New Worlds: Jewelry

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Downtime note: Because of BVC’s recent site difficulties, the last two New Worlds essays, on how to fight a duel and (changing tacks completely) tattoos were hosted on my own site, Swan Tower.


Back when we discussed body modifications and how they’re used for beauty and other purposes, we left an element out: what get puts in many of those piercings and other alterations. More broadly, let’s talk about jewelry.

This concept is beyond ancient. As in, quite possibly older than the species Homo sapiens, depending on how one splits the taxonomic hairs — i.e. whether you count Neanderthals as a subspecies or a separate species. Which is a debate we don’t need to go into here; it’s enough to say that beads carved from materials like bone and shell go back more than a hundred thousand years. This is more than just a point of prehistoric trivia: it’s hugely significant in the tale of human development, the shift from only making utilitarian objects to making decorative ones.

Since I mentioned piercings, let’s start there. In most parts of your body, if you make a hole and want it to stay open rather than healing shut, you have to keep something in it, at least for a good long while. And while it’s possible to perforate yourself just for temporary purposes (e.g. religious ritual), in many cases the whole reason to create the hole is so you can stick something in it. So any place there’s a piercing, whether that’s an ear, nose, lip, tongue, nipple, navel, genitalia, or what have you, odds are high that there’s a piece of jewelry in it.

But we also have many decorations that don’t require sharp objects to apply. As with makeup and facial piercings, there’s a lot of value in putting them on or near the face; we’re social animals, spending a lot of time looking at each other’s faces, so of course we want to pretty those up.

The head also has symbolic associations with authority, and height has been an advantage in pretty much all cultures throughout history, so it’s no surprise that we’re fond of sticking things on the top of our bodies. Hats will require their own entire post, probably — human beings have come up with so many ridiculous forms of headgear — but on the jewelry end, consider crowns, circlets, diadems, tiaras, fillets, and other such decorations for the skull. Many of them are associated with signaling status, whether that’s through sheer wealth (sticking gems on them) or custom and law that says only certain kinds of people can wear them.

Hair provides another site for decoration, especially if it’s long, through combs, hairpins, and the like. Japanese kanzashi can be extremely elaborate, and even have seasonal associations. People may braid ribbons into their hair, or otherwise take the structural elements necessary to supporting their hairstyles and make those a focus of attention rather than a thing to be hidden. (Hairstyles: another thing that will need a whole essay eventually.)

Earrings needn’t always be attached via piercing. In modern times we have clip-ons, ear cuffs, and hoops that wrap around the entire structure of the ear, and lots of those don’t actually require modern technology to achieve. Magnetic and stick-on jewelry can give the appearance of a piercing without the actual hole, and simple suction can make a hollow tongue “stud” stay in place for a good long while. The bindi is a facial decoration that most traditionally takes the form of makeup, but even historically could involve gluing gold, gems, or other materials to the skin; the same is true of what I think is called a maang tikka, a chain and pendant laid through the hair parting, as a fancier version of sindoor pigment. And “beauty patches,” the fake moles I mentioned in an earlier essay, could plausibly be replaced with gems.

Moving off the head proper, necklaces are more or less a universal concept, and many of those prehistoric beads and perforated shells were probably strung around the neck. Taking that as a broad category, that would include pendants, pectorals, bead strings, chains, chains of office, chokers, collars, torcs, and even things like gorgets — a piece of armor that eventually atrophied into a vestigial decoration.

After the head, the hands are probably the next most common site of decoration, because they’re also highly visible. Arm cuffs, bracelets, and finger rings all draw attention to the arm and hand. The “finger armor” style of ring may be modern, but it creates the articulated look of a gauntlet minus the rest of the gauntlet, and in some periods of imperial China the nobility protected their long nails with decorative metallic guards. The unfortunately-termed slave bracelet, also called a hand flower, links a bracelet to a finger-ring via decorations that extend over the back of the hand, and may have originated in India.

What’s true of the arms is also true of the legs, with (I think) the exception of arm cuffs — I’ve never heard of an equivalent thigh or calf cuff. But anklets, sure — especially with bells, to chime as the wearer moves — and toe rings. And finally, you get into the grey zone of accessories to the clothing itself: belts, which can be as decorative as any necklace or crown, or fancy buttons and aglets, or Japanese inr? held on by netsuke. But at that point it’s very easy to slide from jewelry to other props, so we’ll stop there.

As for what these things can be made of, the answer is really “anything.” Of course if the point is to be decorative, then we’re going to use decorative materials like precious metals and gems. But not everyone can afford those, and sometimes the point is as much the craftsmanship as the material, as with a finely tatted lace choker or an intricately braided leather cuff. Or the simple fact of wearing it at all: if the law says only the nobility or military officers or married women can wear a particular thing, then even a humble version of the object carries a certain cachet.

Getting into the specific significances of different pieces of jewelry, like a lip plate or a diamond engagement ring, would keep us here forever. But apart from crowns and rings, I feel like the narrative and worldbuilding (and aesthetic!) potential of jewelry tends to be sadly under-exploited. Authors gesture vaguely in the direction of “gems” and call it a day. As with so many things, there’s much more you could do there.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Jewelry — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Jewelry - Swan Tower

  2. I’m a lacemaker. Working gold or silver thread into the weave at one time was an exacting enterprise. First having to spin the metal fine enough to work into the lace without weighing it down, and second weighing every piece to make sure the underpaid lacemaker didn’t snitch some of the precious metal. Then there is the actual weaving of lace (tatting refers only to one form of knotted lace, often called beggar’s lace because it was cheap) because the metal thread is more rigid than linen and will cut fingers if not handled properly. The the entire piece is ruined because it can never be fully bleached clean without damaging the metal thread.

    For Elizabeth I to wear a full neck ruff of lace tipped in gold with pearls worked in was a glittery statement of her wealth and power. There are stories of minor nobles mortgaging an estate to buy enough lace to wear to court, once.

    Incidentally, most of the neck ruff style of lace was needle lace, made with a needle and thread rather than woven with bobbins. Needle lace is often refereed to as Real Lace as opposed to bobbin, tatted, or netted.

    • I will correct my terminology — I thought of “tatting” as the all-purpose verb for lace!

      (Reminds me also of the endless confusion I had when writing things in the Elizabethan period, having to remember that what we call lace, they called “point,” and what we call braid, they called “lace” . . . I think. It’s been a decade since I was fresh on that period.)