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History of jewelry in medieval Europe can be divided into three phases. Early Middle Ages from 800 to XIIIth century, end of XIIIth century to the middle of XIVth century and final phase – end of XIVth century until the second half of XVth century. Various documents of the IXth century record items of gold and precious stones worn by nobility. Women wore all elements of jewelry including necklaces, brooches, earrings and bracelets. Men used precious stones and metals to decorate sword fittings, spurs, brooches and belts. Very popular was also devotional jewelry worn from the beginning of the middle ages.
The IXth century pendant known as the Talisman of Charlemagne is one of the finest examples of Carolingian goldsmith’s work. This piece of jewelry was made of gold and decorated with precious stones and pearls set in deep collets. Another example of unique medieval jewelry is a collection found at Mainz in Germany from Xth century. Collection consists of gold brooches decorated with engraved gems and cloisonné enamel, featuring large eagle motifs. Two long fine necklaces hung with cameos and intaglios.
During the period between IXth and XIIIth century jewelry was worn mostly by the wealthy. Brooches played decorative and functional role. Those with pins were used as cloak fasteners, while others were simple plaques stitched on to the garment. Pendants were usually worn close to the neck on a riband. Surprisingly some types of jewelry like earrings and bracelets disappeared for several centuries and their place was taken by new fashions popularizing Gothic style.
The Gothic period (XIIIth-XIVth century) in jewelry was heavily influenced by forms and styles present in architecture. Gothic architecture introduced rounded forms, clear pattern and simplicity. Stones and pearls were set against a plain surface. In XIVth century naturalistic details were added. The main types of jewelry were brooches, girdles, rings and head ornaments. Jewelers still favored gold and precious stones like sapphires, emeralds and rubies for their work. In the XIV century gem-cutting techniques were mastered by European jewelers, resulting in making of faceted gemstones. Particularly diamonds benefited the improved technique, as until then they had only been available in their natural form. Diamond cutting skills spread through Europe with Bruges becoming established as the major center in XVth century.
Jewelry was mainly made by goldsmiths and sold in their shops. The goldsmiths of Paris were considered to make the finest and most fashionable jewelry. Italian jewelers specialized in pearls and gemstones imported from the East. Less expensive were freshwater pearls from Scottish river, later known as “Scotch pearls”.
Middle Ages Europeans believed that certain gemstones had healing and spiritual properties. These were recognized at all levels and were also subject of study and books. Medieval jewelry was not free from forgery and fake gemstones. Very often glass was used to make convincing imitations and original recipes for faking gems have survived. However, there was a great concern over fraudulent jewelry and various attempts were made to protect the market by introducing guild regulations and legislation.