» Jewelry Making in the Renaissance

Jewelry Making in the Renaissance

Jewelry Making in the Renaissance
The Making of a Custom Engagement Ring

Carl Blackburn has a deep and abiding respect for the history of fine jewelry making, as is evident in the Old World craftsmanship uses in creating all of his custom engagement rings.

While the art of fine jewelry making was refined dramatically in the 19th & 20th centuries, those advancements owe a great debt to the goldsmiths and gem cutters of the Renaissance.

In this article, we will provide you with a brief background on the artisan jewelry during this famous period when the arts flourished.

Jewelry Making During the Renaissance

The Renaissance, meaning ‘rebirth’ in French, was a time of huge cultural changes in Europe. Beginning in the late 14th century, artists and thinkers began to look back to the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome for inspiration.

In Florence, Italy, a unique combination of political stability, prosperity, and the patronage of the elite combined to make the perfect cradle for the re-birth of the arts, including the art of jewelry making.

The Artisan Jeweler in the Renaissance

Goldsmith Painting by Petrus Christus (1449)

Many of the great Renaissance artists started their careers as goldsmiths, working in guilds to perfect their skills. These well funded guilds allowed the goldsmiths to specialize in particular areas of work, and it wasn’t uncommon to have jewelry designed by a painter, shaped by a goldsmith, engraved or enameled by another, and set with gems by yet another specialist.

As cities and trade grew, so did the accumulation of wealth and the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods. Jewelry was essential to the elite, and functioned in two ways. Jewelry indicated wealth and status, and it was a conveniently portable way of concentrating one’s riches.

Techniques and Materials in Renaissance Jewelry

With the advent of new trade routes, gems from all over the world found their way to Europe, and to the forefront of jewelry making, surpassing the traditional dominance of gold and precious metal work. One enlightening example of the availability of gems during this period is the Cheapside Hoard, the stock of a London jeweler.

Gold Renaissance Art
The famous Saliera – Made by Renaissance Goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1540-1543)

Hidden during the Commonwealth period and not re-discovered until 1912, the Cheapside Hoard contained rubies from India, emeralds from Columbia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, as well as Bohemian and Hungarian opal and amethyst.

Diamonds also flooded Europe in the Renaissance. New gem faceting technology was developed, and cut, polished diamonds were widely used in the jewelry of the period. By the height of the Renaissance, Amsterdam and Antwerp were centers of the gem cutting trade.

The jewelry making techniques of the Renaissance were well documented by Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine goldsmith, sculptor, and painter. His works included the famous Saliera, or golden salt-cellar, made for the Cardinal Ippolito d’Este.

Enameling, filigree work, foiling and diamond cutting are carefully delineated in his autobiography. He also recounts one interesting source of stones: relics of ancient Etruscan artisans were sometimes unearthed by peasant farmers and sold to jewelers. Emeralds, rubies and sapphires were then ‘recycled’ into new pieces of jewelry.

Renaissance jewelry styles began to spread from Italy throughout Europe and England over the first half of the 16th century, thanks in part to printed jewelry designs. Painters created engraved designs for jewelry, and these engravings were then printed and traded widely throughout Europe.

Items of Renaissance Jewelry

Simonetta Vespucci by Sandro Botticelli (1480s)

By far the most important piece of jewelry in the Renaissance was the pendant. It was typically worn on a necklace or a long gold chain, but sometimes fixed to the dress. Jewels of all kinds were used, and pendants were often designed to be seen from both sides. The backs were usually enameled, and the fronts encrusted with precious stones.

Some pendants featured Biblical scenes in miniature sculptures or enameled portraits, and others simply the initials of the wearer. Other motifs on pendants included arabesques, fruit, scrolls, and foliage. Mythological dragons and fantasy beasts became popular themes, as did ships, mermaids, and sea monsters.

Both men and women wore rings during the Renaissance, often on all five fingers. Some even wore multiple rings on each finger. Rings were usually gem set, and highly ornamented.

Some Renaissance rings had a religious function, like the “decade ring” that served as a miniature rosary, and others indicated faith and fidelity, like the “fede ring” or the Irish “Claddagh ring.” There were even rings with hidden compartments under the bezel that held scented materials, deployed in an effort to negate the unpleasant effects of poor hygiene during the period.

Earrings made a comeback during the Renaissance after falling from fashion in the Middle Ages. Some women wore jeweled drops or pear shaped pearls in pierced ears, and others simply tied them around their ears. Other earring designs included initials, blackamoors, and fantasy sea creatures.

Parures became popular in the Renaissance as well. These sets of jewelry used matching stones and settings for a variety of pieces, typically a brooch, a ring, a bracelet, a pair of earrings, and a necklace. In some cases, royals would have quite elaborate parures, and include up to sixteen pieces such as rings, buttons, tiaras, diadems, stomachers, aigrettes and sevignes.