roman Empire (located in Central Europe) there was a fusion of Mediterranean and European civilizations and this had an effect on the jewelry as well.
The Emperor and the Church became the patrons of the arts. Jewelers worked in courts and monasteries. During this era, jewelry design was based on the setting in gold of precious stones and pearls in colorful patterns. Precious stones, which were polished but used in natural forms, were credited with having magic powers. For example, Sapphire, symbolic of chastity and spiritual peace, was used for papal rings.
Antique cameo gems were prized and when set in early medieval jewelry and were given a Christian interpretation. Until this era, European jewelry was produced mainly in imperial and monastic workshops. However, by the 13th century a system of independent guilds of goldsmiths was established in European capitals.
Gothic jewelry reflects the chivalrous ethic of the aristocratic society of this time in its symbolism and frequent use of amatory inscriptions. Jewelry, which has always had close affinities with modes of dress, frequently took the form of brooches and other fastenings such as belt clasps.
The ring brooch, the most common form of jewelry in the 13th century, was probably given as a token of love or betrothal. A pendant would occasionally be used as a Reliquary. The use of earrings ceased entirely, because women wore elaborate jeweled headdresses that concealed the ears. About 1300, French jewelers began to use translucent enamels over engraved silver or gold.