While it’s true to say that wearing jewellery makes you look and feel wonderful, shows off your wealth, makes a statement about who you are and all that, it hasn’t always just been about decoration. Jewellery, especially in days gone by, often had a much more functional role to play than just being decorative.
Take for instance, container jewellery, specifically poison rings. I thought they would have a special name but Polly said no, they’re called poison rings, and in her student days she actually made one! Not to use for dispensing poison, I hasten to add, but as an exercise in very fine work; tiny hinges, a minute bowl inside the ring, miniature decorations on the lid etc. Sadly we don’t know what happened to it, but someone somewhere is loving it, I’m sure.
Apparently these lethal jewels originated in the Far East and India and made their way to Europe in the Middle Ages, and they are exactly as the name suggests – rings in which a small amount of poison could be hidden and dispensed as required. In Italy, even now, it’s poor form to pour wine with the back of your hand facing downwards meaning that (technically) something could fall from your ring into the glass you’re filling; ‘versare alla traditora” – pouring like a traitor – means that holding the bottle at the bottom with your hand a distance from the table is the proper way of doing things now. And I thought my waiter was just being a bit showy-offy pouring like that but actually he’s just proving he’s not my enemy.
But these rings weren’t always used as weapons; sometimes a tiny lock of hair of a loved one was carried around, or even a loose very precious gem was hidden inside rather than being left where it could be found and stolen. It seems that even spies used them during the war to carry codes written on tiny bits of paper hidden in the ring.
I suppose they were the ring version of a locket, really. Lockets have forever been used for carrying miniature portraits, locks of hair, even cloth soaked in perfume to be held near the nose when passing through an unsavoury neighbourhood, or tiny love notes, a pressed flower – in fact anything small enough and important enough to require being kept close and safe. Easily decorated, lockets are beautiful little items of jewellery, and my grandmother gave me this silver one in which I still have a picture of Mum. I don’t wear it any more but I do open it and look at it, and still marvel at the tiny hinges and the perfectly fitting lid.
The oldest piece of container jewellery ever found is the Hathor-headed crystal pendant which has been dated to 743-712 BC and was excavated in the Sudan in 1919. No one is certain what was contained in the crystal but it is widely believed it would have been a magical potion of some sort.
Moving away from container jewellery, another fully functional and often extraordinarily beautiful article is the fibula, or brooch, used for fastening cloaks. This really is a subject all of its own, but it’s important to this article, even if I only scratch the surface of it. These brooches evolved from the Bronze Age straight stick pin which was inefficient and often got lost. Fibulae not only held your cloak on, but they provided a wonderful opportunity for decoration and some that have been found were absolutely amazing. Even though they were often used to denote marital status, military status, wealth, family etc, they were still designed to be functional, first and foremost. One of the oldest found is a gold Hellenistic brooch from 250 BC. In the middle ages fibulae were replaced with buttons, but their modern descendant, the safety pin, is ubiquitous today.
Another rather obvious piece of functional jewellery is the watch. I love watches as accessories because the possibilities are endless for straps and face types and colours – one for every day and any occasion would work well for me! But the best watch that I’ve ever seen is the one found in the Cheapside Hoard which is a watch encased in an emerald. The most extraordinary piece of work, utterly beautiful, and once upon a time, completely functional.
While researching this article I have discovered I find the combination of functionality and decoration irresistible – a practical mapgie I suppose! – and will pay much more attention to it in the future when I go hunting for treasure.