The History Of Jewellery: from the conquistadors until James 1
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The History Of Jewellery: from the conquistadors until James 1

The Renaissance ran from the late 14th century until 1527 and the sacking of Rome. As well as rapid developments in art, this period also saw huge advances in technology, science and overall knowledge. And it covered a period when new trade routes gave access to rare raw material and precious raw gemstones that were carved into jewellery.

The European conquest of the New World
America was an enormous source for newly discovered gemstones.
Beginning with the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean and gaining control over 300 years, the Spanish Empire would expand across all the Caribbean Islands, half of South America and much of Central and North America. Simultaneously the Portuguese conquered Brazil and the British invaded America and Canada. Much of the motivation for this vast colonial expansion was the extraction of valuable resources.

Coloured stones were extremely popular, with sapphire, ruby and emerald the most sought-after gems. And Lisbon and Barcelona became important trading centres for them following the looting of South America by the Spanish and Portuguese. At first burial sites and temples were the main source of plundered precious stones as well as silver, and gold. Later the European invaders took over indigenous mining.
However, the influx of jewellery to the Old World was a slow process that took many hundreds of years. But its impact was enormous, with some gemstones more affected than others.

The market for emeralds would change forever
Perhaps emeralds were the stones that would most profound change in value, quality and price.  By the mid-16th century, the Spanish had located the source of the world’s most beautiful and precious emeralds in deposits in Colombia and established mines. And today that country accounts for somewhere between 70 to 90% of the world’s market.

Not all precious stones had their history changed so dramatically by the opening of the Americas to European colonists, and over time markets settled down.

European jewellery in the Renaissance
Jewellery played an important part in religious life too, and as a display of political strength. Renaissance jewels, like the Renaissance itself, have a reputation for opulent splendour.
However there seems no great desire for many Renaissance people to display their wealth with an ostentatious display of jewellery – the preferred gems and metals were typically not the most valuable. However, the designs and styles were often immaculate.

Fancy jewellery – but not at fancy prices
Jewels of the time are often covered by enamel on both sides, which became ever more elaborate and colourful. Many pieces had realistic depictions of subjects carved into gold settings, including humans, animals and mythical creatures.
This elaborate workmanship meant that renaissance jewellery had far greater artistic than intrinsic value – which is why so many pieces of jewellery have been passed on and why, in modern times, so many can be seen in public and private collections.

Cut out to sparkle
Advances in science meant that cutting techniques had improved to add extra sparkle to stones. This period also sees a revival in the art of gem engraving. Brooches began to be worn on hats as an ensign, often functioning like plaques with carved depictions framed by gemstones. Sometimes the brooches were shaped into hearts and sometimes the stones themselves were cut into shapes, often exchanged as gifts between lovers.

Rings for brides
This was the era when brides began to receive betrothal rings too – although not necessarily just one. Women wore rings in abundance, as many as three per finger and even over the knuckles.

Men on the other hand were more likely to wear engagement rings on cords around their necks. Most rings were set with only a single stone which was often a ruby.

Colours were important
Sapphires, rubies and emeralds were popular, although diamonds were only used as a contrast. Typically, stones were set by rubbing the upper edges of a box-shaped collet – the enclosing rim within which a jewel is set – over the edge of the stone. The frames of a Renaissance setting tend to be irregular because of the way goldsmiths beat the gold up around the gem. 

From the 14th until the 16th-century styles changed dramatically
Head ornaments disappeared and were replaced by coiffures that were adorned by ropes of pearls sprinkled with jewels. Neck jewellery changed from single gems or small clusters that hung on a thread which evolved to a solid chain.

And what about Royalty at the time?
The most precious gemstone when Henry 8th ruled as king of England from 1509 to 1547 during the English Reformation and the Renaissance was the ruby. And one of our most memorable monarchs was a big fan. Many of the portraits of him at the time show him sporting these precious stones. He also favoured a ruby necklace popular in many of the courts of Europe at the time, and his robes were richly decorated with large rubies.

A different kind of portrait, for a different kind of king
A famous portrait you’ll probably recognise was made by Hans Holbein that shows the English monarch with neither a sceptre nor a sword – unlike most royal portraits of the era. Instead, he has a glove and dagger in his hands and an imposing ruby on his shoulder. He also wears clothes adorned with gold and pearls and a hat decorated with sapphires. An imposing sight that must have made a great impression on those of his subjects that saw it during his reign.

Meanwhile in France…
Across the channel, French royalty shared Henry’s 8th love of precious gemstones.  Kings usually had a new crown made especially for them on ascension to the throne, with important stones removed and reused by each successive ruler.
And it was Frances 1, who sat on the French throne at the same time as Henry ruled England, who decreed that the concept of the French crown jewels was an inalienable right for royalty – one that could never be taken away. (He obviously couldn’t take into account the French Revolution that ultimately saw them sold off in 1887, over 300 years later.) During his time there were eight notable stones in the collection, the most important of which was the ‘Côte-de-Bretagne’ – 105 carat stone that at the time was thought to be a ruby but was actually a red spinel.

The perennial appeal of jewellery
Of course, precious gemstones didn’t lose their appeal in the next generation after Henry 8th. (Indeed, they’ve held their popularity for every century right up until the present day.) Besides being worn as an adornment or to be kept as an investment, one of the most common reasons to purchase gemstones in the Renaissance was as a talisman to ward off evil.
The medical uses that were ascribed to stones are almost as numerous as the talismanic uses and in some cases, it is difficult to distinguish between the two.

Elizabeth 1st was as much a fan of jewellery as her notorious father
Her gowns were frequently decorated with jewelled brooches and pins, as was her head ornaments.  In her youth, she received gifts of jewellery from would-be suitors. And even in old age, she wore a great amount of jewellery in public. In 1587 the lady of the bed-chamber, Blanche Parry, recoded a record 628 jewellery items. Sir Francis Bacon made the cruel remark that her jewels drew the attention away from her ageing.

The “Chequers Ring” is a famous gold, ruby, diamond and pearl locket ring that Elizabeth I wore, which concealed the cameos of Elizabeth I and her mother beneath the centre stones. She was wearing the ring when she died in 1603 at the age of 69, and the ring was taken to prove her death and announce the news that James VI was now King James I.

Mary Queen of Scots loved jewellery too
In France, Elizabeth’s rival and half-sister Mary Queen of Scots inherited many jewels during her childhood. She took much of her collection to Scotland, but when she abdicated and went to England many of her jewels were sold or pledged for loans. Her remaining treasures were worn by her son James V1 of Scotland – and James 1 of England – who would unite the two kingdoms at the start of the Stuart dynasty.

Turn to a traditional jeweller
Whatever your interest in gemstones, if you’re considering making a purchase, it’s always safer to seek the advice of a traditional jeweller like John Lloyd Morgan for guidance.