Bracelets and earrings

A photo of a Greek "bangle bracelet" 4th century BC-3rd century BC

A photo of elaborate Roman earrings, from Syria, 2nd century AD-3rd century AD

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Mrs. Gustav Radeke
Photography by Erik Gould

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Mrs. Gustav Radeke
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above images for a larger detailed view


These two articles of jewelry have been placed in the same section for no other reason than that information on each is singularly lacking, so to fully make up a chapter they have been combined.

Bracelets and armlets, although of different shapes and forms, are of equal antiquity. Both names come from roman roots: the brachium, meaning the arm, was worn on the wrist and the armlet was worn on the upper arm. These ornaments were initially worn as evidences of wealth by even the most savage of races and were particularly favored in the east.

The oldest western bracelets are from the bronze age. They take on two forms, one the pen annular and the other having trumpet-like ends. Most of these ancient bracelets of this period, if made of bronze, were decorated with geometric patterns. Gold bracelets were plain and seldom ornamented.

Bronze was still used later on, especially in the British isles. The British wore exceedingly massive bracelets, often decorated with gilt and enamel being used freely.

The Roman bracelet took on many forms. A spin her was a bracelet worn by a roman woman above the left elbow. Roman warriors wore gold armlets into battle to supposedly protect the upper arm, but most probably were just a way of impressing one’s opponent. The snake-like bracelets that have been popular throughout the ages, were also prevalent on roman writs. These bracelets terminating in serpents’ heads, it is said were copied from the Greeks.

The earliest known bracelets were worn in the east. Their meaning was a sign of the regal state of the wearer, but when they were transferred to Europe this purpose was abandoned. Bracelets did not appear in Europe, with Rome the exception, until after the fall of Byzantine power and influence. The goldsmith and silversmith monks of the middle ages had little use for bracelets. The few that were worn consisted of a very simple design. It was sometime during this era that bracelets were considered effeminate and discarded as an ornament by the discriminating man.

Starting in the seventeenth century, bracelets were in keeping with the style of other forms of jewelry. They were composed of medallions, cameos and stones fastened together by rings, chains and links . Velvet bands with jeweled or cameo buckles were often worn along with the necklace ribbons of the century. Also used were materials such as coral, jet, steel and even lava. With the "age of gems" in the eighteenth century, the correct parure was not complete without a bracelet made with precious stones to match.

A photo of ornate French earrings, 7th Century-8th Century

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

The earring, like the bracelet, has been subject to current ideas and prevailing designs. Earrings were seldom found among prehistoric peoples. Its popularity was equal to the bracelet among all eastern cultures. Throughout the bible, earrings are worn as amulets and charms. This custom appears to have been continued in Greece and Rome, for earrings were often decorated with tiny cupids.

Earrings were out of fashion for hundreds of years. The first indication of their lessened popularity appears in the Anglo-Saxon era. The earrings found are remarkably small and plain. Few have been discovered with more than a small jewel or bead as a dropper. During the middle ages, earrings were not worn at all. Perhaps the most important reason for this change was the style of hair being worn below the earlobe, so that earrings as small as those of the Anglo-Saxon's would have not been seen.

Queen Elizabeth of England was extremely fond of wearing pearls. Thus, earrings were revived as a way for Elizabeth to were more pearls. The leader in earring design became the Iberian peninsula in the seventeenth century. There developed the distinctive characteristics of large, brightly colored stones, used in gold, lacy settings.

When earrings regained their popularity, their design like all others, came under the influence of French jewelers. Nineteenth century earrings went through as many changes as all other ornaments. Cameo earrings were also worn to match all the other cameos worn in the early century. Earrings then became rather unwieldy ornaments of jet, and tortoise-shell inlaid with gold.


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