Thursday, February 6, 2014

Glitter, glitz, and bling: jewelry in the Middle Ages

I love to wear jewelry, silver being my personal favorite. In my cultures, a family’s wealth was held not in a bank but in the form of precious gems and metals. In the ‘higher’ ranking families, along with lands and titles, a bride could bring gold, silver, and jewelry as part of her dowry. In turn, she would expect bling from her husband for significant events through-out her marriage (children, anniversaries, increase in rankings).

What type of jewelry was popular? Which gems were available? Did the fashions resemble anything a woman (or man) might wear today?

Wealth was kept in the form of jewelry, coins, cups, goblets (also called hanaps), plates, boxes, and household decorations.  Candelabras, chalices, crosiers (staffs), vases, and royal jewels were usually special orders. The household goods (plates, goblets, etc.) were decorated with family crests, heraldry, Celtic designs, porcelain, glass, enamel, and/or encrusted with jewels.

ruby and diamond ring

Raw gemstones might be set aside for future use (to be set in rings or sword hilts). Raw materials were formed to a finished product by a metal smith, the final shape was dependent upon the individual (special orders or on the whim of the maker). The more gold (or silver) & gemstones used, obviously, the higher the cost and the more likely the item was a special order. Common gemstones used included garnets, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, amethysts, amber, pearls, and jasper. Colored glass and enamel were other features of jewelry. Celtic designs, runes, royal insignias, heraldic crests, and names were engraved in the metal work.

brooch with multiple gemstones
medieval lover's brooch
Rings, earrings, necklaces, brooches, torqs, arm rings (armillae), pendants, buckles, garters, and buttons were popular pieces. Toadstone (or talisman) rings were worn to promote healing.  Diamonds did become popular in the 14th century when the trade route through India opened up by sailors journeying around the Cape of Good Hope. The craftsmen in Bruges were heralded as the best cutters and the city soon was cited as the center of the diamond business, although the jewelers eventually moved to Amsterdam.

Visigoth Crown
Gemstones were polished and set in the pieces, the reason diamonds weren’t very common (the stones were dark – the brilliance & fire didn’t come through). Jewelers didn’t perfect the actual cut diamond as we know it until the 15th century. The first cut was the ‘Rose’ cut and it was developed by Giacomo Tagliacarne & Giovanni delle Corniole. The actual techniques of jewelry-making were documented by Benvenuto Cellini's 'The treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on goldsmithing and sculpture'.

gold and gemstone jewelry box

Two buried treasures discovered in recent times include the ‘Cheapside Treasure” and the ‘Staffordshire Hoard’. The Cheapside Treasure’ is a collection of renaissance jewelry found buried while workers were excavating for a hotel foundation in the Cheapside area of London (England) in 1912. The Staffordshire Hoard is a collection of Anglo-Saxon gold & silver artifacts found in a field by Hammerwich, a small village near Lichfield (England) in 2009.

Renaissance pomander bottle
Hoards of jewelry, weapons, household items, and miscellaneous items have been found on occasion as old marshes, fields, or holes for foundations or dug up. Some countries, such as Great Britain, have rules about historical artifacts (treasures) being discovered and who has the ‘rights’ to owning them. Others may subscribe to the ‘possession’ is 9/10th’s rule. Treasure hunters should always know the laws of the land (local, regional, state, etc.) when searching for any antiquities – especially if one intends on taking the find out of the country.

Sutton-Hoo necklace

For more information, see these websites and references:      

Stay safe out there!


  1. Great post, Diane! I especially love the Visigoth Crown - very Game of Thrones, don'tcha think? ;)

  2. Diana,
    Very informative post & the pictures are gorgeous. Imagine what stories those treasures could tell!

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