Discover jewellery;Discovery series

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
In the second part of our Discovery series, we take a look at the jeweller's craft, from the enamelled treasures of an ancient Sumerian queen to Elizabeth Taylor's diamonds. Whatever it's made of, whether it glitters or shines, it still turns us into magpies and has been a part of human culture from the beginning, writes Nicki Household.

As princes, potentates and parvenus have always known, nothing beats mountains of precious jewellery as a badge of grandeur. Probably the only thing blue-blooded royals and vulgar lottery winners share is a weakness for fabulously expensive minerals.

But most of us lesser mortals love jewellery too. Men and, particularly, women have adorned their bodies with trinkets since time immemorial. Prehistoric cave paintings show that long before precious metals were discovered and even before they wore clothes, humans adorned themselves with bracelets, anklets and necklaces made of pebbles, berries, feathers, shells or animal bones. It's a subject as rich in history as the Earth is in natural treasures.

Gold and precious stones were first discovered when nomadic tribes settled along the banks of rivers, where they found deposits of minerals. Those early craftsmen discovered that if they heated gold with fire they could pound it into thin sheets. From these (and from silver, copper and bronze) they made ornaments for every part of the body.

One of the earliest examples of the jeweller's craft dates from the third millennium BC and was found in a tomb at Ur in Sumeria. It belonged to a queen, Pu-abi, whose stash of beautiful treasures (some of which you can see in the British Museum) show that her craftsmen understood most of the technical processes that are still used today - welding, making alloys, filigree, stonecutting and enamelling.

Discoveries such as this thrill archaeologists because they are so revealing. But according to Richard Edgcumbe, curator of jewellery and metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, whatever the era, jewellery can teach us something. "It is exciting because it is so intimately associated with social history," he says. "When we look at a jewel we want to know not just who designed it and how it was made, but who wore it and why. It is about love and grief, identity, religion and fashion. It can be high art as well as a powerful expression of popular culture."

It was often through their elaborate preparations for the dead that ancient peoples left some of the most illuminating clues about their customs and cultures. The discovery in 1922 of the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamen not only revealed the dazzling skill of Egyptian goldsmiths but of a whole way of life. Decorated with cornelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli, the pieces, mainly made of gold, are carved with scarabs, sphinxes and other sacred symbols.

As with jewellery today, styles were often dictated by the whim of fashion. The Greeks, for instance, loved intricate gold filigree work without many inlaid gems, but the ancient Romans had a passion for precious stones, especially in rings (leading to speculation that the Romans were the first to use engagement rings). Rings weren't just for women either - some Roman senators wore six rings on each finger.

Other civilisations developed their own jewellery cultures, which were governed by the natural resources available to them. Rich deposits of precious stones in India meant that powerful rajahs could shower their wives - and anyone else they chose - with gems. In some cases, these bejewelled creatures were so inundated with stones that clothing almost became superfluous. The rajahs themselves wore jewels in their turbans and their ears, round their necks, inserted into their nostrils and even between their teeth. Which just goes to show that current fads for tooth embellishments are less radical than their wearers might have hoped.

The Inca cultures in pre-Colombian South America could rival Indian skills with precious metals and jewels. They are famous for their marvellous gold and silverwork, although most of these priceless creations were seized and then melted down by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.

Throughout the ages, the mysterious brilliance of precious stones has led people to believe they have magical powers. In England in the Middle Ages, a sapphire ring was said to cure eye problems, a diamond protected its wearer in battle, a ruby ensured love and happiness and an emerald brought riches and fame. Further afield, a west African chief will still wear a necklace of gold charms to make his wife fertile, and wearing magnetic or copper bracelets to guard against aches and pains is popular the world over.

Whatever the culture or the period, one factor remains constant: good jewellery has always cost a packet. For that reason, it was most usually associated with chiefs, kings and powerful individuals, and for centuries only the ruling classes owned valuable jewellery. It often represented most of their wealth. In Europe, it was not unusual for royal families to cart their jewels around with them, often with disastrous consequences. King John is said to have lost all his when it accidentally fell into the Wash with his baggage. And after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo,a priceless hoard of jewellery was discovered in a secret drawer in his travelling carriage.

Most of the world's famous jewellers would no doubt turn in their graves to discover that one of the most significant developments in jewellery design today has been the introduction of plastic.

Modern craft jewellery is made mostly from silver, and designers feel free to use any material that suits their purposes. Even world-famous jewellery artists such as Wendy Ramshaw, whose work is exhibited in the Vamp;A, use brass, copper, wood, acrylic, resin, leather, titanium, rock crystal, shells and pebbles. Not unlike the decorative instincts of prehistoric man.

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