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The History of Jewelry: Renaissance Jewellery

The Renaissance Period (1300s to 1600s)

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

The "Renaissance" period, meaning "rebirth" in French (Rinascimento in Italian), actually began with the formation of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of trading cities and guilds, in the mid 12th century (High Middle Ages), but was not fully realized until the enlightened cultural movement of the late 13th, and early 14th centuries. The late Renaissance, also known as the "Early Modern Period" (1500s—1800s), was fueled by a rapid expansion of knowledge which was aided by Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1455.

The Renaissance had its origins in Florentine society, which stemmed from the libertine writings of the poet Dante Alighieri (1265—1321) and scholar Francesco Petrarch (1304—1374). These thinkers influenced the "humanist movement" which stressed that although God created the universe, it was humans who developed it. The Renaissance movement may have been partially due to a spiritual shift caused by the psychological devastation of the "Dark Ages," and the Black Death pandemic (Bubonic Plague) which swept across Europe in the late 1320s, and early 1330s.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

   Lorenzo de Medici

Lorenzo de' Medici

Through the patronage of wealthy noblemen such as the Italian statesman Lorenzo de' Medici (1449—1492), poetry, literature, science, architecture and the fine arts were literally unleashed, bringing about an art movement that payed deference to classical antiquity, while charting an entirely new coarse of its own.

Jewellery of the Renaissance

As the acquisition of wealth came into vogue in Europe society, the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods became the norm. Jewelry had a dual function: it was a means of demonstrating one's station in life, and it was a portable way of concentrating wealth in case there was a sudden relapse into the Dark Ages.

It was during this period in the mid 1300s that a new gemstone, diamonds, were being added to the list of jewels that were making their way along the Silk Road from India's Golconda diamond mines, and Borneo's Landak diamond fields. These new colorless stones were incredibly hard, and as such, a new gem faceting technology was required to cut and polish diamonds into refined gems, suitable for the jewelry of the period. At the height of the Renaissance the cities of Amsterdam and Antwerp became the hubs of the gem-cutting trade.

Medieval lapidary, healing with stones from Hortus Sanitatis by Johann Prüss c. 1497 (left), The Six Voyages by Tavernier (right)

During the Renaissance, the craft of the jewellery maker and goldsmith was well documented by the Florentine goldsmith, musician, painter and sculptor named Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Cellini gained notoriety by creating works for Pope Clement VII, the duke of Mantua, and Pope Paul III, culminating in one of his greatest works, the golden salt-cellar, or Saliera, made for the Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, now residing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Renaissance goldsmiths such as Cellini had a great appreciation for the craftsmanship and motifs of ancient Etruscan and Mycenae artisans, and there was a good amount of recycling taking place during this era. In his manuscript entitled "La vita Benvenuto Cellini scritta da lui medesimo" (My Life) Cellini recounts purchasing agates, carnelians, and sardonyx cameos, as well as precious gems such as emeralds, rubies and sapphires from peasant farmers who happened upon the treasures while digging in the fields. At the height of his career, Cellini became the court jeweler for the King of France, Francis I (1494—1547), at Fontainebleau and in Paris, returning to Florence shortly before his death in 1571.

Benvenuto Cellini

Salt Cellar by Benvenuto Cellini (photo: public domain)

   King Henry VIII

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein (left)

England was also a major player in the realm of jewels and jewelry during the Renaissance, with King Henry VIII (1491—1547) setting the pace for wretched excess in jewelry, wives, eating, and virtually every other indulgence. Upon his death, King Henry had no less than 234 rings, and 324 brooches, and a pendant with a rough-cut diamond that an observer recalled as being the size of "the largest walnut I ever saw" [2]. Some of King Henry VIII's jewelry was designed by a German painter and court artist named Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497—1543), and executed by a London goldsmith named John (Hans) of Antwep.

Rings were a popular jewelry accessory during the Renaissance, and it was not uncommon for both men and women to wear a ring on each of the ten fingers, as well as multiple rings on each finger. There were rings that had a religious or Ecclesiastical function such as the "Papal ring" or the "decade ring," which served as a miniature rosary. There were rings to express friendship or love such as the "fede ring" (fidelity ring), the "faith ring," the "posy ring," or the Irish "Claddagh ring." There were also functional rings such as the "signet" or signature ring and the "Venitian poison ring" to dispense with a little revenge.

