For millennia, humans have sought the finest of earthly materials with which to adorn themselves. In even the oldest archaeological sites, carefully crafted jewelry has been discovered, intended for the personal adornment of long-gone peoples and societies. From the excavation of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur to ongoing discoveries from the Greek and Roman civilizations, precious metals including gold and silver have been uncovered, evidencing a long history of interest in these fine materials that continue to form many of our stylish pieces of jewelry today. This article will examine the history of three different traditional metals that remain essential in jewelry production today: gold, silver, and platinum.
Types of Jewelry Metals
Perhaps historically the most coveted jewelry metal, gold jewelry has been discovered dating to as far back as 4000 BC. In the world’s earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia and other areas of the present-day Middle East, vast stores of the sunny metal have been unearthed. Found in riverbeds around the world, this precious metal was prized for its rarity and malleability.
In the early 20th century, archaeological digs began to uncover these marvelous treasures from the ancient world. Between 1922 and 1934, C. Leonard Woolley began a monumental excavation of the ziggurat at Ur, jointly funded by the British Museum and the Penn Museum. While many discoveries from the expedition were remarkable, Woolley was floored by the extravagance of the royal tomb of Queen Puabi, a Sumerian figure from the 3rd millennium BC — particularly her elaborate gold jewelry. On January 4, 1928, Woolley sent the following message, conveying his amazement at his discovery: "I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad [Puabi] adorned with a dress in which gems, flowers, crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups. Woolley." Other early 20th-century discoveries, like the tomb and burial mask of King Tutankhamen of ancient Egypt and continued discoveries of Greek and Roman jewelry, underscored the value and significance of gold in antiquity.
Gold remained prized into the Middle Ages and early modern period, as evidenced by European alchemists who sought desperately to transform other materials into the desirable metal. Byzantium used gold widely for religious icons and sumptuous mosaics. Beginning in the 13th century, following the importation of gold from parts of Asia, the countries of Italy, France and England introduced gold coin currency in addition to the previous silver coins. Of course, gold remained an important material for fine jewelry, particularly for rulers and other elites. The trend continued into the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with kings from Louis XIV of France to George II of England donning the precious metal and utilizing it for luxury goods. Georgian era jewelry used gold settings to capture natural motifs and complement the colored gemstones that were popular in the period.
In the 20th and 21st century, some jewelers have built their firm’s excellence around mastering the historic treasure. While some revered firms continue to utilize classic gold in some of their finest creations, other jewelry makers, like American jeweler Henry Dunay, are admired for their innovations with the material — like Dunay’s signature “Sabi” textured 18K yellow gold and sophisticated retro designs.
The introduction of silver mining can be traced back about 5000 years to mines in Anatolia, or modern-day Turkey. After two millennia, Greece became the center of silver production, allowing the burgeoning empires of the Mediterranean to flourish.
During the Middle Ages, Europe mined and exported a significant amount of silver. Examples like the well-preserved ring above, which was found in the Thames River in 1856, indicate that high-quality silver jewelry was produced even in the early medieval period, particularly as gold became scarce in Europe after the early 8th century. Highly malleable, the soft metal was usually alloyed with other metals to increase its hardness, resulting in combinations of silver and silver gilt in many types of antique jewelry.
The 19th century brought a renewed interest in the cool-toned metal. As the age of industrialization transformed the way fine jewelry and other objects were produced en masse, silver jewelry was no longer only accessible to the upper echelons of society. Silver jewelry fit Victorian Era aesthetics well, and became widely used during the period from ring styles to bracelets, earrings and brooches. Silver may require more care to avoid tarnishing than platinum or gold. However, the allure of the long-treasured metal remains.
Unlike silver and gold, two traditional metals that have long histories of use in jewelry making, platinum only began its widespread use in jewelry in the 19th century. Early civilizations like the La Tolita culture of Ecuador had created precious platinum objects, including jewelry, but after its initial discovery by conquistadors, the extremely high melting point of the metal left Europeans perplexed on how to utilize naturally occurring platinum deposits. Following significant advancements in technology, European jewelry makers of the 19th century were able to begin producing the metal with greater ease for jewelry production. By the Edwardian period, platinum had become the most popular jewelry metal for its great strength and beauty, and thanks to tastemakers like Tiffany & Co. who used the material in many timeless creations.
The Art Deco period and its aesthetics brought the use of platinum to new heights, particularly following the discovery of the world’s largest platinum deposit in the Merensky Reef of South Africa. During the World War II, however, the United States government marked it as a strategic material. It was prohibited for jewelry production in the US until the end of the war, slowly regaining its popularity. Today, platinum is prized for its scarcity and durability, making it the favored choice for engagement rings and other jewelry worn daily.
Browse our website to view our fine and rare jewelry collection and explore the different types of jewelry metals in more depth.
Reeves, Matt. “The History of Gold Jewellery.” Gatsby Jewellery, February 23, 2022.
Phillips, Clare. Jewels & Jewellery. London: Thames and Hudson, 2019.
“Platinum,” Antique Jewelry University. Lang Antiques, 2022.
“Queen Puabi's Headdress.” Penn Museum. Penn Museum, 2020.
“Silver Mining in History.” The Silver Institute, 2022.