Medieval: 5th - 15th century AD Design Period

Medieval: 5th - 15th century AD

Medieval 5th-15th

Medieval: 5th - 15th century AD

Medieval: 5th - 15th century AD

The Medieval Period, known also as the Middle Ages or Dark Ages lasted from the 5th to the late 15th century. Stretching for one thousand years, it began with the fall of the Western Empire and extended into the beginning of the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery.

In the early Middle Ages, jewellery served a practical purpose as well as being decorative. Medieval jewellery encompassed designs such as necklaces, rings, bracelets and brooches that remain in popular use to this day, but were also joined by other forms rarely found in modern jewellery. These included necessities such as fasteners and fittings to hold clothing together; buckles and decorations for belts, "points" for the end of laces, and also buttons by the end of this time period. In addition, hat badges and other accessories including decorative pins were commonly worn, which would be used to hold head-dresses or hairstyles in place, often sewn into the hair.

For the very wealthy, robes and dresses could be embellished with many small pieces of jewellery created with gems and enamel, forming decorative patterns that caught the light when the wearer moved. Medieval paintings portraying religious motifs were often integrated into the design.

Brooches were worn to fasten belts, pin cloaks and add a decorative touch to hats. Some of these ornamental brooches communicated messages about the wearer, featuring personal details within the design such as initials, coats of arms, short mottos or even mythological themes. Medieval belts were often made of leather or silk and decorated with silver, gold and gem stones, later evolving to metal belts adorned with jewels.

Rings were not just decorative, they were worn for a practical purpose; devotional rings and signet rings were worn to prove the identity of the wearer and used as seals for stamping documents to authenticate them. Curative rings were meant to cure diseases and hollow rings served as containers for holy relics or sometimes even poison. Medieval necklaces, which had begun as strips of fabric or ribbon adorned with gem stones, later evolved into metal chains which could carry a variety of pendants. In medieval times Christian iconography flourished, meaning crosses were by far the most popular pendant choice, however lockets and elaborate creations adorned with gem stones were also worn.

The jewellery worn in medieval Europe reflected a profoundly hierarchical and status-conscious society. Jewellery was used to signal social status, with men being as highly adorned as women. Royalty and the higher ranks of society wore gold, silver and precious gems. Lower ranks of society wore base metals, such as pewter and copper. Colour, provided by precious gems and enamel, was highly valued with ruby and emerald being the most prized. However, a wide range of gem stones were commonly used including sapphire, turquoise, amber, coral and freshwater pearl, with most gems cut into a cabochon cut with rounded contours.

Gemstones were attributed with many mystical powers and were worn for protection; sapphires were believed to have magical powers that could cure snakebites, expel witchcraft and enable the wearer to detect fraud. Some jewels had magical inscriptions, believed to protect the wearer. The engraving of Christian symbolism onto gem stones was also popular. The main material used for jewellery design leading into the Middle Ages was gold, with many different techniques used to create jewellery including soldering, plating and gilding, repousse, chasing, inlay, enamelling, filigree and granulation, stamping, striking and casting.

In the late Middle Ages, from the 13th century onwards, jewellery was reserved for the higher ranks of society such as aristocratic and noble houses. Laws were passed preventing commoners from wearing jewellery with precious stones, pearls and excess amounts of gold or silver. By the end of the period, the types of personal jewellery worn by the wealthy were not very different from those found today, with rings, necklaces, lockets, brooches and earrings all favoured styles.

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Examples from our catalogue

Late Medieval iconographic ring Holy Trinity hatton garden
Late Medieval iconographic ring depicting the Holy Trinity, circa 1470-1480.
Medieval sapphire ring, circa 1200 1500 Hatton Garden
Medieval sapphire and emerald ring, circa 1200-1500.
Medieval garnet gold ring, circa 13th 15th century hatton garden
Medieval garnet gold ring, circa 13th-15th century.
Medieval zoomorphic sapphire ring hatton garden
Medieval zoomorphic sapphire ring, circa 12th-14th century.
Medieval ring of St Luke, circa 12th century hatton garden
Medieval ring of St Luke, circa 12th century.
front view Medieval lion entaglio ring, berganza hatton garden
Medieval lion intaglio ring, circa 11th-12th century AD.
Medieval garnet and turquoise finger ring berganza hatton garden
Medieval garnet and turquoise finger ring, circa 1250-1450 AD.
Medieval iconographic ring berganza hatton garden
Medieval iconographic ring with the holy trinity, English, circa 15th century.
Medieval sapphire love ring berganza hatton garden
Medieval sapphire love ring, English, circa 1350-1550.

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Updated 7/12/2022 at 10:51AM

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