The Renaissance period was a time of great innovation for painters, sculptors and artisans of all sorts. Following the stagnation of the Middle Ages came a renewed interest in Classical knowledge, as well as significant achievements in artistic and scientific pursuits. Included in this wave of creativity and innovation was the realm of jewelry, and Renaissance jewelry has become a treasured period for collectors of antique jewelry. Read on to learn more about Renaissance jewelry history.
What is Renaissance jewelry?
Renaissance jewelry encompasses the many wearable decorative pieces crafted during the Renaissance period, which began in the 14th century and ended in the 17th century. During the Renaissance, jewelry was considered a form of art, and its owners highly valued it for reasons beyond its capacity to display one’s wealth.
Jewelry during this period was not restricted only to the highest classes of society, although royals would have access to their own court jeweler who could create amazing custom jewelry pieces to fit their demands. Additionally, men, as well as women, wore jewelry often. Still, the types of jewelry worn differed based on gender. For example, both men and women wore engagement rings, but while women wore theirs on their fingers, men would wear the ring on a chain as a pendant.
During the Renaissance, the types of jewelry worn included the basic necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings we often wear today, but other forms were also prevalent, including head ornaments and pins to decorate hats. Some women wore jewels on the bodices of their dresses as well.
Much of the research on Renaissance jewelry has come from portraits painted during this time, which showcase the creative and fantastic pieces popular with the upper class. These fantastic paintings provide a window into the most desirable types of jewelry, like the dramatic layered necklaces seen in the portrait above.
In the mythological scene above, a variety of jewels, including an arm cuff, necklace, earrings and headpiece, are worn by Leda, the central figure of this Greco-Roman tale. The painter expertly renders the square-cut red gemstones dotting the arm cuff and intricate gold details. Many of the most famous Renaissance painters and sculptors had experience working as goldsmiths, including Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. The close relationship between these fields of painting and metalworking emphasizes the artistic nature of jewelry and the level of detail put into each jewelry piece.
Who made Renaissance jewelry?
The artisans who crafted Renaissance jewelry had different specialties, although all were highly skilled craftsmen. Goldsmiths created new techniques for decorative settings and intricate gold designs, while lapidaries skillfully shaped gems to be used in jewelry. Many techniques were used in crafting the metal settings for jewelry, from filigree design to enamel design, all requiring precision and patience from the jeweler or goldsmith. For lapidaries, the table cut was very popular, and this simple rectangular shape can be seen in many rings and pendants from the Renaissance. These skill sets would have been necessary to create the most elaborate jewelry pieces, which always included multiple gemstones and delicate goldwork. Jewelry was a collaborative process during the Renaissance, requiring highly skilled labor and constant collaboration to create these intricate works. The style they created endured, with Renaissance Revival jewelry becoming a staple of the Victorian era.
Curious about the history and art of crafting jewelry? Learn more about different enameling techniques in the world of antique jewelry.
What jewelry was most popular during the Renaissance?
Regarding the themes seen in jewelry during this time, two specific influences stand out, both of which are still popular today — the natural world and remembrances of antiquity. The beautiful aspects of nature were inspiring to artists, who incorporated everything from animals to floral motifs into their works. Similar to the rest of the Renaissance, which emphasized the importance of Classical civilizations, pieces like a jewelry item could also feature scenes and motifs from ancient times.
The pendant is one of the most iconic pieces of Renaissance jewelry. A unique feature of Renaissance pendants is that many showcased carved designs on both the back and front, emphasizing the perspective of jewelry as wearable art. Pendants like the fascinating cameo pendant seen above would often include delicate enamel designs, natural types of pearls and a wide variety of gemstones and gemstone colors. (If you're looking to add a cameo pendant to your jewelry collection, explore our selection of antique pendants.) Additionally, some pendants could either be worn as necklaces or pinned to one’s dress, providing more versatility in this already highly desirable jewelry.
Although rings of all types were popular and it was considered stylish to wear them on all five fingers, one of the most popular and precious stones used was the ruby. However, one of the interesting facts about rubies is that many of the richly hued gemstones believed to be rubies during the Renaissance were actually an entirely different gemstone — the spinel. Possessing a range of colors all the way from deep red to velvety blue, spinels have been mined alongside rubies and sapphires for centuries, with no way to tell the difference until an 18th-century study conducted by mineralogists. Both rubies and spinels can be seen in some of the greatest Renaissance jewels, many of which are seen in museum collections today. For collectors looking for a touch of history combined with contemporary style, shop M.S. Rau's curated selection of natural ruby jewelry.
During the Renaissance, many of the precious stones we value today for their color or clarity were treasured for a different reason: their possible magical and mystical stone properties. Dating back to the Medieval period prior to the Renaissance, astrological and magical properties were associated with different gemstones, and this belief continued into the Renaissance.
Of the many antique jewelry styles, Renaissance jewelry stands out as a fascinating period of history marked by innovation in all forms. The techniques used for every aspect of jewelry design, from metalwork to the shaping of gemstones, evolved during this highly creative time.
You can explore M.S. Rau’s entire collection of antique jewelry on our website.
Wardropper, Ian. “Between Art and Nature: Jewelry in the Renaissance.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 25, no. 2 (2000): 7–104.
Rodini, Elizabeth. “The Language of Stones.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 25, no. 2 (2000): 17–104.