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Discovering the Cultural Legacy of Necklaces: A Comprehensive Guide

A necklace is a popular form of jewelry worn around the neck. It has a rich history, possibly dating back to the earliest adornments worn by humans. Necklaces serve various purposes, including ceremonial, religious, magical, or funerary uses. Additionally, they often symbolize wealth and status, being crafted from precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum.

The core element of a necklace is its band, chain, or cord encircling the neck. These are frequently made of valuable materials. Necklaces commonly feature additional embellishments such as pendants, lockets, amulets, crosses, and gemstones like diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds, garnets, and sapphires. They are crafted from diverse materials and fulfill various functions, sometimes categorized as part of clothing attire.

Prehistoric neckware

Prehistoric necklaces were fashioned from natural elements like feathers, bone, shells, and plants. Archaeological findings indicate that necklace making dates back to the early Upper Paleolithic period, with evidence found in southern and eastern Africa dating back to 50,000 years ago. As humanity progressed into the Bronze Age, metallic jewelry supplanted pre-metallic adornments. The Ancient Near East showcases some of the earliest depictions of necklaces in statuary and art, while Europe saw the creation of necklaces crafted from precious metals adorned with inset stones.

Ancient civilizations

In ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia and Babylon, jewelry was a significant aspect of cultural expression. Cylinder seals were commonly worn as jewelry in Ancient Mesopotamia, while in Ancient Babylon, necklaces were crafted from luxurious materials such as carnelian, lapis lazuli, agate, and gold, often fashioned into elegant gold chains. The Ancient Sumerians also contributed to necklace craftsmanship, using gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian to create intricate designs.

In Ancient Egypt, a diverse range of necklace styles adorned the populace. The upper class favored collars made from organic or semi-precious and precious materials for religious, celebratory, and funerary occasions. These collars were often embellished with semi-precious stones, glass, pottery, and hollow beads. Necklaces comprised of beads made from various precious and semi-precious materials were also prevalent. Gold was commonly shaped into stylized forms of plants, animals, and insects. Additionally, amulets were frequently incorporated into necklaces.

In Ancient Crete, necklaces were worn across all social classes. Peasants adorned themselves with stones strung on flax thread, while the wealthy showcased beads made of agate, pearl, carnelian, amethyst, and rock crystal. Pendants resembling birds, animals, and humans were popular, alongside paste beads, reflecting a rich diversity of adornment in ancient times.

In Ancient Greece, intricately crafted gold necklaces featuring repoussé and plaited gold wires were highly favored. These necklaces were often adorned with blue or green enameled rosettes, animal shapes, or vase-shaped pendants, often detailed with fringes. Long gold chains embellished with suspended cameos and small perfume containers were also common. During the Hellenistic period, colored stones introduced poly-chromatic pieces, while chains featured animal-head finials and spear-like or bud-shaped pendants.

The Ancient Etruscans employed granulation to produce granulated gold beads, which were then strung with glass and faience beads to create vibrant necklaces. In Ancient Rome, necklaces were among the many jewelry types worn by the elite, often ornamented with foreign and semi-precious objects like amber, pearl, amethyst, sapphire, and diamond. Ropes of pearls, gold plates inset with enamel, and lustrous stones set in gold filigree were also popular, with many materials imported from the Near East.

Following barbarian invasions in the later Roman Empire, colorful and extravagant jewelry became fashionable. In the Byzantine era, ropes of pearls and embossed gold chains were predominant, while techniques like niello allowed for necklaces adorned with brighter gemstones. The Early Byzantine Era witnessed the emergence of distinctly Christian jewelry, reflecting new Christian iconography trends.

Timeline of non-classical European necklaces

Between 2000 BC and AD 400, bronze amulets adorned with coral were frequently used. In Celtic and Gallic Europe, the favored necklace style was the robust metal torc, primarily crafted from bronze, although occasionally fashioned from silver, gold, or adorned with glass or amber beads.

