Necklaces have a fascinating origin story. From precious metals to gemstones, read on to learn about history's most famous necklaces.
By the Upper Paleolithic era, circa 50,000 BCE, humans were fashioning necklaces from feathers, bone, plant material and shells well before they settled into established agrarian societies. By the Bronze Age, 3300 BCE to 1200 BCE, the usage of metal largely replaced natural materials in the art of jewelry making. Although styles and designs varied, the residents of ancient Babylon, Egypt and Sumer all made necklaces of lapis lazuli, agate, beads and gold. Join us on a journey through the ages as we go through early history’s most impressive necklace styles and gemstones.
Collars and Chokers
One of the most familiar ancient necklaces is the Egyptian collar, the usekh, a broad collar that wrapped around one’s neck and laid on the shoulders. Usekh were typically adorned with closely placed rows of colored stone beads, or made entirely of precious metals like gold. By the New Kingdom, broad collar necklace styles were the most frequently worn pieces of jewelry among the royalty and elite in ancient Egypt. This pictured necklace belonged to one of the three foreign wives of Thutmose III and features elegant gold eagles and hand-crafted beads.
Broad Collar. Circa 1479–1425 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Gold Necklace by Bulgari. M.S. Rau.
Although collars are still crafted and worn by jewelry collectors, chokers are the more common shorter necklace style in the modern era. Like collars, chokers are fitted and sit high on the neck. The fitted choker necklace was a favorite among European royalty in the 18th and 19th centuries, largely in part to the United Kingdom’s Queen Alexandra who wanted to hide a small scar on her neck. With their ability to convey a subtle grandiosity, 18th and 19th-century chokers often featured fabrics, diamonds, rare gemstone and pearls in ornate settings.
Thanks to modern celebrities and designers, the choker’s popularity is still ever-present. Rihanna, a Grammy-winning artist and cultural icon, often sports the famed Fallon choker, beloved also by stars like Emma Roberts and the Kardashians. Similarly, this Bulgari choker is made from spectacular gold and evokes motifs of the Ancient Roman civilizations that came before it.
Rihanna in Fallon choker. Photo: instagram/fallonjewelry
Victorian Gold Locket Necklace. M.S. Rau.
Victorian Enamel, Diamond and Pearl Locket. M.S. Rau.
By definition, a locket is a pendant that opens up to reveal a portrait, a lock of hair, or even a minuscule love letter from someone close to you. Designs for the locket can be traced back to 16th century Europe, but they were not always seen as a romantic gesture. For example, some lockets and pendant necklaces
were worn to pledge allegiance to a fallen leader in times of political turmoil. In other instances, lockets were used to hold healing herbs, perfumes to mask a stench, or even poison! In these cases, lockets were worn by men just as much as they were worn by women. An appealing aspect of these accessories was the element of something hidden- something just for you.
This, of course, developed to become a more affectionate notion. The secretive concept of the locket can bring two people closer together with the understanding that this physical object is a representation of the strength of a relationship. This does not always have to be romantic. Queen Elizabeth I of England, for example, wore her locket ring daily that contained two portraits; one of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and another of herself. She continued to show her appreciation for the accessory by gifting her loved ones lockets containing a portrait of herself so that she may always be held close to their hearts.
The sentimental history of the locket is a rich one. Today, people wear lockets for a variety of reasons. They could be gifted between a bride and groom on their wedding day, as a birthday or anniversary present, or simply as a keepsake for a loved one moving away. The nostalgic aspect of the locket makes it perhaps one of the most heart-felt jewelry pieces to be gifted.
Tahitian Baroque Pearl Opera Necklace. M.S. Rau.
Although shorter necklace styles are practical, it was only a matter of time before jewelry makers opted for elongated elegance. An opera necklace has a length of about 26-36 inches and the name refers to the tradition of wearing this length necklace with formal evening attire. Not confided to the opera scene, these necklaces can be worn for any elegant occasion.
Most opera necklaces commonly feature a string of pearls, like this present example. As versatile as it is luxurious, this stunning strong of pearls can be worn as a single, opera-length strand or doubled for a shorter look.
Rare Gem Pendent Necklaces
Harry Winston Golconda Diamond Necklace, 38.00 Carats. M.S. Rau.
Designers such as Jacques Timey and Harry Winston
have showcased the world’s most magnificent gemstones in statement necklaces that draw the eye of collectors, celebrities, and museums alike. This pictured necklace was once owned by Greek businesswoman and late heiress Christina Onassis. It was a gift from her father Aristotle Onassis, husband to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who Winston also made jewelry for. Provenance aside, the necklace features one incredible gemstone.
Timey sourced a mesmerizing 38-carat Golconda diamond for the centerpiece. For the unversed, the legendary Golconda mines in India produced diamonds for nearly 2,000 years and are responsible for some of the world’s best gems. The coveted stones possess a level of clarity, purity and transparency unmatched by most others. As such, they are often referred to as the “ultimate diamonds.”
Winston, a.k.a. the King of Diamonds, founded his business in 1932 and was the go-to jeweler for well-heeled socialites. In addition to the heiress and her mother Jackie O, he designed statement pendants for celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor
, as well as royalty like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Interested in learning more about diamonds? Check out our blog to read about the types of diamond cuts and types of diamond shapes to discover your favorite style.
Paraibas: The King of Tourmalines
Azul da Paraiba, 37.34 Carats. M.S. Rau.
Very seldom will a magnificent gem whose likes have never before been seen surface in the market and leave all who have seen it stunned. When a gem like this exceptional pendant featuring a unique 37-carat Brazilian Paraiba — likely the greatest gem of its kind ever mined, surfaces, it is only natural that the jeweler would decide to create marvelous pendant necklaces
. With its untreated deep neon blue coloring and size, the mesmerizing rarity of this gem is best understood as the “Hope Diamond“ of Paraibas.
In 1981, the gem miner Heitor Dimas Barbosa, commonly known among the local villagers as “Heitor the Fool,” began tunneling in the hill behind São José de Batalha, Paraíba, Brazil. Barbosa was determined that his hunch would lead to finding a new gemstone. Despite having no electricity or dependable water, Barbosa persevered with faith for over six years through the rugged and arid landscape on his quest. In 1987, his efforts were rewarded by the discovery of the first Brazilian Paraiba, a stunning gem that was unlike any stone ever found.
The astonishing rarity of the size and untreated color of this Paraiba would be difficult to overstate. With the exception of this gem, there are no other untreated Brazilian Paraibas over thirty carats known. Also, well over 99% of Paraiba gems are treated with a slow heat to further bring out their neon blue coloring. The only possible way to showcase a gem as spectacular as this is to display it front and center in a stunning pendant.
Necklaces are almost as versatile as the many people who wear them. Want to learn more? Check out our magnificent collection of modern and estate necklaces that are sure to stun.
And if you’re wanting something to pair with your necklace, learn more about different earring styles and the history of earrings to find a look that best suits you.