Jewels, a simple question of vanity?

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The history of jewelry across time is not so much an account of human vanity than a reflection of the evolution of human societies and the urge of humans to create symbols and beauty.

Jewels across time

There are signs that humans have been wearing jewels from very early times on as personal adornment. Originally, these were made of materials easily available in nature such as shells, animal bones or teeth. With time humans learnt to work with different stones and metals, including gold and gems that were particularly valued in jewelry.

Our ancestors were incredibly gifted jewelers and the beauty and splendor of the old jewels still fascinates us as clearly demonstrated by the interest shown for jewel displays in museums or for itinerary exhibitions on for example the Gold of the Incas or the treasures from Egyptians tombs.

With the use of precious metals like gold or gems like diamonds, jewels became tangible signs of wealth, power and societal order. At different times, like in the Middle Age, laws were passed as to who was allowed to wear jewels, which in itself illustrates the social importance attached to jewels.

The concept of crown jewels was created in the Renaissance period where the French King, Francois 1st declared 8 fine pieces to be inalienable heirlooms of French kings.Similar legislation in other countries soon laid the ground for the treasures of the European Royal families.

19th and 20th century, a turning point

The use and significance of jewels changed drastically in the 19th century due to social, technological and cultural factors.

A new social code

Until then men wear just as sumptuous jewels as women did. Likewise they had precious stones, pearls, gold and silver threads sawed into their garments. However, around the 19th century the social code required a more sober dress code for men. Furthermore, around the same period, a much sharper differentiation was introduced between day and evening jewels, the most sumptuous being reserved for evenings and galas.

A new technology

The industrial revolution made it possible to mass produce jewels of high- as well as low-quality, thus placing jewelry within the economic grasp of a much larger segment of the population. This in turn led to a more relaxed relation to jewels acquired at a lower cost and easily replaced by new collections for a quickly changing fashion.

The modern culture

The Art Nouveau movement and the 1900 World Exhibition marked a new era where design and creativity are prized above material value, thus shifting the emphasis of the jeweler's art from the setting of stones to the artistic design. This marked the birth of what is now called art jewelry as opposed to traditional jewelry.

During the Art Deco period Coco Chanel greatly popularized costume jewelry as ornamentation to complement a particular fashionable costume or garment. Those costume jewels often made of non precious material and mass-produced marked the start of an era of disposable jewels that are fashionable for a short period of time and quickly outdated by a new fashion style.

One cannot mention design without mentioning the Danish Design. This innovative movement is characterized by quite distinct sober round lines of great esthetic quality and a predilection for silver. Georg Jensen is the most emblematic figure, but certainly not the only renowned name. Danish Design had a huge influence in the rest of Europe and in the US and laid the ground for many experimental jewels in the 1960s an 1970s.

Jewel design did not only experimented with new forms and new material - including cheap materials like aluminum, plastic, paper, nylon, but haute-couture designers such as Coco Chanel, as mentioned above, and renowned artists like Salvador Dali, Picasso or Max Ernst made a significant contribution to innovation in that field. This work challenged constricting conventions and somewhat blurred the boundaries between jewelry, fashion and fine arts.

Jewels today and tomorrow

Jewels are just attractive today as they were in the past. It is not possible at this point to anticipate what the 21st century will bring as novelty. However, looking at what is happening today might give us a hint as to tendencies.

Art jewels

One of the signs of the continued economic and cultural importance of jewels in modern society is the annual Copenhagen Jewellery Fair that is Scandinavian biggest jewelry and watch fair. This year, the royal protection of the fair, Princess Marie, delivered the prize to the winder of the "Bella Nordic Jewellery Award", that can be considered as that Nordic competition for jewelers. Though, away from that glamour, you can find many small jewel designers' ateliers scattered all over Denmark. There, you can find beautiful unique jewels created by talented people with a passion for their craft and proposing a great diversity of design and realization.

Home-made jewels

The high price of quality jewels has paved the way for a "do it yourself" movement. There is quite a sizeable number of physical or virtual shops were private clients can buy jewels parts that they can then assembled to make jewels for themselves or others. Those shops have been until now be a profitable business, but there are now sign that the marked is coming to saturation and competition is becoming harder.

Jewels, consumption society and recycling

As mentioned earlier, jewels are a reflection of societal developments. On one side mass production with cheap materials has meant a huge offer of jewels that everybody can afford. Those jewels have become ordinary objects of consumption to be used and discarded without a second thought. As a reaction to this "waste society" recycling has become a strong societal movement. Waste material, even trash, is used to new creations, including jewels. Those are per definition unique pieces coming out of the designer's imagination and sold at prices greatly fluctuating with the reputation of the designer.

Jewels for men

While there seems to be no limit of size, color and composition in women's jewels, the offer and use of men's jewelry is comparatively quite restricted. It is difficult to say whether this is due to men themselves, to societal norms on what a man can wear or due to the lack of interest and creativity on the part of the designers. It is though more and more accepted for men to wear earrings, which might be a sign that conventions and taste are changing.

Jewelry - an everlasting love story

Jewels have followed humans throughout ages and have had a social and cultural role that has evolved hand in hand with societies. In our complex modern society jewels, in one form or another, are affordable to all layers of society and are used as signals on attitudes, lifestyles and belonging. The cultural significance of jewels is difficult to determine in view of the great offer and diversity of jewels from the cheap mass-produced to the finest exclusive pieces. As Clare Phillips1 states "What remains true now, as throughout the ages, is that jewelry at its finest has the power to fascinate and inspire - which is the prime characteristic of art at its best in any of its many manifestations." It can then be conclude without any doubt that, yes, jewels are much more than an expression of human vanity.


1Clare Phillips, Jewelry from Antiquity to the Present, Thames and Hudson World of art, New York, 2008

Eliane Kristensen, a French citizen living in Denmark, decided in 2008 to give a new turn to her life. She left her secure job in an international organization to establish her own business and founded, a web shop proposing art and handicraft for sale.

Running an online business presents a lot more challenges than first anticipated, but is also an incredible source of new learning and an opportunity to meet wonderful people. Writing articles is a task she enjoys tremendously as it implies getting deeper into various aspects of art and handicraft and sharing knowledge and opinion with others.

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