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

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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.