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The History of Jewelry Making in America, Part One

Sean McCory

Posted on March 01 2018

Jewelry has always been an integral part of human sociology. If you track the various cultures throughout history, jewelry’s played a variety of roles in the extension of fashion. When the European’s first colonized the Americas in the early 16th century, they brought with them their ways and means of producing jewelry. At large, and similarly today, western held belief states that what type of jewelry you wore was a distinguishing class factor for your socioeconomic positioning. Pretty simple, ye old Kim-th Kardashian of late 16th century would most likely be wearing an ornate decorative piece crafted from solid gold and embroidered with rich diamonds.

 However, the colonial era had a different view on the value of jewelry than does the mainstream American market of today. Yes, they favored gold and silver pieces melded with semi precious and precious gemstones for their monetary worth, but there was also a whole other classification of jewelry named “Costume Jewlery” that was popular simply because it looked aesthetic. There was also a religious component to wearing jewelry. Even today, gold and silver crosses serve as a reminder to the religious and faithful of their dedication to worship. Probably more importantly, the material to which one’s religious pendant was made served as a way of expressing how dedicated one was in their relationship with God. 

But it wasn’t it all for flash and glam. There was also a functional component to what we would classify as jewelry making. When the Spanish arrived in the Americas they brought with them their use of metalwork. Functional items like belt buckles, shoe buckles were sold alongside gold earrings and necklaces because these items were imperative to the success of everyday life.

 

The native Americans are most widely recognized for their use of beads in their jewelry pieces. Each tribe adapted their own means of producing jewelry based on the materials they had at their disposal. Overall their designs were pretty holistic, often being forged from the remains of bones, wood, ground coral and copper. The craftsmanship was unparalleled too; in many cases each piece was woven from thousands of beads intricately strung together. Jewelry making became a form of currency trade and collateral used to exchange with the ever-encroaching European colonizers.

 Though we haven’t departed from traditional methods, today’s jewelry making world certainly has more tools at their disposal. Our journey has gone from smelting gold to industrial manufacturing into modern techniques like 3D Printing. There’s still a focus on style—that role in jewelry’s lineage will probably never leave—but our reflection of the world is very different than it was four centuries ago.

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