Matt Gibson, CEO of The Gold Estate, looks through a magnified glass to inspect pieces of jewelry and verify they are gold at the Cedar Rapids location off of First Avenue SE on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. When customers bring in jewelry, Gibson tests the gold and then weighs it. The Gold Estate bought this particular set of jewelry for $1,012, and it will eventually be taken to be refined. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)
The earliest examples of jewelry, from more than 75,000 years ago, were made from shells and eagle talons.
In fact, humans may even have worn jewelry before they wore clothes — at least in warmer climates! Shells, fish bones and colored pebbles were used for jewelry near the sea, while animal tusks or bones would be used by people who lived inland. Often jewelry would fill a purpose, such as a beautifully-shaped piece of bone serving as a button on an animal skin cloak.
Gold was one of the first metals used for jewelry, with Ancient Egyptians making rings, pendants and chest plates (like a big necklace) with colored glass and semiprecious stones. When wealthy Egyptians died, they were often buried with their finest pieces of jewelry. The tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, or King Tut, was filled with high-quality necklaces, chest plates, amulets, pendants, bracelets, earrings and rings, Britannica reported.
In the Renaissance (from the 14th Century to the 17th Century), some jewelry was designed so it could be worn in the hair, whether braided or unbound. Portraits of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1533 to 1603, often show her wearing a multitude of necklaces as well as a tiara or crown. King Henry VIII, who ruled England from 1509 to 1547, loved jewels, Britannica reported, and owned several hundred rings.
Men have worn jewelry throughout history. Today, that might be a watch, ring, cuff links, necklaces or earrings or gauges.
Whether jewelry is large or small depends on the time period. In the 1940s, small pendants, broaches or watches were the norm, but the 1980s brought giant hoop earrings, fake pearls and whole armfuls of bangle bracelets.
Anthropologists — people who study humans and our societies — don’t know exactly what jewelry meant to humans of the past, but making, wearing and giving jewelry is a way of communicating something about yourself. If you wear a necklace with your name — that’s an easy message. And many engaged women wear diamond rings, which proclaim “I’m getting married!” But sometimes when you choose a particular pair of earrings, you’re just saying “Today I feel like wearing sparkly unicorns!”