Jewelry Culture and Symbolism Around the World
When you put on a piece of jewelry, you probably focus on how it looks with your outfit or what it says about your style. Perhaps some jewelry pieces have sentimental value to you, such as a ring passed down from your grandmother. While jewelry has always been a way to adorn the body, it also has significant meaning and symbolism. The meaning of jewelry varies based on the piece, materials used and even the country. Explore the symbolism of jewelry from cultures around the world to better understand your own jewelry pieces.
Roles of Jewelry in Cultures
Before exploring specific examples, it’s important to have an idea of the various roles of jewelry within cultures. Jewelry has existed throughout history, from ancient times to the present, with pieces dating back 90,000 years or more. Early jewelry often consisted of found materials, such as shells, wood, stones, feathers and other natural items, but many of those pieces had significant meaning behind them. Particular cultures constructed those found objects in particular ways to represent different beliefs or affiliations. As jewelry progressed through the ages, many of the purposes and symbols remain important. Despite the difference in materials and methods of making pieces, jewelry still shares some of the same roles as those early types of jewelry. Common purposes of jewelry include:
- Currency: At various periods throughout history, jewelry served as a type of currency or as a tool used in trading. Some cultures still use jewelry as a form of currency based on the value of the materials that go into it.
- Wealth Security: Valuable jewelry provides owners a source of wealth security. Even today, a valuable piece of jewelry can be an investment for the owner. On a larger scale, royal jewelry provides wealth security for entire countries.
- Status Symbol: Jewelry often represents a person’s status, both in today’s society and throughout history. People of higher social status or wealth often own and wear jewelry that is more valuable. They may own more jewelry than others as well.
- Religion: Many pieces of jewelry serve a religious purpose. They may represent a particular achievement or position within the religion. Jewelry sometimes commemorates a religious event, such as a first communion or a baptism. Other symbols, such as a cross, carry a general religious meaning.
- Functional Elements: In historical times, many pieces of jewelry served a specific purpose while adding a decorative element. A brooch, for example, was used functionally in addition to the adornment of the outfit.
- Fashion Accent: Many people use jewelry solely as a fashion accent. They select their pieces based on how well they match particular cloths or outfits.
- Self Expression: Others use jewelry as a form of self-expression. The jewelry might show your own personality or style, for example. You might choose pieces to make a bold statement.
- Relationships: A popular purpose for jewelry is to represent relationships. Wedding bands and engagement rings are examples of this type of jewelry. The jewelry represents your love and commitment to the relationship for both yourself and others to see.
- Rites of Passage: Some jewelry symbolizes a rite of passage in a person’s life.
- Protection:Jewelry has a long-standing tradition of serving as a talisman, bringing good luck to the person who possesses it. Many people still use jewelry to feel protected or safe in cultures around the world.
- Heirlooms: Many families pass jewelry down through the generations as an heirloom. This practice helps connect families to the past while remembering their heritage.
Significance of Jade Jewelry
Jade, called the Stone of Heaven, plays a significant role in the Chinese culture. Jade represents the balance of yin and yang, due to the stone’s balance between its beauty and its hardness. In China, the stone often gets higher prices than precious metals, such as gold and silver, because it is thought to be the most valuable stone in the culture. Traditionally, jade jewelry represented a magical quality thought to provide protection from evil spirits, bad luck and illness. Even today, Chinese families often bestow jade bangles upon babies to prevent bad luck. Jade jewelry also represents a connection to the past, since the stone played such a large role in Chinese history. Jade stone jewelry is often passed down through families. Many Chinese jewelry pieces feature rounded jade disks with holes in the middle. The rounded shape represents heaven. People believe the holes are a way to speak to the gods to help prayers reach heaven. This style of jade jewelry traditionally features as part of funeral proceedings to connect heaven and earth. Jade carries a positive connotation in other cultures as well. The stone is thought to bring several benefits or represent several ideas including:
- Metaphysical properties
- Access to spiritual world
- Inspire creativity
- Talisman properties
- A peaceful death after a long life
- Good luck
- Eliminate negativity to allow you to see your true self
- Recharge energy when stroked
Meaning Behind Turquoise Jewelry
Turquoise carries a strong positive message, traditionally representing wealth and opulence. The stone appears in jewelry pieces from around the world. Ancient cultures believed turquoise had spiritual powers. The following cultures value turquoise, although each has a slightly different significance for the stone:
- Navajo: Navajo tribes believe turquoise jewelry represents health, happiness, luck and a connection to the natural world, since the colors in the stones come from nature. That connection to the earth created the idea of turquoise as a protective force. The number and size of turquoise stones in Navajo jewelry also serves as a symbol. More turquoise jewelry represents greater wealth and social power.
