All That Glitters: The Evolution of Jewelry Metals

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long sought answers to basic questions about humanity, but one of the most difficult to answer is when early humanoids began exhibiting behaviors we’d recognize today.  For those of us in the jewelry world, we might say that day was about 82,000 years ago, when humans in Africa began fashioning shells into beads, painting them and stringing them on natural fibers.  This is hardly the elegant jewelry we know and love today, but a lot has changed in the world of the jeweler in the last 82,000 years.

The History of Common Jewelry Metals
Copper BraceletCopper was the first metal used in serious jewelry making, long before the Sumerians began working gold in 4,000 BC.  Copper was easy to work, could be pounded out with simple tools and melted at low temperatures, allowing humans to carve molds to hold it in different shapes as it cooled.  Once hardened, copper jewelry held its shape, but it corroded quickly.

Once word spread that gold had been discovered by pre-Europeans near the Alps, there was no stopping the rise of gold jewelry.  Sumerian and Egyptian miners learned to harvest this metal from abundant sites nearby and jewelers took their knowledge of copper working and applied it to gold.  Gold was an instant hit – it was rare enough to have significant value and because it was non-reactive, refused to corrode like copper.

Silver was another common metal of the time, but was first used for crafting practical items, especially in Crete.  Cretan vases dating back to as early as 3,100 BC have been found in Egyptian graves, but despite being shiny and non-reactive, silver never quite made the splash in Egypt that gold did.  Every Egyptian who was anybody owned gold jewelry and made sure they were buried with their collection.

As goes Egypt, so goes Rome, and so on until Europe became the model everyone looked to for fashion advice.  Western Europeans trace most of their cultural history back to Rome, so it would follow that they valued gold jewelry above all else. It was reserved for the rich and powerful, though most of the common folks owned jewelry made of copper or pewter.  In places and times like 13th century France and England, Sumptuary laws limited the wearing of gold and silver to the upper class.

The Rise of Modern Jewelry
1884 Tiffany Silver Card CaseWith the growing wealth the Industrial Revolution provided, even Americans got into the act of buying and wearing jewelry.  Our forebearers were very practical people – in Colonial America, it was considered normal to give your wife a silver or pewter thimble instead of a wedding ring.  Men didn’t wear rings, but later women of the upper and middle classes would soon begin following fashion and had to have the latest and greatest styles from Europe.

Costume jewelry was born during the 18th century, and Tiffany’s was founded shortly thereafter, in 1837.  The influence of American jewelers and the opening of jewelry to a much larger group of fashionistas, who demanded more than just silver and gold, would change the world of jewelry forever.  By the early 20th century, jewelers began to buck tradition completely and were fashioning jewelry out of metals that were difficult to work or undiscovered before the century’s technology boom.  Platinum and stainless steel made their way into the jewelry mainstream.

Increasing Options for Traditional Jewelry Styles

It was the 1970s that brought about real change in jewelry-making materials.  Although gold remained the standard, and silver a close second, the changes in thinking that wide-spread acceptance of costume jewelry afforded the industry gave rise to the use of materials previously considered inappropriate for jewelry.  Suddenly, jewelry containing exotic woods, ivory, crystal and coral was everywhere and saw a brief, but brilliant, rise in popularity.
Titanium ringIt wasn’t until about a decade ago that all caution was thrown to the wind and higher-end jewelry, even wedding bands, were fashioned out of anything and everything.  Today, no one bats an eye at a wedding band made from silver, stainless steel, tungsten, titanium, palladium, ceramic or coated with rhodium.  Even though gold remains the traditional metal for many types of jewelry, these new materials have different properties that benefit the wearer in a variety of ways.  Many are hypoallergenic, and in the case of ceramic and wood, non-conductive for workers in jobs where traditional jewelry may create a hazard.

With the nearly limitless selection of materials modern jewelers use to craft their wares, there’s a piece for everybody.  Gold is a beautiful option, and very traditional, but by considering other metals, you may be able to afford that unique ring or necklace you’ve always wanted.

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