Fine jewelry has been in many times and places. Some have been lost to time, others dismantled to make other pieces. Occasionally jewels are uncovered, but it’s hard to know about the details around their creation. Other times a piece of jewelry can tell us more about long ago people through their art.
It’s intriguing to see how aesthetics have changed, what remains the same, and how techniques have changed and evolved. If we’re lucky, we’re able to see these beautiful works in person in museums or via online collections. A few of these jewels come with a story about the circumstances of their creations, their owners or how they were found.
Artes Burial Jewelry
The Merovingian Dynasty ruled parts of France and Germany for 300 years during the early Medieval Ages. In 1855, a farmer from Artes, France found a grave with a small treasure trove of Merovingian jewelry. The quality and intricacy of the jewels imply that they once belonged to a woman of high rank.
Among the pieces found were three pairs of brooches, several sets of earrings, a pendant and a bracelet. Other jewels found in the grave had been sold separately from the rest and are currently unaccounted for. Of the known set, three are made of gold, two of silver, and several are decorated with garnets. One pair of brooches is especially detailed, with one end featuring a half circle of radiating points, with every available surface of the silver boasting geometric etchings. These brooches also contain over a dozen bezel set garnets each. The Artes collection is currently in the hands of the British Museum.
The Domagnano Treasure
This jewelry collection, dated to the 5th-6th century Osrogothic period, was found in a series of graves in Domagnano, Italy. The jewelry in the collection includes a piece from a headdress, pendants, and earring and a finger ring. Most of them were formed from an alloy close to 100% gold, shaped into an almost lacy geometric style. Other adornments include glass, shell, cloisonné and garnets.
The Domagnano treasures feature an array of design influences. The earrings and headdress suggest a Byzantine style, while the use of contrasting color suggests ideas borrowed from the East. The jewelry’s cross and fish imagery show Christian aesthetics. The collection is now a part of the British Museum.
The Chiddingly Boar
In 1999, in Chiddingly, England, a person using a metal detector made an unusual discovery. Hidden in the ground was a wild boar made of silver, most likely made in the 15th century. It bore traces of another metal gilded on top. The back held the remains of a pin used to fasten the animal to clothing, most likely a hat.
Due to where it was found and the possible date of its creation, it was probably worn by a supporter of King Richard III, whose symbol was a boar. Most hat badges were made of cheaper materials, such as pewter or bronze. That this boar was made of valuable metals hints that its wearer was a prominent noble.
Dunstable Swan Jewel
The Dunstable Swan jewel is a brooch dating from around 1400. Made in France or England, it is a stylized three dimensional swan made of gold, with white enamel feathers that all but conceal the underlying metal, and a gold collar attached to a chain that ends in a ring. Its eyes are black enamel, with traces of the same on its legs, and specks of red enamel on its beak. On the bird’s right side is a pin allowing it to be affixed to clothes.
The swan is a lavish example of a type of brooch known as a livery badge, worn to denote loyalty to a particular noble or noble house. The swan jewel was found in Dunstable England, a place popular with medieval elite. It was found in 1965 during a monastery excavation and purchased by the British Museum shortly after.
The Coleridge Collar
The Coleridge Collar gets its name from Lord Coleridge, fifth Baron of Ottery St Mary, who sold it in 2006. The “collar” part name denotes a livery collar, a large gold chain worn draped over the shoulders and chest that was worn as a mark of office or fealty from the Middle Ages onwards. The necklace is believed to have been a gift from King Henry VIII to his advisor Sir Edward Montagu upon his appointment to Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.
The necklace is made of twenty carat gold, shaped into a series of S’s alternating with scrolled motifs. At the necklace’s front are two square pieces shaped into grids, with the Tudor rose in between. Henry VIII is believed to have commissioned only twenty collars of this style. Until the Lord Coleridge’s sale, none of the necklaces were known to have survived intact.
While the Coleridge Collar is currently in private hands, a similarly styled livery collar appears in Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Sir Thomas Moore, available in the public domain.
The Maschen Disc Brooch
In 1958, a brooch consisting of a flat copper circle three centimeters in diameter with one side covered in cloisonné style enamel was found near Maschen, Germany. The piece was found in a later Saxon cemetery with signs of wear, such as a missing pin that would have fastened it to clothing. The circumstances of its discovery and later analysis date this piece of jewelry to around 900.
On the brooch’s face is a red background bordered by metal. The center features a bust portrait of a person clad in blue-green, with a blue crescent encircling the top of their head. Researchers believe that the brooch depicts a saint or other religious figure, and that the blue represents a halo. It is on permanent display at the Archeological Museum Hamburg.