The word jewellery derives from the Latin jocale, which translates as plaything. The earliest examples date back more than 100,000 years and were made from shells, teeth and bones. The use of metal to make jewellery began around seven thousand years ago and subsequently developed around the world. In addition to its use as pure decoration, jewellery has been used to represent wealth and social position, for ceremonial purposes and as currency. Some functional items such as belt buckles and brooches became more decorative, often having designs inspired by the natural world and mythic or religious themes. In modern times the artistic value of jewellery has become more important than the symbolic value, although the use of wedding rings for both women and men has been popularised.
Beginning around five thousand years ago, Egyptians began creating jewellery which was worn to represent their wealth and power both in life and death. They preferred to use gold because of its rarity value and because it was more workable than other metals and they combined it with precious gems and glass.
From around 3,500 years ago Greeks began making jewellery using precious gems, gold and silver. By 300 BC they were creating cameos from coloured stones. Jewellery was mostly worn during ceremonial events or given as gifts believed to have magical properties.
Romans made jewellery using materials ranging from bronze, gold and silver to diamonds, emeralds and amber. Women wore a range of jewelled necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings. Men tended to wear only rings, with engraved gems used to seal documents using wax.
From around two and a half thousand years ago, the Celts began producing elaborate jewellery, generally working with bronze, iron and gold. Celtic crafts often used symmetrical designs and animal heads and their best known jewellery are the torcs worn by the Celtic warrior aristocracy. They also created amulets, rings and brooches which were among the most finely worked in the Classical world.
Using amber, glass, silver and gold the Anglo Saxons created colourful jewellery which was valued for its rarity and appreciated for its quality. Items found in burials include necklaces, earrings, hairpins and bracelets. Bronze was the most widely used metal in jewellery, whilst silver and gold were reserved for the rich and powerful.
Increasing global trade brought a wider range of precious stones into use for the production of jewellery, such as emeralds, rubies, amethyst and topaz as well as diamonds and pearls. Fashions spread for wealthy women to wear sets of diamond necklaces, tiaras, brooches, earrings and rings.
The increasing public interest in the works of previous centuries and the growing middle classes of the Industrial Revolution brought the need for more affordable jewellery. Jewellers began to work with less expensive materials and introduce industrial processes to make work which appealed to a wider market and the wearing of costume jewellery grew in popularity. During this period famous companies such as Tiffanys and Cartier were established, becoming famous for the quality of their craftsmanship.
During the 1890s Art Nouveau, and the British Arts and Crafts Movement, began to influence jewellers and they focused more on artistic design than the setting of stones. They were inspired to create colourful works using enamelling and subjects drawn from nature such as flowers and birds.
The turmoil of the early twentieth century, changed tastes from the perceived decadence of previous decades and to more restrained forms of expression. With improvements to the quality of mass produced goods during the 1920s and 1930s, materials such as aluminium and plastics also began to be used in the production of jewellery with the quality of the design being as valued as the materials used.
From the late 1940s, jewellery as a wearable art form and as a part of self expression has grown. The development of new materials and continuing improvements to production techniques, have democratised jewellery, so that it has become a part of popular fashion.