The oldest known jewelry was made from 100,000 year old shell beads.
(pictured above, credit: C. Henshilwood & F. d'Errico, courtesy National Science Foundation, United States)
Wearing jewelry sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal world. And beads have been used for jewelry throughout history.
Whether as decoration, to express individual and class identity (Star of David), to show social status (wedding rings), to store wealth (wampum), as magical amulets, or just to pin your clothes together, jewelry says a lot about who you are.
3,000 - 5,000 years ago
India has the longest continuous legacy of jewelry making anywhere. Beads were important in their jewelry trade even before metals were widely used.
The Egyptians liked gold, and wore it to signal wealth, but preferred colors of glass to those of gemstones.
Chinese designs were oriented to religion then, as now. To this day you will find Buddhist symbols carved into bone and stone beads. Both men and women wore jewelry to show nobility and wealth.
In the Americas, the Mayans made beads from bone and stone before they used metals. Aztec nobility wore gold to show rank, power and wealth. They also used jewelry in sacrifices to appease the gods.
4,000 years ago
In ancient Assyria, men and women both wore extensive amounts of jewelry, including amulets, ankle bracelets, heavy multistrand necklaces, and cylinder seals. In Mesopotamia, jewelry was created both for human use and to adorn statues.
2,400 years ago
Ancient Greeks used jewelry mostly on special occasions and for public appearances. Women wore it to show wealth, social status and beauty. The Greeks believed jewelry protected the wearer from the "evil eye" and gave its owner supernatural powers.
1,300 years ago
Jeweled weaponry and signet rings were common for men; other jewelry was most used by women.
Ornately beaded and jeweled imperial glove made in Palermo before the year 1200 (photo by Michal Mañas, courtesy Widipedia)
400 years ago
Increasing exploration and trade led to the availability of more types of materials and exposure to the arts of varied cultures.
200-120 years ago
Napoleon revived the style and grandeur of jewelry as fashion in France. This period saw the early stages of costume jewelry. Changing social conditions led to the growth of a middle class that wanted jewelry and the industrial revolution provided techniques and materials to produce it more cheaply. To set themselves apart from the masses, the wealthy patronized goldsmiths such as Françoise Désire Fromment Meurice and Pierre Cartier in France, Charles Lewis Tiffany in the United States, Bulgari in Italy and Peter Carl Fabergé in Russia.
Jewelry has never been as diverse as it is today. The development of new materials, including plastics and synthetic gemstones, along with communication advances allowing design influence from many cultures, have combined with manufacturing technology to put jewelry within the economic grasp of a much larger segment of the population. The melding of cultural influences is one of the more significant features of jewelry today. Artisan jewelry is growing both as a hobby and as a profession. Popular because of its uniqueness, it is available in just about any price range.