Jewelry of the renaissance


One all important characteristic of the renaissance of the late fifteenth through the sixteenth centuries was the search for beauty. Jewelry was a vital part of this quest. It was during this time that jewelry took on its more modern meaning of being an object of ornamentation for beauty, and a distinct symbolization of wealth. During this century and a half, the years were tense ones. For this reason, the rich found it easier to condense their wealth into the more portable and easily exchangeable form of jewels. These patrons aided in the growth of more fabulous jewels finding them an easy way to exhibit their wealth in a relatively safe manner.

Perhaps the most abrupt change in design from the middle ages to the renaissance was the lessening appearance of ecclesiastical influences. 

The jeweller and jewellery of the renaissance copied objects of real life, with the mainspring being the beauty of animated things. Exotic animals, like parrots, lizards and pelicans, were an essential part of the diversity of designs which were created.

Color was as vivid and as exotic as the subject matter. One point that is clear in the pieces that still exist, is that precious stones played an accessory role in relation to the use of enameled gold. Usually one large stone would be chosen as a basis on which the jewels were designed.

The preeminent effect of jewels was their color, but there was also an increased utilization of diamonds. Up until this time diamonds were in disfavor simply for the fact of their colorlessness. At first no cutting of the stone was required. The stone would be polished to a cabochon style. The first cutting of facets in "planned regularity" is attributed to a jeweller from Bruges, Louis de Berquem. In 1475 he produced what he considered the "perfect cut." In the sixteenth century faceting developed into the rose cut. This consisted of a flat bottomed faceted cut with a domed point on top. Rose diamonds continued in popularity for the next three centuries, being particularly in demand by the eighteenth century Victorians.

It is possible that one historical event had more to do with the the change in the design of jewellery than any other. This was the discovery of the new world. It was from these lands that the great variety of animals were brought back to stir the jewellers and buyers imaginations. Another discovery helped to originate the title of "the jewel age" for the renaissance. This was the conquering of Peru and Mexico, for it was there that gold and silver were found in greater quantities then had ever been known. With the findings of the Incas and the Aztecs, the rulers of Europe were able to have the most spectacular jewels made regardless of the amount of rare metal needed.

A photo of an English pendant around 1800

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Rebecca Steere
Photography by Erik Gould
Click on the above image 
for a larger detailed view

It was during this time that the royal jewels took on their air of abundance. Although it was the French who set the fashions, it was the English who had the buying power. The court of England, especially during the reign of Henry VIII, could display a fantastic collection of rare gems in exquisite settings of gold, silver and enamel. At Henry's death there were discovered in his personal collection of jewels to be two hundred and thirty-four rings and three hundred and twenty-four brooches. The most famous portrait of Henry VIII shows him rather stoutly displaying his necklace of rubies and pearls, with a large ring on every finger.

If any form of jewelry was chosen for the reason that is outshone all other forms during the renaissance, it would have to be the pendant. The pendant expressed the mental concepts of the renaissance. It took a multiplicity of forms and embodied many significances. The large irregularly shaped pearls, known as baroque pearls, were extremely popular. Due to this widespread acceptance, these pearls were often used as the center of design. A lizardís back or a shipís sail was frequently a baroque pearl fulfilling the needed shape. The goldsmiths were provided with an infinite variety of materials which combined with the extravagant expenditures levied by patrons, permitted the craftsman to use all his ingenuity. For all these reasons, the pendant appealed to both the jeweler and the customer.

The inspiration of antiquity did not only take hold of the medieval mind, but also that of the renaissance. A problem of design occurred due to the lack of knowledge about the jewels of Greek of Rome, for their jewels were practically unknown. Antique cameos were collected and imitated, but most of these were made during the revival of the middle ages. The fashion for cameos spread quickly, but their work never surpassed that done by the medieval craftsman.

One invention of the renaissance jeweller took its inception from a fashion of clothing popular at the time. This was the girdle, which had its beginning as a wrap of leather worn around the waist and hips. Its purpose has been replaced by the modern use of pockets. Essentials that had to be carried with one at all times were placed in the folds of the leather. Jewelers imitated this prevailing practice by making girdles made of flat chain of silver-gild or of bronze silvered or gilded. On more formal occasions it encircled the body firmly, and was decorated with enamels, gems and ornamented clasps. The most popular and still necessary object hung from these girdles was the pomander.

Another ornament was worn from these jeweled girdles, but its history was not as time-honored as the pomander for it was not invented until the sixteenth century. It was then that the first portable watches were made. The portraits of the time show that they were worn from the waist. They also demonstrate that the typical watch took on a great variety of shapes, not including round. Watches are shown in the shape of the cross, miniature medallions and the shape of reliquaries.

Mentioned in the previous chapter were the pilgrim signs and their progression into the enseignes of the renaissance. The baser of these hat ornaments were made of copper or bronze. This type was either cast or stamped  with a die. The rich could take advantage of the more sculptural nature of the medallion. Their enseignes were made with the highest level of workmanship, using enamels and stones to give the piece gaiety and a striking effect. The designs were of two influences, one being a continuation of Christian sentiments and the other being the mythological expression of the pagan ideals of the renaissance.

The renaissanceís contribution to the history of jewelry was its vivid colors. Jewelry became spectacularly eccentric with the use of baroque pearls, enamels, faceted diamonds and colorful stones. It was this bestowal that has made the greatest influence on future jewelry craftsmen and collectors.

Next page


A Jewelry History
Table of contents|
 Introduction |Glossary| Ancients and Classical Jewelry| Jewelry of the Middle Ages|
  Jewelry of the Renaissance| Jewelry from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century| Rings| Necklaces|
Bracelets and Earrings| Brooches| Bibliography| Ancient Jewelry Photo Gallery




All Guyot Products are now part of 
Salvadore Tool & Findings

  (c) 2003-2018 Guyot Brothers Co Inc,  A jewelry findings manufacturer