Between AD 400 and 1300, early European barbarian groups favored wide, intricate gold collars reminiscent of the torc. Germanic tribes were known for their use of gold and silver jewelry, intricately detailed and often inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones like garnet. Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian societies predominantly worked in silver, incorporating patterns and animal motifs into neck-rings due to a scarcity of gold. Necklaces were rare during the Gothic period, though occasional records mention diamond, ruby, and pearl necklaces. It wasn’t until the later Middle Ages, with the adoption of lower necklines, that necklaces became more commonplace.

From 1400 to 1500, the Renaissance era witnessed men adorning themselves with multiple chains, plaques, and pendants around their necks. By the late 15th century, the wealthiest men sported grand collars inlaid with gems, covering their shoulders. Women typically opted for simpler pieces such as gold chains or strands of beads or pearls. As the period progressed, larger and more intricately adorned necklaces became increasingly popular among the affluent, particularly in Italy.

Between 1500 and 1600, long pearl ropes and chains adorned with precious stones were popular accessories. In the latter half of the century, natural elements such as coral and pearls were combined with enamel and metals to craft intricate pendants. Heavily jeweled cameo pendants, delicately framed, also gained popularity during this period. Additionally, chokers, which had not been commonly worn since antiquity, experienced a resurgence in fashion.

From 1600 to 1700, few men during the Baroque period embraced jewelry, while women’s necklaces remained relatively simple, often comprising a single strand of pearls or intricately linked metal strands adorned with small stones. Towards the end of the century, with the advent of new diamond cutting techniques, emphasis shifted to the jewels themselves rather than their settings. It became common practice to pin jewels onto black velvet ribbons. Miniatures also became increasingly popular, often fashioned into portrait pendants or lockets.

During the period spanning from 1700 to 1800, portrait pendants remained fashionable, often set in extravagantly jeweled settings. The rising bourgeoisie class found delight in jewelry, with the availability of imitation stones and gold granting them greater access to contemporary necklace styles. In the early part of the century, popular necklace designs included velvet ribbons adorned with suspended pendants and the rivière necklace, featuring a single row of large precious stones. As the century progressed, colorful and whimsical necklaces made of both real and imitation gems gained popularity, with a resurgence of neo-Classical styles towards the end of the era.

In the Age of Enlightenment, gowns often featured neck ruffles, which women accentuated with neck ribbons rather than traditional necklaces. Nonetheless, some women opted for chokers embellished with rubies and diamonds. The introduction of seed pearls to the United States during the Federalist Era led to an increase in the popularity of lacy pearl necklaces.

Between 1800 and 1870, the prevailing low necklines of court gowns led to the popularity of large necklaces adorned with precious jewels. In Napoleon’s court, the ancient Greek style was in vogue, with women donning strands of pearls or gold chains embellished with cameos and jewels. During the Romantic period, necklaces became extravagant, featuring tight, gem-encrusted collars with matching jewel pendants and rosettes of gems bordered with pearls. It was common to accessorize with jeweled brooches attached to neck ribbons, and some necklaces were opulent, designed to be dismantled and reconfigured into shorter necklaces, brooches, or bracelets. Highly embellished Gothic-style necklaces from England reflected architectural elements seen in cathedrals. Empress Eugénie popularized bare décolletage adorned with multiple necklaces on the throat, shoulders, and bosom. There was also a revival of interest in antiquity, with mosaic jewelry and reproductions of Roman and Greek necklaces becoming fashionable. The introduction of machine-made jewelry and electroplating allowed for the production of inexpensive imitation necklaces.

From 1870 to 1910, the Edwardian era witnessed a resurgence of pearl necklaces, along with the emergence of a dog-collar style necklace made of gold or platinum inset with diamonds, emeralds, or rubies. The Art Nouveau movement inspired symbolic and abstract necklace designs featuring natural and animal motifs. Materials such as glass, porcelain, bronze, ivory, mother of pearl, horn, and enamel were valued for their appearance rather than their intrinsic worth.

