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Commoner’s Jewelry

Do you think it’s important to look into commoner’s jewelry more?

It will tell you a lot about the society. The interesting thing of looking at ancient burials is that in many societies even relatively poor people are buried with jewelry. A remarkably large number of Eastern Roman Empire graves contain gold jewelry, for example. Much might be very small and flimsy but it’s gold. It’s probably a lot like the Indian society in more recent times where everybody wants to have some gold jewelry.

Gold was more valuable and expensive for most of the past than it is today in relative terms; the amount of gold you could buy relative to the price of bread. But people still wanted gold. The important question is: why did they bury it six foot underground? You wouldn’t think the family would be too happy about it. It must show that having the gold for the afterlife was more important than living relatives wanting it. So it’s quite an interesting observation on society. Poor people would somehow get the odd earring or gold pendant for themselves and then be buried with it rather than hand it over to their kids.

Looking at ancient civilizations, can we define a point in history where jewelry starts to be used to distinguish rank and prestige? When did the social differences become big enough to be seen in jewelry?

I think it started as far back as you can go. Think of the animal kingdom. The most powerful lion often looks the most powerful. People have always wanted power, which comes with possessions. If you were the tribal leader you’d be rich and powerful. Rich, in those days, might mean you had more flint weapons or mammoth tusks. When you have power you want things that show you have power. You need symbols of power. That can be a sort of crown you wear on your head or a collection of luxury things.

Once you have power you have some ability to trade. Trade routes go back thousands of years. In all sorts of materials. Things like Lapis Lazuli, for instance, were coming to Egypt all the way from Afghanistan even before 3000 BC. People didn’t necessarily set out expeditions to get gems, these things were traded across the country. Only the people who would have money, or whatever passed for money in those days, animals or ingots of tin for instance, could afford to buy those very special materials. And for some extraordinary reason the further away these materials came from, the more valuable they were. Egypt was full of sand and the ancient Egyptians did make jewelry out of it in the form of faience, but Lapis came from thousands of miles away and was obviously desired far more.

The Roman author Pliny made this very point: it’s ridiculous that the further away something was or the more difficult it was to get something, the more valuable it was. From about 500BC onwards Indian gems were being traded through the Mediterranean. The only gem material that went the opposite direction to any extent was coral. Right through from ancient times to Marco Polo and to the East India Company, they were trading coral from the Mediterranean to India. The Indians wanted coral because they didn’t have any, we wanted the Indian gems because we didn’t have them. It’s silly really, if we had kept the coral and the Indians had kept their gems, it would have saved a lot of trouble. But that’s just not the way society works.

Can we point at certain civilizations as being more bejeweled than others?

That’s difficult. I think there is a link between the amount of gold they had access to and the jewelry that was worn. The more gold they had the less they had to do with it. If we look at the Scythian-Greek communities around the Black sea, for instance, their gold jewelry tends to be very heavy and so is some of the so-called Barbarian jewelry. There is an awful lot of gold but not a lot of design. Yet Etruscan jewelry – there were minimal gold sources in that part of Italy – has to make up for that lack of material which they did by incredible minute granulation and minute little wires. It was very flimsy but very intricate. So, as a rule of thumb, if you had a lot of gold you would make big heavy items out it, if you didn’t have much gold you would create lighter but more intricate things.

When we try and differentiate between royal jewelry and commoners jewelry. Can we observe differences to the purposes of the jewelry? Did commoner’s jewelry differ from royal jewelry in terms of it having a more amuletic and less decorative purpose?

That depends really on which periods or societies you are talking about. It also depends on what you mean with amuletic. I just received a draft of the CIBJO consumers guide and there is a whole page on birthstones in there. Is that amuletic? What is it? I think the further you go back in time, the more symbolism plays a role in jewelry. Symbolism was an important part of society. Greek earrings, for example, may have been shaped as Eros, the god of love, or Nike, the goddess of victory but I’m not sure whether each time their owners would put them on they were thinking that their jewels would get them a new lover or that they were going to help win them a battle. Is wearing a wedding ring symbolic nowadays? Is it an amulet? Does it fend off other men or women? I don’t know… I think that you can say that most jewelry from the past had some sort of amuletic purpose. If you look at Egyptian jewelry for example, most of the jewelry is in some sort of a meaningful form. The form of a shell, fertility symbols or symbols representing one of the gods. Most of their jewelry had something to do with their religion. To them their gods were everywhere, they were an important factor in people’s lives. Today people obviously wear crosses and crucifixes but do they all constantly think Christian thoughts when they put them on? Or is it just a tradition in society?

Can we observe a change in commoner’s jewelry when we move from antiquity to the Middle Ages?

This gets into difficult ground here. In the ancient world, in many societies people were buried with their jewelry. There are endless burial grounds with jewelry from extremely poor people. There are burials in Egypt of normal people that contain just one broken pot and a bronze earring. But it is there, everything from a single bronze item in a child’s grave right to Tutankhamen’s treasure. That does continue in the European world up until the Dark Ages in Saxon burials. There are very rich ones like the Sutton Hoo burial in Britain but also very poor ones with just a couple of beans. But when you get past that stage in Europe, when things become far more Christian, the burial of jewelry with the dead seems to stop. It is not a Christian tradition. You get the odd ring found in the tomb of a bishop, that sort of thing, but generally speaking, if you dug up a graveyard around a medieval church you wouldn’t find a huge amount of jewelry in it. It does depend on where you are. There are burials in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans for instance, with a lot of jewelry in it right up to the tenth century but generally speaking when you progress through time that stops. The jewelry from the Renaissance which we find in museums often survived through use. It has literally continued to be used by people, kept in churches, treasuries or in family estates. I can’t think of any Renaissance jewelry that has been found in burials. Commoners jewelry wasn’t kept and put in treasuries etc, it wasn’t preserved for us to see it.

