Time travel: We're heading to the 10th century to explore medieval jewelry

Medieval gold quatrefoil “remember that you love me” posy pendant. 15th century.

Medieval gold quatrefoil “remember that you love me” posy pendant. 15th century.

Well, we'll explore more than the 10th century! The medieval age spans the 5th to the 15th centuries -- beginning with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merging into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. Also known as the Middle Ages, this era normally encompasses Europe and the Byzantine Empire.

What the Middle Agers wore

You and I would recognize many medieval items of jewelry such as rings, necklaces, bracelets, and brooches. But there were numerous other items cunningly crafted from precious materials that are either unknown today or wouldn't be considered part of our own jewelry collections:

* all kinds of fittings and fasteners for clothes (including, buckles)
* points for the end of laces
* buttons (which came into use by the end of the period)
* hat badges
* decorations for belts, weapons, and purses
* decorated pins (mostly for holding hairstyles and head-dresses in place)

House rings were a beautiful Jewish tradition in medieval times. Originating in Europe and dating back to the 14th century, which was about 400 years after rings began to be used in Jewish wedding ceremonies, the house ring is an opulent object, adorned with a miniature model of a house or temple instead of a gemstone. The house is thought to have symbolized a couple’s new home together. Because of their ornateness, these rings were probably not used for every day!

The jewelry worn during this period was a reflection of a society that was defined by hierarchy. While the nobility wore gold, silver, and precious gems, the lower ranks of society tended to wear base metals, such as copper or pewter.

Even in the Middle Ages, many gemstones were imported from outside Europe: emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and so on. Artisans did, however, use native stones in jewelry as well. Amber, jet, freshwater pearls, and coral were incorporated into various pieces and these stones could be found within Europe. 

Until the late 14th century, gemstones were usually polished rather than cut. Size and lustrous color determined their value. Enamels, which are ground glasses fired at high temperature onto a metal's surface, allowed goldsmiths to color their designs on jewelry. They used a range of techniques to create effects that are still widely employed today.

Lapidaries and powerful gemstones


These days a lapidary is a term we use for a professional who cuts, polishes, or engraves gemstones. But in medieval times, a lapidary referred to a text, often a whole book, giving "information about the properties and virtues of precious and semi-precious stones." Belief in the powers of gemstones to achieve effects such as protecting the wearer against diseases or other kinds of harm was strong in the Middle Ages.

Medieval lapidaries recommended sapphires and emeralds for detecting adulterous spouses. Indeed, the sapphire would lose its splendor when worn by an adulteress and an emerald would break if it touched the skin of an adulterer. Garnets were thought to cure depression, protect against bad dreams, and relieve diseases of the liver, as well as hemorrhages.

Physicians and apothecaries of the time also held theories on metals. Gold was considered a wonderful wearable prescription to strengthen the heart and vital spirits. It prevented melancholy, fainting, swooning, fevers, and falling sickness. Some even thought it was an effective preventative against leprosy.

Because gemstones were thought to have medical -- and magical -- benefits in medieval times, many pieces of jewelry were made with open-backed settings to allowing direct contact between the skin and stone.

On jewelry worn by the Vikings

Ever find yourself wondering about Viking jewelry?
Me too!!

The Viking were the seafaring peoples of Scandinavia in the early medieval period. They were skilled metalworkers and attached a high importance to precious metals. Gold jewelry showed status and success as a trader and a raider -- and was worn by both men and women. They often used their jewelry as currency.

Twisted metal

The twisted shape of the rings shown here is frequently seen in Viking designs not only for finger rings but also in arm or neck rings. There could either be a simple gold twist or a more complicated form made of plaited gold wires.

These examples are from London's Victoria and Albert Museum and Les Enluminures.

Valkyrie pendant

Next up is a little Valkyrie pendant that was found in Denmark just a couple of years ago by an amateur archaeologist using a metal detector. It is the only known three-dimensional Viking-age valkyrie.


Literally "choosers of the slain," valkyries were imagined as terrifying spirits of war and companions of the god Odin. They ushered dead warriors from the battlefield to Valhöll, the hall of the slain (called Valhalla by the Victorians).