From 1910 to 1970, Chanel played a significant role in popularizing costume jewelry, with glass bead ropes becoming a common accessory. The Art Deco movement introduced chunky, geometric jewelry that incorporated various gemstones and steel. By the 1960s, costume jewelry was widely embraced, leading to seasonal and ever-changing necklace styles. Real jewelry of this period often featured geometric or organically shaped silver necklaces, as well as precious gems set in platinum or gold necklaces inspired by the French Empire era. Love beads, consisting of a single strand of stone or glass beads, and pendant necklaces, typically made of leather cords or metal chains with metal pendants, gained popularity, particularly among men.

Chaozhu

During the Qing dynasty in China, a prestigious court necklace known as chaozhu (Chinese: 朝珠) was worn by the Qing emperors and other members of the imperial family. Its origins trace back to a Buddhist rosary presented in 1643 by the Dalai Lama to the first Qing emperor. The necklace consists of 108 small beads, arranged with 4 large beads representing the four seasons, interspersed between groups of 27 beads each. Aside from its symbolic significance, the chaozhu also served a practical purpose, as it could be used for mathematical calculations in the absence of an abacus.

Necklace with longevity lock pendant

In China, there exists a tradition of wearing a necklace adorned with a longevity lock pendant. These lock charms were occasionally fastened around the necks of children by Buddhist or Taoist priests. Known as changmingsuo in Chinese, meaning ‘longevity lock,’ it holds significant importance as an amulet for children in Chinese culture, spanning thousands of years. According to Chinese beliefs, the changmingsuo safeguards children from malevolent spirits and misfortune by securing the wearer’s soul and life within the lock. Crafted from precious materials like gold, silver, and jade, the changmingsuo often features auspicious inscriptions carved onto it. This traditional necklace style remains prevalent in contemporary Chinese society.

Yingluo

Yingluo (simplified Chinese: 璎珞; traditional Chinese: 瓔珞) originated as a ring-like neck ornament or fashionable necklace, initially depicted as a Buddhist ornament in Chinese Buddhist arts such as sculptures and paintings. Its roots trace back to ancient India, where its precursor was the Indian ornament known as keyūra. The depiction of keyūra was introduced to China alongside Buddhism. Over time, the depiction of yingluo in Chinese art, particularly evident in sites like Dunhuang, evolved in shape and style, reflecting the cultural integration between foreign (non-Chinese) and native Chinese influences facilitated by China’s unique geographic characteristics.

By the Tang dynasty, yingluo had transitioned from a mere ornament in Buddhist arts to an actual necklace. Throughout the centuries, yingluo remained a classical form of necklace in Chinese society. It continues to be worn in present-day China, especially as a popular accessory among Hanfu enthusiasts as part of the Hanfu movement. Available in a variety of styles, shapes, and materials, yingluo retains its significance in Chinese cultural heritage and fashion.

Tasmania Shell necklaces

Tasmania is known for its tradition of shell necklace crafting. Aboriginal Tasmanian women have been fashioning shell necklaces from maireener (Phasianotrochus irisodontes) shells for over 2,600 years, with significant collections housed in various museums. However, the continuation of this ancient practice is now facing threats due to dwindling shell supplies. Lola Greeno, a sixth-generation Palawa woman, expresses concerns about the potential extinction of this tradition.

HALLMARKS AND STAMPS

To identify the metal in your jewelry, start with a visual inspection after cleaning it. Look for a hallmark or stamp, which is common worldwide. In the US, jewelry made of gold or silver is legally required to be stamped. Here’s what the stamps typically mean:

  • 925 or STER: Indicates sterling silver
  • 10K: Contains 41.6% gold
  • 14K: Contains 58.3% gold
  • 18K: Contains 75% gold
  • 24K: Indicates pure gold
  • 950, PLAT, or PT 999: Indicates platinum

These stamps provide valuable information about the metal composition of your jewelry.