What do we know about the jewelry of the normal man in Medieval times?


What do we know about the jewelry of the normal man in Medieval times?

There are the laws that were put into place to regulate the use of jewelry. Wonderful Medieval laws about who could wear what jewelry. Certain people were not allowed to wear pearls and others were not allowed to wear gold. A middle class was on the rise. In the early days only the nobles could afford to wear expensive jewelry but in later Medieval times merchants who would do well in their trading formed a new rich group of people that could afford jewelry and the nobility didn’t like this. So they started to put all these rules in place. One had to be of certain rank to be allowed to wear certain materials. It goes back to Roman times when actresses, I guess another word for prostitutes in those days, weren’t allowed to wear gemstones. They could wear gold but gemstones were off limits. They were basically trying to preserve the jewelry for the elite.

There is not so much surviving base metal jewelry from medieval times. There are lots of little buckles and so on. The London Museum is full of items they found on the banks of the river Thames for instance, but I’m not sure if there is enough to make a huge study of it. First of all, base metals corrode when they are buried and second, most of the losses appear to be accidental, people drop a ring when they are working on the field, they aren’t buried with it with the dead. We probably don’t have a representative selection now in museums and collections of what would actually have been worn in medieval and renaissance times in terms of commoners jewelry.

You just mentioned the durability of base metals when they get buried. How much of a factor is the limited life span of base metals to our comprehension of cheaper jewelry?

Well, it does survive, we know base metal jewelry from Egypt Greece and Rome but consider this: if a farmer finds a gold ring in his field he’s going to keep it and it may well end up in a museum one day but if he stumbles upon a corroded bronze ring he’ll probably just throw it back! We just don’t get a good view on what was going on, I think that there was far more commoners jewelry than we think.

And what about the more modern days?

Well, today there is an enormous amount of costume jewelry in the world. I’m not sure if there is a division between costume jewelry and cheap, real jewelry now. When I was in Tuscon I bought some freshwater cultured pearls for $1 per strand. One dollar for freshwater pearls… is that costume jewelry or is that real jewelry? I don’t know… Nowadays every shop sells jewelry. There is endless accessories and rhodium plated silver jewelry or base metal jewelry. Jewelry has become a disposable product. My teenage daughters get new things on a very regular basis. But is that a big change? There was a lot of costume jewelry around in Victorian times. A lot of cheaper jewelry was being manufactured. The stuff they called ‘French jet’, a black glass, for instance,was produced in large quantities as was other paste jewelry. I think what’s changed is that manufacturing has become so cheap that it doesn’t cost much more to make a gold earring than to produce a copper alloy earring. Sure, the raw materials are more expensive but the actual production costs are equally low. I think that there is a huge growth of cheap jewelry now but I’m not sure how much more there is than let’s say a century ago when there was just lots of glass jewelry and a lot of imitation pearls. I think that there always has been cheaper jewelry right through history, it just doesn’t survive from generation to generation. It’s not precious and thus not worth keeping. It won’t pay for your funeral-when it breaks you throw it away.

For jewelry historians who would like to get into the topic of commoners jewelry deeper, what advice can you give them to advance their studies?

If you want to look at the ancient world you’d have to choose a society and look through the excavation reports of minor burials. It will not be very exciting, but a lot can be found there. You can do a lot of wonderful statistics. Once you get into medieval and later times I would guess it will have to be documentary evidence mainly. One example is the laws that state what people couldn’t wear, that will give you an idea of what they were trying to wear. You don’t bring in a law against things people aren’t doing so it gives you an idea of what was going on in those days.

Once you get to the 18th century and further you could have a look at the output of the factories. In Birmingham, for example, relatively cheap silver items were being mass produced there and you would be able to get an idea of the scale of the production.

Some museums have a collection of artifacts that can provide you with an insight of what the average man in the street wore. The Museum of London, for example, carries a nice collection of commoner’s jewelry found in and around London.

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your insights Jack, is there anything you would like to add?

Well, that line from my book I started to explain in the beginning of this interview, the thing that made me write it, was that in one of the museums in Rome there was jewelry found in the burial of a young girl. There was this ring which was clearly an adult sized one; a big hefty gold ring. The back had been bound around with wool to make it fit her smaller finger. I thought that had something incredibly moving about that. It’s evocative of the period and also, it suggests a family doesn’t it? I like that side of jewelry. If you want to study history through jewelry you need to look at everything, not just royal artifacts.

For styles and techniques you can look at nobility’s jewelry because most of the commoner’s jewelry tends to copy it. The same is seen now. The cheap clothing we buy on the high street tends to copy the expensive designer stuff. But to get an idea of people’s daily lives, what they were wearing, how they lived and what they saw as important than yes: jewelry is a very good medium through which the past can speak to us. Jewelry we can find and study. We’re not going to find a huge amount of clothing from the Middle Ages but jewelry is out there…

In 529 AD Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire took up laws regulating the wearing and usage of jewelry in a new set of laws, later to be called the Justinian Code. He explicitly writes that sapphiresemeralds and pearls are reserved for the emperor’s use but every free man is entitled to wear a gold ring. This may tell us something about the widespread use and great popularity of jewelry. One could easily argue that there hadn’t been a need for such a law if jewelry had been a purely aristocratic phenomenon.

In Aragon such laws occurred as early as 1234 followed by a French ordinance in 1283 and the English King Edward III in 1363. The laws forbade commoners to wear certain types of gem set jewelry and in some cases certain levels of wealth were mentioned which allowed one to wear golden objects adorned with precious stones.