Jewelry Definition and History

Jewellery (Jewelry in American English) is literally any piece of fine material used to adorn one's self. The word jewellery is derived from the word jewel, which was anglicised from the Old French "jouel" in around the 13th century. Further tracing leads back to the Latin word "jocale", meaning plaything.

Jewelry has probably been around since the dawn of man; indeed, recently found 100,000 year-old Nassarius shells that were made into beads are thought to be the oldest known jewelry. Although in earlier times jewelry was created for more practical uses, such as pinning clothes together, in recent times it has been used almost exclusively for decoration. The first pieces of jewelry were made from natural materials, such as bone and animal teeth, shell, wood and carved stone. Jewelry was often made for people of high importance to show their status and in many cases, they were buried with it.

Jewelry is made out of almost every material known and has been made to adorn nearly every body part, from hairpins to toe rings and many more types of jewelry. While high-quality and artistic pieces are made with gemstones and precious metals, less costly costume jewelry is made from less valuable materials and is mass-produced.

Materials and methods

In creating jewelry, a variety of gemstones, coins or other precious items can be used, often set into precious metals. Common precious metals used for modern jewelry include gold, platinum or silver; although alloys of nearly every metal known can be encountered in jewelry - bronze, for example, was common in Roman times. Most gold alloys used in jewelry range from 10K to 22K gold (24K or pure gold is generally to soft for jewelry use), while platinum alloys range from 900 (90% pure) to 950 (95.0% pure). The silver used in jewelry is usually sterling silver.

Other commonly used materials include glass, such as fused glass or enamel; wood, often carved or turned; shells and other natural animal substances such as bone and ivory; natural clay, polymer clay, and even plastics.

Beads are frequently used in jewelry. These may be made of many different substances including glass, gemstones, metal, wood, shells, clay and polymer clay. Beaded jewelry commonly encompasses necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and belts. Beads may be large or small. The smallest type of beads commonly used are known as seed beads; these are the beads used for the "woven" style of beaded jewelry.

Silversmiths, goldsmiths, and lapidaries use numerous methods to create jewelry, including forging, casting, soldering or welding, cutting, carving, and "cold-joining" (using adhesives, staples, and rivets to assemble parts).


Diamonds, long considered the most prized of gemstones, were first mined in India. Pliny may have mentioned them, although there is some debate as to the exact nature of the stone he refered to as Adamas; Currently, Africa and Canada rank among the primary sources.

The British crown jewels contain the Cullinan Diamond, part of the largest gem-quality rough diamond ever found (1905), at 3,106.75 carats. Now popular in engagement rings, this usage dates back to the marriage of Maximilian I to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.

Diamonds have long been associated with social issues; in South Africa, diamonds and gold were factors in the start of the Second Boer War in the 1890s, they later factored in treatment of blacks during the apartheid era, and have since been instrumental in exacerbating and prolonging other African conflicts.

Jewelry in the Americas

Jewelry played a major role in the fate of the Americas when the Spanish established an empire to seize South American gold. Jewelry making developed in the Americas 5,000 years ago in Central and South America. Large amounts of gold was easily accesible, and the Aztecs and Mayans created numerous works in the metal. Among the Aztecs, only nobility wore gold jewelry, as it showed their rank, power and wealth. Gold jewelry was most common in the Aztec Empire and was often decorated with feathers from birds. The main purpose of Aztec jewelry was to draw attention, with richer and more powerful Aztecs wearing brighter, more expensive jewelry and clothes. Although gold was the most common and popular material used in Aztec jewelry, silver was also readily available throughout the American empires. In addition to adornment and status, the Aztecs also used jewelry in sacrifices to appease the gods. Priests also used gem encrusted daggers to perform animal and humen sacrifices.

Another ancient American civilization with expertise in jewelry making was the Mayans. At the peak of their civilization, the Maya were making beautiful jewelry from jade, gold, silver, bronze and copper. Mayan designs were similar to those of the Aztecs, with lavish head dresses and jewelry. The Mayan also traded in precious gems. However, in earlier times, the Mayans had little access to metal, so made the majority of their jewelry out of bone or stone. Merchants and nobility were the only few that wore expensive jewelry in the Mayan Empire, much the same as with the Aztecs.

In North America, Native Americans used shells, wood, turquoise, and soapstone, almost unavailable in South and Central America. The Native Americans utilized the properties of the stone and used it often in their jewelry, particularly in earlier periods. The turquoise was used in necklaces and to be placed in earrings. Native Americans with access to oyster shells, often located in only one location in American, traded the shells with other tribes, showing the great importance of the body adornment trade in Northern America.

Although initially of interest either as a curiosity or a source of raw material, jewelry designs from the Americas has come to play a significant role in modern jewelry.