The term 'Celtic' is used to describe the inhabitants of Europe of the Iron Age. It is a vast generalisation of tribes that display certain similarities in their language, culture, tools and also: their jewelry. It would be wrong to call the inhabitants of Bronze Age Europe 'Celts' as well, more often these cultures are called the Beaker cultures, but for the sake of continuity of styles and because of the similarities in development we will discuss these Bronze Age cultures first in this article. After all, the Celtic styles and techniques are a direct result of this earlier period.
Over the course of the Bronze Age social differences increased and expressing ones high status became more and more important. Personal decoration has been one of the ways to stress these differences and hence we see 'prestige jewelry' being found in the graves of chiefs and warlords of early European civilizations. This is something that happened simultaneously in different areas over the whole of Europe during the Bronze Age.
One of these areas were the British Isles that were rich in alluvial gold. Here we can see a strong development over the Bronze Age in jewelry manufacture. Some of the materials used were gold, bronze, amber, jet and shale. Gold was hammered into sheets and decorated with embossed and chased patterns similar to those found on pottery from that period: zig zag motives, triangles and diamond (kite) shapes. Good examples of early Bronze Age gold work are the typical lunulae.
The use of copper and later bronze required casting techniques. Bronze isn't as malleable and ductile as gold. This caused early bronze jewelry to be much simpler of form and with less fine detail. Hammering bronze to a sheet to apply the goldworking technique of repoussé to the item was practiced occasionally though.
Jet was used to make all kinds of ornaments among which were spacer beads and bi-conical beads that were used in strung necklaces. The craftsmanship of carving jet reached extremely high forms and pointillé techniques were used to decorate the product. A fair part of the jet ornaments found on mainland Europe is to believed to have been produced on the British Isles. The same counts for some gold jewelry.
The long tradition of metal working laid a strong foundation for the periods to come. By the end of the bronze age new techniques had been developed such as the casting of gold, wire making and bar twisting. The improvement in casting techniques caused a shift of focus onto the complexity of the overall shape of an object. More detail is found on cast pieces from the late Bronze Age that were the result of complex clay molds. New materials such as glass were used in beads. Continuation of tradition can be found in the popularity of amber, jet, bronze and gold and in the use of chasing and repoussé to decorate metal work.
The types of jewelry from earlier periods comprised mainly body ornaments like neck rings, strung necklaces, bracelets and earrings which were now joined by clothing and hair decoration. Fibulae became one of the most common forms of jewelry and it's manufacture was made possible by the development of gold wire. Basic forms of jewelry are found throughout Europe, local fashion is to be recognized here and there but the general idea was the same. One of those universal forms of jewelry was the neck-ring or torc.
Roman influences are seen long before the Roman conquest of the Celtic lands but after the defeat of the Celtic armies in the first century BC and the Roman march to the Rhine and British isles had begun the full 'romanization' of the Celts was a fact. The Celtic 'high-society' started to act, dress and talk like Romans and the latest trends from the Empire's capital made it all the way up to Northern Europe. Finger rings, chain necklaces and earrings were new forms of jewelry in these parts of the world up until then and became popular items. New materials such as gemstones and silver were introduced as well. But it wasn't all new though, certain typical Celtic characteristics are still to be recognized in jewelry from the first quarter of the first millennium such as the use of enamel and typical Celtic knot motives. Old styles fused with new ones to produce a Gallo-roman style.