The first man-made objects for wearing around the neck were beads. These small round objects are often referred to as the "Adam and Eve of jewelry." However decorated, engraved or polished, whether made of precious stones or pebbles, beads serve no useful purpose unless they are made into some type of ornament which can be worn. The most prevalent use of beads was in the form of a necklace. This type of ornament was the first kind of chain for the neck. The general principle used was a graduated size, from the middle towards the ends.

There is evidence of prehistoric jewelers’ interest in beads, for buried in these early graves along with the occupant was often a great variety of beads, some of them still suspended from the owner’s neck. Prehistoric stone and clay beads were worked by hand and rubbed or chipped into shape. These types were especially found among the remains of the lake dwellers in Switzerland, thought to be the ancestors of the Irish Celts.

Other early examples of ornamented beads have been found in Egypt. These beads are indicative of an advanced art. Glass beads were highly colored and beads of pottery were glazed with blue and green. Although the twelfth dynasty produced a type of large, fine, round beads, it was the eighteenth dynasty where the beadwork reached its highest point of perfection. Due to the roman intervention, glass was used in the same principle as Millefiori glass.

During the Anglo-Saxon period, beads of terra-cotta seem to have taken the place of glass beads of Rome. These terra-cotta beads were carved and colored. Beads of amber, amethyst, quartz and glass are also frequently found. The rarest type of bead found in any culture are those made of metal.

Beads are not only important in relation to necklaces, but in tracing the travels of man. Beads were essential in early trade, when bartering was used in place of most currencies. These small, often forgotten, objects are used by archeologists as tidemarks to measure the degree of a nation’s civilization. What soon became an essential mode of necklace, began as a method of holding decorated gradations of ornamental beads, settings of precious stones and eventually ornamental pendants. This contribution was the chain. It seems to have had an ancient origin, where it was symbolic of power and honor. Phoenicians had chains of gold from which suspended fillets of gold holding other ornaments or droppers.

A phtoto of a spectacular Roman link necklace, Late Roman Empire, 3rd century AD

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Ostby and Barton, in memory of Englehardt Cornelius Ostby
Photography by Erik Gould
Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

The most imaginative objects which chains made possible are the pendants. Necklaces of Etruscan women early adopted their use. Their pendants were made of hollow concave places between which was a relic, or an object held in veneration as a charm, cure or preventative of evil or danger. Pendants grew to hold great importance towards the closed of the fifteenth century. Ships were made to commemorate the armada of 1588. Later, the shape of letters  of the alphabet were adopted, generally the initials of their owner or the local monarch. This vogue reached its culmination in the sixteenth century.

Necklaces of all kinds lost their important place in fashion during the seventeenth century. Ribbons were worn, most often without any adornment, but necklaces of metal or beads were not compatible with the clothing worn. By the time of the nineteenth century, the chain was revived as an independent ornament. Jewelers were kept busy making chains for pendants, watches, seals and even to hold eyeglasses.

Necklaces perhaps held their greatest influence on the jewelry world during the middle ages. Beads could no longer sufficiently satisfy the civic pomp, the richness expected of ecclesiastical ornaments and the ensuing regal splendor. This led to a greater use of chains and their respective ornaments. Goldsmiths would link together their work creating collars of gold, enamels and many rare jewels. The badge or pendant was in the ascendant, with the chain worn chiefly as a badge of office or in connection with a badge decorated with heraldic design.

The flexibility of the necklace has always been one of its major components, but in two important instances, necklaces were developed which are noted for their inflexibility. One of these was the usekh collar of Egypt. 

This was a wide collar shaped necklace typical of Egyptian jewelry and worn over the shoulders. The most marvelous of them often contained hundreds of amulets or charms connected with clasps of gold. The other type of collar was the Celtic torque. The torque, a word taken from the Latin for twisted metal, was often void of design or engravings with the bronze or gold being twisted to form the ring worn around the neck. 

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