- Persians: To the ancient Persians, turquoise represented heaven. They used the stone in many ways to represent this idea.
- Greeks: The Greek culture prized turquoise as a symbol of purity, often worn by maidens.
- Tibetans: Tibetans derive symbolism from the stone’s gradual change as it wears from blue to green. This color change represents the wisdom you gain in life. It also represents the important idea of life and death. Bracelets and pendants are common types of turquoise jewelry among Tibetans.
Importance of Beaded Jewelry
Beaded jewelry is common even in today’s fashion world, but beads play a significant role in many cultures worldwide. The symbolism and the way the beads are used vary from culture to culture. Consider these examples of symbolic jewelry containing beads from around the world:
- Africa: Beaded jewelry in Africa dates back thousands of years, with many significant meanings and uses. The jewelry serves as a status symbol or symbolizes affiliation with a particular tribe. Some people use the beaded jewelry for adornment, while others use it as a type of currency for trading. Beaded jewelry also plays a significant role in many religious ceremonies in Africa. Beads in Africa traditionally feature organic materials, such as stones, shells, ivory, bone and amber. In Kenya, beads were once created from ostrich eggs.
- Massai: The Massai culture uses beaded jewelry as a way to show social status and age. A long, bright blue beaded necklace indicates that a woman is married, for example. The beaded jewelry becomes more elaborate as a person attains a higher social status. Beaded jewelry also serves as a source of income and a bonding experience for the women in the culture. Women often work together to create the beaded jewelry and sometimes sell or trade it.
- Greece: Greek culture has strings of colorful beads form komboloi, or worry beads. Glass or amber beads fill the strings, with a head bead on one end and a tassel on the other. Komboloi started as knotted ropes, and Greeks said a prayer for each knot. As the religious symbolism started to fade, the komboloi became more of a stress reliever or an aid in meditation.
- Ancient Egypt: The ancient Egyptians wore a variety of necklaces and collars, each with different symbolism. Egyptian beaded jewelry often consisted of several strands of beads gathered together to form wide collars to be worn around the neck. Particular groups, such as priests, priestesses, dancers, pharaohs and the wealthy, wore certain styles of necklaces and collars. A beaded piece called a shebyu collar was given to reward valor. Egyptians also work simpler beaded necklaces, often with amulets integrated into the design.
Hopi Tribe Jewelry Style
Jewelry from the Hopi tribe is unique compared to jewelry from other tribes. Craftsmen from the Hopi tribe learned silversmithing, opening up new jewelry design potential. The artisans used a process called overlaying to solder together two pieces of sterling silver. One piece typically features design cutouts. The jewelry pieces usually included symbols important to the tribe, such as water, sun, cornstalks and kachina figures This technique creates a beautiful contrasting look while adding depth to the piece. No other tribes used this method of crafting jewelry, making this overlay process unique to the Hopi tribe. The combination of distinct symbols and the unique silversmithing method makes these types of jewelry easy to identify.
Star of David Significance
The strongest connection to the Star of David design is to Judaism, but other cultures also use the symbol, both now and in the past. The symbol features two triangles positioned to form a six-point star. It is often found on necklace pendants. The Star of David represents the solidarity of the Jewish people, making it a symbol of religion and culture when worn in jewelry. Some groups in the Middle East and northern Africa regions believed the Star of David brought good luck.
Celtic Jewelry Symbols
Celtic jewelry pulls in several different symbols to represent various concepts. These Celtic symbols often relate to connections or relationships with others. The symbols often appear on necklace pendants or on rings The following symbols are common in Celtic-style jewelry:
- Claddagh: This traditional symbol features two hands holding a heart in the middle. The heart has a crown on top. The Claddagh represents friendship, love and loyalty in relationships, both with friends and within families. A ring displaying a Claddagh shows the wearer’s relationship status. A Claddagh ring worn with the heart toward the person’s body on the right hand indicates a relationship. The ring on the left hand with the heart pointed away from the body represents an engagement. Once married, the ring stays on the left hand but is flipped, so the heart points toward the person wearing the ring.
