Jewelry has been an integral aspect of human civilization for centuries, but it was the discovery and subsequent spread of precious metals and gemstones which really changed the game.
In today’s infographic from Menē, we visualize how the uses and symbolism of jewelry have evolved across time and space to become the industry we’re familiar with today.
Antique, Yet Ageless
There isn’t a single corner of the world that’s untouched by the influence of jewelry.
- Ancient Egypt
Gold accompanied the affluent into the afterlife – the famous 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was filled to the brim with gold jewelry.
- Ancient Greece and Rome
Jewelry was used practically, and as a protection against evil. The gold olive wreath design was highly popular during this time.
Both men and women in the Sumer civilization wore intricate pieces of jewelry, incorporating bright gems like agate, jasper, or lapis lazuli.
The aristocracy in Aztec culture wore gold jewelry with gemstones to demonstrate their rank. The jewelry also doubled up as godly sacrifices.
- Ancient India
The Mughal Empire introduced the combination of gemstones with gold and silver. Today, pure gold jewelry is often gifted to new brides for financial security.
- Ancient China
Both rich and poor wore jade jewelry for its durable and protective properties. Pure gold jewelry is making a fashion comeback, doubling as a form of investment.
Modern Jewelry: At a Crossroads
Today, jewelry is at once the very same and vastly different from what it used to be.
The industry is worth upwards of $348 billion per year, and it’s not hard to see why. As an alternative asset, jewelry has grown 138% in value over the last decade – only outperformed by classic cars, rare coins, and fine wine.
However, perceptions of jewelry vastly differ. It’s not a stretch to say that Western jewelry buyers are enamored with diamonds, given their enduring association with special occasions – but it’s interesting to note how that ideal was fabricated.
The Invention of Diamonds
The De Beers Group is well known for making diamonds great again. In the early 1900s, the company had already monopolized the diamond trade and stabilized the market, but they faced the challenge of marketing diamonds to consumers at all income levels.
The average American considered diamonds an extravagance, preferring to spend money on cars and appliances instead. The concept of engagement rings existed, but weren’t widely adopted. The #1 slogan of the century – “A Diamond is Forever” – transformed all that.
Even as more companies like Tiffany and Co and Cartier entered the playing field, De Beers had set a successful industry standard. But there’s a catch – diamonds are actually:
- Not all that rare in nature
- Intrinsically low in value
- Easily replicated in a lab
- Decreasing in sales
Despite these caveats, the popularity of diamonds illustrate how Western consumers do not approach jewelry in the same way as Eastern economies, where its function as a store of wealth persists.
The Eastern Gold Standard
In Eastern economies, jewelry often takes the form of pure gold. The reasons behind this difference are surprisingly pragmatic: gold is considered a secure and innate store of wealth that maintains its purchasing value over decades, allowing families to pass wealth from generation to generation.
The rich history of the precious metal has made it a sought-after commodity for centuries, and China and India drive more than half of global gold jewelry demand every year:
|Year||Share of Demand (India + China)||Total Global Jewelry Demand (tonnes)|
Source: Gold Hub – Values have been rounded up to the nearest tonne.
Why are Eastern cultures so attracted to the properties of pure gold?
Part 2 of this series will show why gold is the world’s most incredible metal, and why it’s coveted by billions of people.