Mary Tudor Girdle & Pomander

Mary Tudor with girdle & pomander (c. 1554)

   Hollar Dürer Pomander

Pomander design by Hollar Dürer

The "girdle" (not to be confused with the modern-day "corset") was an important accessory made of leather, textile or flat metal chain that formed a belt-like strap worn diagonally along the waistline, draping from just above the hip on the right, downward to the left thigh. The girdle was typically accessorized with a purse, keys, knives, lockets, girdle books, decorative bangles, or a pomander (pomme d'ambre, or "apple of amber") which contained perfumes, ambergris (and earthy-sweet smelling substance from the digestive system of a sperm whale), civet musk, or cosmetics. The bangles, or pendants could be bejeweled, enameled, or decorated with cameos, and were fastened to the girdle with equally decorative clasps.

Mary Tudor Girdle & Pomander

holbein girdle book c. 1537 (left), Leather girdle book


Elizabeth with Girdle Book

Girdle books were popular during the 1400s to 1600s, and were typically religious or devotional works on parchment or paper, bound in leather or an ornate enameled metal case. The Tudor/Elizabethan "conch headdress" was another clothing/jewelry accessory that was popular with the aristocracy from the late 1400s to the early 1600s. The Elizabethan headdress was a fan-shaped sheer fabric edged with pearls or precious gemstones.

Talismanic or Healing Jewellery & Gems

During this period, there were also strong beliefs or superstitions surrounding the magical healing power of certain types of jewelry items such as the "toadstone ring" or "talismanic ring," as well as the belief in the curative power of certain gemstones and precious metals. The belief in the medicinal power of gemstones dates back to the Middle Ages, ancient Greece, Rome and beyond, and it was commonly accepted that gems could heal every manner of illness, from the plague, epilepy, leprosy and blindness, to a simple headache, toothache or impotence.

Jewish Wedding Ring

14th cen Jewish wedding ring (photo: Jastrow)

   Ring of Pope Paulus II

Pope Paulus II bronze, rock crystal ring (photo: Jastrow)

It was also believe that talismanic rings were an antidote for poison, for a lover's betrayal, or to ward off evil such as the envious "evil eye" of a jealous neighbor or peer. Animal symbols such as the dragon, serpent or toad, and ancient deities such as the the winged god Mercury were considered to be "talismanic," bringing good fortune to the wearer.

Jewels of the Persians, Indians, Aztec & Incas

Thanks to the maritime technological advances of the English and Portuguese navies, exploration, and the ensuing plunder of indigenous cultures, led to an explosion of available materials from exotic lands. Exotic gems and diamonds from India and the Far East, as well as gold and emeralds from Central and South America began to flood into Europe during the 16th century, dramatically increasing the opulence of the ruling class.

Between the 1500s and 1600s the treasuries of Austria, England, Portugal and Spain filled with diamonds and gems from around the globe. On such gem, the the Wittelsbach diamond was a 35.56 carat, cushion-cut grayish-blue Indian diamond that was owned by Infanta Margarita Teresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, and wife to Leopold I of Austria. This ultra-rare Type II diamond recently sold at a Christie's auction for a record price of US $24.3 million [7].

Every conceivable combination of materials was employed in Renaissance jewelry. One of the favorite "canvases" for the Renaissance goldsmith was the pendant, which could be as extravagant as one could imagine, without overwhelming the wearer with the burden of weight. Motifs range from whimsical designs featuring iconic images of masted sailing ships, Biblical and mythological icons, and Greco-Roman motifs.

Books on Jewelry Making
Understanding Jewellery

Bibliography on Jewellery of the Renaissance

1. Caroline Perry, Jewelry Inspired by Ancient Cultures . Running Press

2. F. Rogers, A. Beard, 5000 Years of Gems & Jewelry. FA Stokes Co., N.Y.

3. Cellini, La vita di Benvenuto Cellini scritta da lui medesimo . Adamant

4. Benvenuto Cellini, Treatises on Goldsmithing & Sculpture . Kessinger Publishing

5. Clare Phillips, Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present . Thames & Hudson

6. Lionel Cust, John of Antwerp, Goldsmith . www.jstor.org

7. Christie's, The 17th Century Wittelsbach Diamond . www.gemstone.org

8. Dress & Decor, Renaissance dress of Northern Europe & England . www.theatre.ubc.ca

9. Drea Leed, Elizabethan Jewelry . www.elizabethancostume.net

10. Tate Britain, Holbein: Designs for Goldsmiths . www.tate.org.uk

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