- Celtic Knot: The Celtic knot is a highly recognizable symbol featuring interwoven loops and often appears on necklaces, earrings and other jewelry. The symbol represents interconnectedness, because the curving lines weave back and forth around each other. It also represents timelessness as depicted by the appearance of no beginning or ending in the knot design. Celtic knots are often thought to protect against setbacks or to wish someone longevity.
- Trinity Knot: A different version of the knot symbol is the trinity knot, represented in the Celtic and other cultures. Like the Celtic knot, the trinity knot has no visible beginning or ending, with the lines weaving around one another. While the Celtic knot has four curved edges, the trinity knot features three points in the design, forming a triangular-type shape. In a religious context, the three points represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Others wear the trinity knot for protection or to represent promises. The trinity knot also represents love and honor, making it popular as part of engagement jewelry.
- Triskele: A triskele uses three curving legs that come out from the center of the design. Some jewelry features a circle around the triskele. The three legs often represent three related elements, depending on the wearer’s beliefs or values.
The tree of life is a popular symbol in modern jewelry. Often featured with many curving branches and visible roots connected to the earth, the tree of life sometimes symbolizes how heaven, earth and the underworld connect. Some jewelry pieces form the tree with wire, using gemstones to represent the leaves. Specific meanings and symbolism associated with trees used in jewelry vary depending on the culture. Some examples of tree symbolism include:
- Garden of Eden: In Christianity, the tree symbol can represent the tree in Eden. For this reason, some jewelry featuring trees represents the faith or religious background of the wearer.
- Home to Gods: In many cultures and religions, including Norse and Mayan cultures, gods lived in trees, making the tree symbol in jewelry special. Some Sumerian and Hindu gods were actually represented by trees themselves.
- Life and Death: Trees often represent the idea of life and death or death and rebirth. This comes from the natural cycle of the tree, with the loss of leaves in winter followed by new growth in spring.
- Presence: Some people relate the tree to being rooted in the present. The tree serves as a reminder to live now instead of waiting for the future.
- Growth: Just as the branches continue to grow and stretch, the tree reminds the wearer to continue stretching and growing. The tree symbolizes a solid base from which to mature.
- Family: The tree has traditionally represented the family. A tree in jewelry might represent how your family continues to grow and spread out yet stay connected.
General Jewelry SymbolsMany symbols show up frequently in jewelry, and those symbols are often traced back to the Victorian era, when symbolism became a fascination. Horticulture was also a budding obsession during this period, which resulted in the integration of many plant elements into jewelry design. Many of the symbols that were prevalent in the Victorian era still have meaning in today’s jewelry pieces. Explore these symbols found in jewelry and their meanings:
- Anchors: Images of anchors often represent hope.
- Crosses: Crosses often appear on all types of jewelry as a sign of the Christian faith. People wear crosses to declare their faith and to remind themselves of their beliefs.
- Arrows: The arrow is thought to represent love. Arrows also serve as a reminder to have the strength and courage to move forward. They sometimes represent protection.
- Doves: A dove on a piece of jewelry can convey a religious message, representing the Holy Ghost. To some, the dove represents peace, love or fidelity.
- Figure 8: A figure 8 symbol often represents eternity, especially when on its side.
- Coiled Snake: Coiled snakes in Victorian jewelry represented eternity. The ouroboros is a similar design, featuring a snake in a circular shape with its tail in its mouth, also representing eternity.
- Scarab: The scarab is an ancient Egyptian symbol representing renewal and regeneration.
- Horseshoe: Just like horseshoes in your décor, a horseshoe on a piece of jewelry symbolizes luck.
- Key: A key is a symbol of authority or the power to unlock something. It is often representative of the key to one’s heart, which associates the symbol with love. Similarly, a lock represents protecting the heart, so it often represents love as well.
- Dragon: The dragon is an important symbol in Chinese jewelry design. It represents force and strength. The dragon is thought to provide protection and prosperity.
- Bats: Bats carry a message of good luck, happiness and longevity.
- Butterfly: The butterfly symbolizes beauty, elegance and joy. It often symbolizes a long life.
- Evil Eye: Evil eyes have been a part of jewelry since ancient times. They are said to protect the wearer from people who want to harm them.
What Does Your Jewelry Represent?
Take a look at your own jewelry collection. Do you recognize some of the common designs or symbols from various cultures? Perhaps you can find new meaning in the images formed on your jewelry. Does the jewelry connect you to your own heritage and history? Whatever the traditional meaning behind jewelry pieces, most people find their own special meaning, which makes jewelry a cherished keepsake.