Discover jewellery;A closer look;Discovery series

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
In the Middle Ages, the most common ornament was the ring, which served as a seal and a sign of office. By about 1400, the burgeoning middle class had begun to flaunt their new-found wealth with a variety of gold brooches, buckles and head ornaments as a sign of their social status.

But it was in Renaissance Italy that the jeweller's art took off. Artists like Botticelli served apprenticeships in goldsmiths' workshops, and from their later paintings we can see just how elaborate jewellery had become, even down to the hair slides. Soon the royal courts of Europe were vying to outshine each other with the splendour of their jewellery, and portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I show them dripping with jewels.

During the 17th century, a spectacular form of jewellery for women developed in Spain: a heavily-encrusted "stomacher" brooch, which covered a woman's bodice from neckline to waist. You can see one of the most famous examples, the treasure of the Virgin of Pilar, on display in the Vamp;A. In the early 1700s, men and women went in for jewelled shoe buckles and chatelaines - elaborate pendants hung from the belt, to which people attached scissors, keys and watches.

Everything changed in the 1720s, when large quantities of Brazilian diamonds began to arrive in Europe. Suddenly, dense Baroque designs were out and everyone was mad for beautifully cut stones in simple settings. Fifty years later, discovery of the remains of the city of Pompeii sparked a craze for all things Roman. One of those quick to jump on the bandwagon was the English potter Josiah Wedgwood, who started to knock out classical cameos as fast as he could.

The Industrial Revolution finally put paid to the role of jewellery as a symbol of social rank. Gold-plating techniques and the mass production of imitation stones allowed vast quantities of jewellery to be produced at a price the middle classes could afford.

As the 19th century, drew to a close, jewellery firms sprang up to cater to the bourgeoisie. In 1898 in Paris, Alfred Cartier started a jewellery company that went on to become the most famous in the world. He supplied all the grandees of Europe, including the then Prince of Wales. The prince's mistress, Alice Keppel, became such an important Cartier client that she advised him on the site of his new London shop in Bond Street. And in 1902, when Queen Alexandra was crowned in a blaze of diamonds, Mrs Keppel was given her own private crown - a Cartier tiara shaped like a laurel wreath.

Carl Faberge, who used a greater variety of precious and semi-precious stones than any other jeweller before him, became famous overnight with a fabulous display of imperial Russian Easter eggs at the Paris Exposition in 1900.

By this time Cartier had stiff opposition from the likes of the American jeweller Charles Lewis Tiffany in New York, Van Cleef amp; Arpels in Paris, Bulgari in Rome, Asprey amp; Co and Garrards (which was the Crown Jeweller until the company merged with Asprey last year) in London and Patek Philippe in Geneva.

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