ACID TESTING AS A METHOD FOR METAL IDENTIFICATION

While the acid test is a method to identify metals, it can potentially damage your precious jewelry. We advise against using this method if your jewelry holds sentimental value. However, if you choose to proceed, exercise caution. For gold, use hydrochloric acid, and for silver, use nitric acid. Apply a small drop of the appropriate acid and observe the reaction. Genuine metal will remain unaffected, while alloys may discolor. For instance, non-genuine silver may oxidize and turn rust-red on a slate, while gold may slowly dissolve upon contact with hydrochloric acid. It’s crucial to weigh the risk of damage against the need for identification before conducting the test.

While the magnet test can help differentiate between certain types of metals, it doesn’t provide precise identification. Instead, it helps determine if the metal is potentially precious, rare earth, non-magnetic, or magnetic.

MAGNET TEST

Precious metals like gold, silver, platinum, titanium, palladium, and tungsten are non-magnetic and won’t stick to a magnet. Other non-magnetic metals include stainless steel, aluminum, zinc, and copper.

Rare earth metals such as neodymium, gadolinium, and samarium exhibit magnetic properties. Metals like cobalt, steel, iron, and nickel are inherently magnetic.

To conduct the magnet test, use a strong magnet, preferably neodymium. Rub it on the jewelry surface—if it sticks, the jewelry likely contains magnetic metals.

It’s essential to note that some jewelry pieces may comprise various metals. If the magnet sticks to one area but not another, it could indicate the presence of different metal types within the piece. Always consider the possibility of mixed metals when interpreting the results of the magnet test.

For precise identification of the metal in your jewelry, consulting a jeweler or metal specialist is recommended. They employ various tests, including:

PROFESSIONAL ASSESSMENT

  1. Determination of metal type
  2. Evaluation of metal weight
  3. Assessment of metal condition
  4. Analysis of purity level
  5. XRF Spectrometer Analysis

XRF spectrometer analysis, also known as the touchstone test, is a highly effective non-destructive method. This method requires an XRF spectrometer, which emits X-rays into the jewelry.

The X-rays excite the atoms in the metals, causing them to emit light. This emitted light is then analyzed by the XRF spectrometer, accurately identifying the metal composition of the jewelry. One significant advantage of this method is its applicability to both precious and non-precious metals. Consulting a professional for XRF spectrometer analysis ensures precise identification of your jewelry’s metal composition.

Why is it important to know the type of metal used in jewelry?

Understanding the type of metal in your jewelry can have a significant impact. It’s essential for practical, aesthetic, and ethical considerations, enhancing the relevance of your piece.

DURABILITY

The metal used in jewelry significantly influences its quality. Certain materials are more durable than others, enhancing resistance to wear and tear. The combination of metal type and crafting methods serves as a reliable indicator of longevity. Opting for jewelry crafted from precious metals like silver, sterling, and gold ensures resistance to tarnishing, allowing for regular wear without concerns.

VALUE

Understanding how to identify the metal in jewelry is essential for evaluating its worth. Metals in the jewelry industry vary in price. Rhodium, platinum, and gold rank among the most expensive precious metals, while silver holds a position among the top 10 priciest metals, though towards the lower end. Additionally, the craftsmanship and intricate details involved in the jewelry-making process can further augment its value.

SKIN SENSITIVITY

Skin reactions to various jewelry metals can vary greatly. Therefore, prioritizing hypoallergenic metals in your jewelry selection may be essential. Opting for metals free of nickel, copper, or other skin-irritating elements can alleviate allergic concerns. Many of our jewelry pieces are crafted from hypoallergenic materials, such as gold and silver, ensuring comfort and compatibility with sensitive skin types.

CLEANING AND MAINTENANCE

As professional jewelry makers, we advise understanding that each metal possesses distinct characteristics and demands specific care methods. Therefore, identifying the metal composition of your jewelry is crucial for its proper maintenance and prolonged lifespan. Additionally, it’s worth noting that various finishes of gold necessitate different care routines.

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