In Roman times, the wearing of jewellery was common, even by the lower orders of society. But by the 8th century AD, the wearing of jewellery had become confined to royalty and the church.
In the 12th century, the first goldsmiths’ guilds were formed to serve noble families and the church. These guilds served as the training ground for the first great Renaissance jewellery artists like Botticelli, Ghiberti and Brunelieschi. Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini designed jewellery for the court of Francis 1, while Hans Holbein the Younger introduced renaissance jewellery to Henry V111.
From the end of the 16th century, the Renaissance style was replaced by the Baroque. Figurative work became less important and the quantity of precious stones, as a statement of wealth, became the most important consideration. Men started to wear less jewellery and women wore more. The emphasis on precious stones was made possible by the increasing supply resulting from the opening up of the New World an trade with the East. Stone cutting techniques improved.
Pearls were in enormous demand throughout the 17th century – their price tripled in the first 60 years of the century. Women entwined pearls in their hair. As coiffures grew higher late in the century, large sprays laden with pearls were stuck at the side. Men’s hats were also encircled with strings of pearls or jewelled bands around the crown.
From the 17th century diamonds were imported in great quantities from Brazil and India by Dutch merchants and Amsterdam became the centre for diamond cutting. “Rose” cut diamonds superseded square “table” cut stones giving a brilliance to diamonds that resulted in them dominating jewellery from that time on.
The new brilliance of the cut diamond challenged the pearl and, by the early 18th century, the diamond necklace had become the grandest status symbol.
Inspired by rich patrons, particularly Louis X1V’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, Parisian designers achieved a level of elegance which has rarely been equalled. French jewellers dominated production in the royal courts throughout Europe.
It was not until the 19th century that machines enabled jewellery to be made at prices that the middle class could afford, ending the role of jewellery as a symbol of noble status. Big companies developed to make traditional style jewellery for middle class and wealthy clients.
In America in about 1850, Charles Louis Tiffany began making silverware and settings for diamonds. Around the turn of the century, his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany became one of the leading Art Nouveau craftsmen-artists. In France in 1898, Alfred Cartier and his son formed a jewellery manufacturing company which became the most famous in the world. The firm of Peter Carl Faberge, originating in St Petersburg, attained worldwide renown when it displayed its Imperial Easter eggs at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900.