A Brief History of Jewelry in the Middle Ages- Renaissance Periods

October 28, 2008 | By | 8 Replies More

Early civilizations’ discovery of gold and the possibilities it presented were nothing short of wondrous. Gold–its malleability and versatility to be molded into various shapes and sizes of jewelry made it (and still makes it) the most popular metal to work with. It was approximately 5,000 B.C when different civilizations all over the world discovered gold and began to work this metal into pieces to frame precious stones into. In Central and South America, China, India, and Egypt, gold became the metal of choice to make into elaborate or simple pieces of jewelry.

The Middle Ages had seen the utilitarian and functional use of jewelry. Gemstones like ruby, garnet, and sapphire found their way into the fashion of the time heavily incorporated into clothes, brooches, clasps, belts and hats. Strings of pearls and gold chains were used as popular belts during these times.

It was also during the middle ages when Poesy rings became a fad. These rings symbolized a token of affection or friendship. A short, personal sentiment–mostly about love and friendship–can be found as inscriptions on or inside poesy rings and were exchanged between lovers and friends. In Roman history, a cameo was introduced bearing the icons of nobility and popular political leaders of the time.

This period also saw the introduction of several designs that are still popular today. A couple of these are the Celtic and Byzantine designs. Intricate, elaborate and beautiful, these designs are still very sought after in present times.

Religious-themed jewelry also became popular during this period. Crosses and icons of Christianity i.e. papal rings, rosary beads, pendants with the saints and other religious figures were introduced around this era.

Inspired by the amount of gemstones and pearls traded all around, craftsmen and goldsmiths designed opulent, extravagant pieces of jewelry. And since it came with a hefty price, only the nobility and those in the upper strata could afford it. In addition, it was around this time that the Sumptuary Law (laws attempting to regulate consumption, especially of luxury items) was enforced. This was the law which governed who could wear what jewelry and was supposed to protect the top nobility’s status in the society.

If the medieval period saw the rapid development of jewelry making and its application to various situations, the Renaissance on the other hand, simply refined these changes. It was at this time that the Sumptuary Law was lifted and the nobility, being conscious of standing apart from the masses, sought master craftsmen and goldsmiths to customize and design jewelry for them. Beautiful pieces of jewelry became the object of desire. Quality became increasingly important. It was at this point that jewelry as a symbol of wealth and social status became a distinct and expensive truth.

This period saw the continued popularity of gemstones set in gold and silver. The European trade with the East had brought with it vast exposure to artists, goldsmiths, and jewelry craftsmen. The era also introduced the tradition of matching jewelry with clothes and other accessories. This practice was said to have been encouraged by Napoleon Bonaparte while he was King of France.

Truly we can say that these two eras ushered in a brilliant development for jewelry design, uses, and the craft  as a whole. Many types of jewelry that were introduced in these periods are still very popular today.

(End of the Second in a Three-Part Series)

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  1. I didn’t know that about the Posey rings in the middle ages. It’s amazing what an influence friendship and love have on jewelry. I wonder how far back in history the concept of jewelry and relationships go? Today it is so entrenched in our way of life…just like engagement rings and friendship bracelets. Great insight!

  2. Hi Tierra,

    You’re absolutely right! I was glad to tackle this subject as both history and jewelry interest me much. The Poesy rings may not be as popular now as it was when it began in the middle ages but it really is interesting to know that the tradition started that long ago.

    I’ll definitely write about the beginnings of engagement rings, wedding rings, friendship bracelets etc… so stay tuned!

  3. I thought the “Sumptuary Law” was interesting. I wonder how something like that would take ship into today’s society, since we are such a “consumption-based” society. Of course, I am sure there was a lot of corruption involved in the original Sumptuary Law, but it’s an interesting occurrence in history.

  4. Cartier’s LOVE bracelet is a modern and interesting concept when it comes to relationships and jewelry. The bracelet is put on by your lover and can be unlocked with the screwdriver… its rumored to have started in the 40′s…. its interesting to think that the Poesy ring could have started it all.

  5. The Sumptuary law of the middle ages was only one of the feeble attempts of the upper class all throughout history to further distance themselves from the common people- economically and socially. Ancient Greece, Rome and Japan all had their versions of this archaic law. If it didn’t prosper before when the gap between the rich and poor was so disparate, I don’t think anyone would be so foolish to suggest anything remotely similar to it in this day and age. Unless of course, that somebody wants to be stoned to death. Funny, that’s another outdated punishment. :-)

  6. I could not seem to find any info that connects the Love bracelet to the ancient poesy rings. The former was supposed to have originated in the 40s and it could possibly be an all-modern concept. But then again, we could not discount the fact that modern jewelers may have been inspired by it.

  7. I agree. The Sumptuary Law could not possible make it today. What it made me think of in a very indirect way is the idea of a consumption tax that has been tossed around lately. The idea that instead of income tax, we would pay tax on our purchases instead. So only consumption is taxed rather than income. I think it’s a fascinating concept — of course, much different from class distinction — it actually taxes people who buy more things.

  8. Actually, VAT (value-added tax) is a form of consumption tax so yes, that’s a shadow of sumptuary law there; although I think the former kinda discourages more spending especially during lean times while the latter was simply dictatorial. Further, the difference between the consumption tax and the sumptuary law is that the tax is applied across all levels, the Sumptuary Law was partial to the rich.

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