A very clever little magpie niece of mine in Kenya (also a Polly Gasston!) inspired my next idea for research because she takes full advantage of the wonderful tropical wood at her disposal and makes interesting, wearable and unique jewellery with it, and it made me think about what people were using for jewellery before the discovery and passion for silver and gold.
Evidently jewellery – or adornment of some sort, anyway – has been worn forever, literally, but what’s so interesting is that every country seems to have “the oldest piece of jewellery ever found”! I think maybe Spain wins with the perforated shells that were found and which have been dated to 115,000 years ago which puts them in the age of the Neanderthal. In South Africa beads made from snail shells and dated to 75,000 years ago stake their claim as the oldest; a kangaroo bone adornment dating back 46,000 years ago is Australia’s claim, and ostrich egg beads found in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania is in the running for the title. But it doesn’t matter who wins because they all show very clearly that man – neanderthal, cro magnon or homo sapien – all had some sort of jewellery, and that’s as old as it gets!
It’s impossible to know the reason these ancient people made and wore jewellery but it’s widely believed to have been for all the same reasons, really, that it’s worn today; adornment, ceremony and status in the main, and in some cultures it was for protection. Amulets have been worn in cultures for all time and in all parts of the world. Made from wood and bone and stone and even animal teeth and claws and eagle talons, the belief in their powers was strong, from protection against evil and illness to power with fertility and strengh. It could be argued that pendants are the decendents of amulets, worn round the neck, each with it’s own significance.
Using metal in jewellery really only started about 7000 years ago when the first pieces of copper jewellery were made, and even though metal forms the basis of most jewellery now, there are still so many different materials used with it. The Egyptians used faience beads extensively (glazed ceramics) with their metal, and they made glass beads a lot, and glass is still a common component in jewellery, not just because it’s cheap but because it’s colourful and plentiful and readily available. The maasai started using glass beads the moment beads arrived in Africa, brought by traders, and before that they used coloured stones and dyed bones in their elaborate, decorative and highly symbolic jewellery. Ostrich egg was also used extensively from South Africa right up to Kenya. In North America the oldest jewellery ever found were four bone earrings aged to about 12,000 years ago, found in Alaska. Another highly decorative and very old form of jewellery from America is quill jewellery, made from porcupine quills.
Interestingly, many of the materials used right from the get-go are still used today. Gems, after all, are just stones that have been cut and polished and heated to make them what they are, but before they became precious they were just useful! Bones from cattle, deer, goats and camels are still used in jewellery, and of course wood as well (I love the idea of a wooden watch, I must say…) We’re all familiar with cowrie shell jewellery which as been made for millennia and still is, and now it’s even enhanced with a little gold or silver, in fact all sorts of shells are used in jewellery now, not just cowries (responsibly sourced, I’m sure) and glass is still a much used component of modern jewellery too. It stands to reason that arguably the very best glass jewellery comes from Murano. It actually started being produced in Venice itself in the 13th Century, but the fear of fire from the kilns meant the glass makers were moved to their own island – Murano – and there they had to stay, keeping their secrets with the threat of a prison sentence hanging over them if they told anyone how to make glass. It is still produced today and I must say some of the genuine product is absolutly wonderful. (Sadly, unless it’s signed Murano, it was probably mass produced in China…)
Another form of glass that is used more and more is dichroic glass – two colours – and while this is actually a very ancient form of glass, seemingly invented by the Romans, it was NASA who made it bright and beautiful and interesting for jewellers. (As an aside, take a moment to look up the Lycurgus cup made of dichroic glass by the Romans in the 4th Century. It is beautiful and astonishing.)
But something the ancients did not have and which we use extensively in our adornments nowadays are plastics; bakelite, celluloid and perspex in particular, and they are a wonderful addition to our resources for adornment.
First came celluloid, invented in 1855 and made of nitrocellulose and camphor, it used to be used for film but now it’s used for countless other everyday items from musical instruments to jewellery. It takes colour well and is incredibly flexible and shapeable.
Next came bakelite, the first plastic made from synthetic materials in 1907. I always think of it as a radio case – as seen on TV, not because I’m that old! – but bakelite jewellery was very popular in the 1930s. It carves well, laminates together and has become very collectible.
And the third on the list is Perspex (which is actually a trade name for this acrylic product) which was invented in 1934 and is really shatterproof glass. It’s lightweight, easy to cut and takes colour very well. The best examples of perspex jewellery I’ve seen are made by one of our Precious Kent jewellery group, Shelby Fitzpatrick. It must be said that with her background in silversmithing, textiles and ceramics, Shelby obviously has an eye for colour and design so it’s no surprise she makes the most fun and colourful jewellery which is so easy to wear – it weighs nothing – and she has a piece for any outfit, guaranteed!
Reading back over this it strikes me that almost anything, literally, can be turned into jewellery and always has been for as long as man has been on earth. It makes me think that magpies must be one of the oldest species of bird, then…