Exploring advanced civilizations that existed before our current technological age is tantalizing. During my younger years I was under the arrogant impression that before the age of mechanical and electrical things, all of humanity was comprised of baboons parading as people. Turns out I was wrong. In our look at the manufacture of and historic use of jewelry, we’ll see that we were smarter than we thought we were … maybe even smarter than we are today.
Around 10,000 years ago, man started to use metals to create tools and jewelry.
Jewelry and its manufacture are the topic of today’s study. Would you be surprised to learn that the world’s oldest jewelry find dates back 100,000 years? Beads made from Nassarius shells were excavated from Mount Carmel in Israel and in Oued Djebbana, Algeria, far from the ocean (1). Scientists have been able to accurately date these shell beads with radiocarbon dating, which is a fascinating topic for another day.
Although metal and stone don’t contain carbon and therefore cannot be carbon dated, the pieces surrounding the artifact can be dated, and it is generally accepted that the stone or metal artifact is of that time period as well.
Now skip forward 90,000 years. Around 10,000 years ago, man started to use metals to create tools and jewelry (2). The earliest known jewelry was made of soft metals such as copper, silver and gold. They were pounded into sheets and eventually wire was made by pulling narrow strips of thin metal through holes in stone beads, causing the strip to curl into itself and form into a thin tube. During 2nd Dynasty in Egypt, these tubes were rolled between two flat surfaces, making a more solid wire.
Here is a picture of the earliest known gold artifacts omeprazole magnesium. They are from a burial site known as Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria (3), and are dated to the 5th millennia BCE. To be clear, that makes them 7,000 years old. The technical sophistication displayed by these artifacts (like the hollow bangle bracelet) is just astonishing.
We’re pretty sure they didn’t have the tools that we have today, so it should be safe to assume that these items were produced by a simpler means. Perhaps starting with a gold nugget, smelted (melting) was employed to reduce impurities and produce a gold ingot (lump of purified metal). Hammering gold into sheets requires metal uniformity, so smelting was a must. After being hammered into sheets, gold could be cut and rolled up to form beads. It’s anyone’s guess how that bangle bracelet was made.
When man first started working with metals, for jewelry, weapons, and tools, the desire for the ability to join them almost certainly arose.
Soldering was perfected by the goldsmiths of ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago (note the blowpipe). The earliest archeological evidence of soldering dates back to 4000 BCE, when gold-based, hard solders were developed by artisans in Mesopotamia and soon spread into Egypt (3600 BCE), Ur (3400 BCE), Greece (2600 BCE), and other Mediterranean regions.
When tin combined with lead was discovered as a soft-soldering medium in Crete around 3,500 BCE, the ability to solder spread quickly around the Mediterranean. The Cretans showed it to the Etruscans, who then taught it to the Romans, Tunisians and Spanish, followed by many others (4). But the Romans are credited for the most “impressive” achievements, like lead water pipes. Impressive as lead pipes may be, some historians speculate that the demise of the Roman Empire was due to lead poisoning. In addition to lead water pipes, Romans cooked their wine in lead cauldrons. (5) Other historians argue that the decline of Rome was the result of the Roman aristocracy’s distaste for marriage and the rearing of children. Interesting, but I do digress.
The first electric soldering iron was developed by Ernst Sachs in 1921. If you’re anything like me, you are wondering how in the world soldering was performed without the use of an electric soldering iron. It’s been described as a “simple” process (ha!) that has been lost and rediscovered several times during the last 7,000 years. I am a “nuts & bolts” kind of gal, and these kinds of details fascinate me. You never know, maybe you’ll want to give this a try sometime. After the apocalypse. Here is the recipe:
More accurately described as “reaction soldering with copper salts”, it involves finely ground malachite (a copper carbonate hydroxide mineral), a sour apple, a small piece of gold foil, a block of charcoal, a blow pipe and a small alcohol-burning lamp or a candle (6). With these “instruments”, gold granules, wires, or strips of “granulation” or “filigree” can be hard soldered or brazed together. Let’s play chemistry!
This Babylonian necklace is 3,600 years old. Make a note the swirl patterns and the shape of the gold beads which reflect the Sumerian tradition of jewelry.
The Bronze Age is defined as the period of time that civilization began smelting copper (with up to 30% tin to create the alloy known as bronze) and trading it (7). Adoption of bronze technology was not universally synchronous, but it began around 3,300 BCE. When man learned to combine metals to make alloys, and the art of creating jewelry (and the craft of weaponry) truly blossomed.
Sumer was the first ancient urban civilization in the region of southern Mesopotamia, (modern-day southern Iraq), and is arguably the first civilization in the world. By 3,600 BCE they had invented the wheel, writing, the sail boat, agricultural processes such as irrigation, and the concept of the city (8). The area now called the Arabian Peninsula saw widespread trade even before 5,000 BCE, evidenced by obsidian and seashell beads.
Jewelry wasn’t a new concept when the Sumerians got their innovating hands on it. Between 2,750 BCE and 1,200 BCE, their innovations made their jewelry seem like it was an entirely new invention. Sumerian jewelry makers were the first to use techniques like granulation and filigree. Chains, made with the basic loop in loop method and filigree show that the Sumerian goldsmiths had a firm grip on making and using gold wire. A typical motif is that of the spiral. Metalworking techniques weren’t very complicated but nevertheless very effective.
Around 3,400 years ago, a skilled artisan created this Hungarian fibula (type of safety pin), on display in the British Museum. It is a beautiful example of early “wire wrapping.” Ancient spirals are found worldwide across all cultures. They are found on cave walls, pottery, and even in writing. So it is no surprise that it is one of the oldest designs in used jewelry.
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Alexander Caudle, 1898 – 1976 was an artistic innovator, taking line drawings on paper one step further and making “linear sculptures” otherwise know as wire sculptures. He is best known for his invention of the hanging mobile, but he was also made innovative strides in the craft of wire jewelry. Or did he? This necklace looks somewhat familiar.
In all my searching, I have not come upon anything even remotely like the complicated wire wraps that we are seeing today. My belief is that wire wrapping has evolved to this complicated degree of weave only within the last ten years. Still, as I have demonstrated, wire wrapping is not a new technique.
And what a statement, to be seen wearing such a work! Perfectly suitable for a king or queen. I don’t expect my wire wraps to ever evolve to this degree of intricacy, perfection, or size. I rather like the simple designs that I’m currently making, and appreciate the fact that anyone can afford them. I’m all for the “little guy”! While the design pictured here is no longer available, I’ve seen comparable pieces going for upwards of $4,000. I’ll leave the catering to the wealthy to other artisans.
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