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Jewellery - history suggests it's in our blood

How do you feel about jewellery? Do you view it as an essential item that is as part of your everyday wear as your shoes or top, or as something for special occasions only? Perhaps you even consider it a complete indulgence – something unnecessary and a product of commercialism?

However you feel, history seems to suggest that making and wearing jewellery is as much a part of being human as making and listening to music or drawing and looking at art. It seems that there is not a stage in our history in which we did not make items to wear for decoration and/or symbolism. Some of the oldest known human artefacts are pieces of jewellery: the oldest being some seashell beads dated to around 100,000 year ago. Our close relatives - the Neanderthals and Denisovans - also made jewellery. An amazing find of a bracelet carved from chlorite dating 40,000 years ago was found in a Denisovan cave in Russia. Chlorite catches the sun when in daylight, and by firelight at night casts a dark shade of green, making this item a thing of real beauty.

From the start, our jewellery making became more and more sophisticated. Initially made with shells, teeth, bone and stones, we went on to incorporate new materials, such as gemstones and metals, as soon as we found them. The oldest gold jewellery has been dated to about 6,600 years ago and, once silver was discovered around 5,000 years ago, it too was almost immediately incorporated into jewellery.

So, we know that jewellery has been made by humans, and their close relatives the Neanderthals and Denisovans, since the beginning of human culture. Jewellery has been, and still is, worn on all continents and by all cultures and has always been made with whatever is obtainable at the time, with new materials being incorporated quickly. The designs might change with fashion, as does the cultural acceptance of different items, but still it's still worn. I think it’s clear that it is a part of us - something we are instinctively drawn to, an innate part of being human.

Something else that history tells us about jewellery is that it endures. Each piece having a life of its own - usually a life much longer than any single person. Jewellery can be passed down through families, through cultures, through history. Each piece connecting us to our descendants and/or ancestors. In that way I think that we never actually own a piece of jewellery - we simply take care of it until it passes to the next person when we're either no longer around or are just no longer inclined to take care of it ourselves.

So, next time you start eyeing up a piece of jewellery, maybe you'll be aware that you're just doing what humans have been doing every generation since we lived in caves and probably earlier. Not just an indulgence after all perhaps?

My version of a seashell necklace: a pendant made in fine silver, made as a replica of a sea shell from a common cockle (Cerastoderma edule). I picked up the shell whilst walking along the North Yorkshire coast and love making this solid silver version of it.

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