The thumb-sized figurine is made of gilded silver, with some black niello inlay decoration. The pretty little valkyrie is sturdily dressed, armed with a double-sided Viking sword and a round shield, her hair neatly twisted into a long ponytail forming a loop, suggesting it may have been worn as a pendant.

Her survival is something of a miracle: the lower legs and feet are missing, and it was found among fragments of scrap metal, so somebody may have started to chop it up to be melted down to extract its silver content.

The Hiddensea Hoard

Several hoards of Viking jewelry and artifacts have been unearthed over time and one of the most incredible is the Hiddensea Hoard. This hoard, found more than a century ago, was recovered on the island of Hiddensee, near Rügen off the northern coast of Germany. The impressive ornaments – a neck-ring, a brooch, 10 pendants and four spacers – were probably made in Denmark in a royal workshop. Seven similar cross pendants, of the same type but made of silver, were found at the Mikhailovsky monastery, in Kiev, as part of a large hoard of jewelry from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Thor's Hammer

Several of these relics have been found and are known as the Mjöllnir amulets. They appear to depict hammers, which historians have linked to the Norse god Thor. However, they could never be completely certain the pieces actually DID represent Thor's Hammer.

Image from the National Museum of Denmark.

Image from the National Museum of Denmark.

But a few years ago one was found in Købelev, on the Danish island of Lolland,. It was the first one to be discovered with an inscription. The runic text reads “Hmar x is”, which translates to “this is a hammer."

This amulet was cast in bronze and probably plated with silver, tin, and gold. It is approximately 1100 years old.

According to the National Museum of Denmark, this is the only hammer-shaped pendant discovered so far with a runic inscription. And it tells us that the Mjöllnir amulets do in fact depict hammers.

According to Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, and the protection of mankind.


  • National Museum of Denmark
  • British Museum
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Ancient Origins
  • The Guardian
  • The History Blog


Trapiche gemstones

Trapiche-like rhodochrosite “flower.”  From GIA.

Trapiche-like rhodochrosite “flower.”  From GIA.

Trapiche is the Spanish word for a spoked wheel used to grind sugar cane. It is also a gemological term for a six-rayed spoke pattern that can occur in different minerals (best known in emeralds). "Trapiche-type" or "trapiche-like" refers to gems with a pattern that doesn't quite meets the standards for identifying a stone as trapiche. True trapiche gemstones are single crystals where the growth sectors are separated by inclusions.

Gems with trapiche patterns haven't been studied for all that long. The first mysterious six-spoked emeralds were sent to the Gemological Institute of America in the 1960s for analysis. (Before that they had been described by the French mineralogist Emile Bertrand in 1879.) But since then the family of trapiche-type gem minerals has grown to include a variety of species and morphologies. In addition to the famous and rare trapiche emeralds, adventurers and geologists have uncovered trapiche ruby, sapphire, garnet, chiastolite and tourmaline. There are also muscovite and rhodochrosite with the six-rayed pattern.  And pezzottaite!

Most of the images of trapiche and trapiche-type gemstones in the slideshow below are from the Gemological Institute of America.

Estate jewelry: The 60s and 70s

The 60s and 70s miniskirts and hot pants signaled the rebellious mood of the time and the use of unconventional materials. Color contrasts and bright opaque materials like turquoise and coral echoed fashion, while jagged contours, such as marquise-cut diamonds and prominent claw settings, challenged the flow of traditional lines. Uncut crystals appeared in jewels in organic sprawling forms.

In the 1970s attention turned East. Designs of the major houses had a distinct Indian flavor. Gold was very popular, particularly in the intricate designs of Buccellati.

Estate jewelry: The Retro era

Much of the jewelry from the Retro era was made of gold or sterling silver. For the first time in the 20th century, yellow (also rose and green) gold overtook production of white gold and platinum in the fine jewelry industry. It wasn’t because society fell out of love with white precious metals. The war effort superseded the public’s craving for them. Platinum and the alloys used to create white gold (nickel, copper, and zinc) were needed to make weapons

Retro jewelry was large and futuristic. In some ways, Retro pieces resembled the geometric jewelry of 1920’s Art Deco era. But Retro pieces were three-dimensional, not flat. Also, due to wartime scarcity, they weren’t adorned from top to bottom with glittering jewels like Deco jewelry. These bold, modern pieces went well with the masculine wartime fashions of famous designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.

Estate jewelry: Art Deco

This was an era of seduction!

In the Age of Speed and Speakeasies, social and political elements blended together to create an air of restlessness and recklessness. Women bobbed their hair, wore dresses up to their knees -- and did not wear corsets! In the Roaring Twenties women wore long gold necklaces, which swung with their every movement. Long multiple strands of pearls were also a must for the new flapper dress.

Clear, bold, symmetrical geometric lines with contrasting stone colors echoed the feeling and lines of the new skyscrapers. And there was also a revival of Egyptian styles.

Luxury was the key word in Deco jewelry. Many fine jewelry houses, Cartier, Boucheron, Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels, Marcus & Co. became famous for their opulent designs. The sleek and sexy jewelry from this period satisfied the needs of a new class, the Nouveau Riche, who desired to display their glamorous and fashionable lifestyle.

The Art Deco style emerged after World War I and dominated the decorative
arts and jewelry from 1920 through the 1930s. Art Deco jewelry suggests post-war practicality through its strong geometric patterns in bold contrasting colors.

Art Deco features include:

• Bold, contrasting colors
• Strong, geometric patterns
• Sleek, streamlined look, emphasizing the vertical line
• Gemstones including diamonds, black onyx, lapis lazuli, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, jade, turquoise, and topaz
• Carved or cabochon-cut colored gemstones
• Primary colors in rich combinations and strong contrast

Estate jewelry: The Edwardian era

King Edward VII and his graceful wife Queen Alexandra led English society to new taste levels during the early 1900s. Edwardian jewels reflected gracious delicacy with ribbons, bows, swags, and tassels. Abundant quantities of diamonds and platinum had recently been discovered in South Africa -- these materials became the hallmark of the Edwardian era.

The strength of platinum made it possible to create pieces that resembled intricate embroidery and diamond-encrusted lace.  Millegraining was a new decorative technique that was born in this era and is a hallmark of Edwardian jewelry.

You might also hear jewelry from this period in time called Belle Epoque, which referred more generally to jewelry movements in the rest of Europe.

Estate jewelry: Art Nouveau

A very important period aesthetically and artistically, this era begins in 1890 and ends with the onset of the first world war. Art Nouveau evokes images of sensuousness, the Gaiety of Paris, Toulouse Lautrec, and silent film star Sarah Bernhardt who had an impressive collection of Art Nouveau jewelry, particularly in enamel by the Art Nouveau master, Rene Lalique.

Jewelry was often three-dimensional and sculptural -- and softened by the use of precious stones, particularly opal and moonstone. Plique-a-jour and other intricate enameling techniques gave the appearance of stained glass windows or softly shimmering waters. Nature was a major theme: trees, flowers of all species, dragonflies, swans, peacocks and snakes were some of the many natural forms reinterpreted and exaggerated. The female figure was exalted and depicted with long, flowing hair -- dreamy and exotic. Art Nouveau's design roots can be traced to a blending of Gothic arts, Celtic linear interlaces and spirals, asymmetrical Rococo curves, and other exotic influences coming from Africa and Japan.

Estate jewelry: The Victorian era

Victorian jewelry encompasses a variety of styles that were popular during the reign of England’s Queen Victoria (1837 to 1901). Here are some common identifying characteristics of jewelry from the Victorian era:

• Ornate matching sets of gemstone jewelry
• Precious stones such as diamonds, emeralds, coral, amethyst, garnet, turquoise, and tortoise shell
• Sentimental or romantic symbols
• Ornamental locks of human hair
• Mourning jewelry made of jet and other black materials
• Cameos

Some Victorian jewelry idealized past cultures by reviving Greek, Roman, and Egyptian jewelry styles. Other revival themes included Gothic, Renaissance, and Archeological (inspired by ancient
Assyrian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian styles).