Jewelry refers to the use of metals, beads, glass, bone, wood, shells, or stones to adorn the body, and has been worn by men or women (or both) in every known society throughout the world. Jewelry is typically created with a precious metal such as gold, platinum, silver, or bronze acting as the base and adding to that any number of stones, beads, or glass as further decoration. Other common bases include carved or molded wood, clay, bone (such as ivory) and today, plastic.Some jewelry doesn’t use a base at all but instead is made from beads or shells or stones strung together on a string or animal sinew.
Jewelry is both decorative and functional. In many societies, the wearing of precious stones and metals was a way of storing and displaying wealth, and jewelry itself often served as a form of currency as well as dowry for women. Other practical functions include the use of some kinds of jewelry, such as buckles and brooches, to keep clothing together, and the use of jewelry to hold items, such as pendants which can carry a photo or perfume and rings which could hold snuff.
Around the world, many cultures have used jewelry as a form of protection against evil. Amulets, for example, are stones or metals, or sometimes a bag of herbs or other magical items, which are worn to protect the wearer from evil. Some Christians wear a medal belonging to a saint which provides protection and could bring good luck, and many Christians see the wearing of a crucifix as a form of protection. Milagros are small silver images used by Mexican and Southwest Catholics which were traditionally attached to statues of saints as a reminder of the person’s prayer or request, although today they are often worn as jewelry. In this sense, jewelry and tattoos often perform the same religious function, although tattoos can provide the wearer with permanent protection.
Cameos, which include a carved likeness of a person, and lockets, which include a photo of a person, are often used as memorials of the dead or as commemorations of a loved one.
Finally, jewelry, like other adornments, often demonstrate social status and group membership. Religiousicons such as the cross, pentagram, or Star of David mark one as a member of a particular religious tradition. The wearing of expensive jewelry demonstrates one’s elevated status, and in some societies, such as ancient
Rome, only the elites were allowed to wear certain items of jewelry. The wearing of a particular piece of jewelry, such as a wedding ring, demonstrates one’s status as a married person. Tiaras are associated with royalty. For a time period in the 1990s, it was common to associate men who wore earrings with
homosexuality. Wealthy men in China wore hat buttons which demonstrated rank and Chinese women wore strips of gold decorated with gems on their foreheads, as a sign of status. The men of some Papuan tribes are allowed to wear specific headdresses once they have killed an enemy.
Most jewelry is used to temporarily adorn the surface of the body, and includes hairpins, headdresses, and barrettes for the hair, broaches and pins for clothing, necklaces and chokers for the neck, rings for the finger and toes, earrings for the ears, and bracelets for the arms. Other types of jewelry, however, are used to adorn
temporary or permanent body modifications, and thus many are more adornments in the body rather than on the body. This includes a wide variety of jewelry used to adorn pierced ears, plus studs, rings, bones, and tusks for facial piercings and body piercings.
Some items of jewelry are used to modify the body itself. For instance, girls of the Padaung tribe in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) traditionally had large golden rings placed around their necks and their calves from about 5 years old. Over the years, more rings are added, until an adult Padaung woman’s neck carries over twenty pounds of rings and is extended by 10–15 inches.
Many African cultures use jewelry to stretch the earlobes, or enlarge ear piercings, while some African tribes as well as some South American tribes as well as ancient Meso-Americans have used lip plates or plugs to piercing the lips. A number of Pacific Northwest Indian groups also used labrets in their lips. Both of these practices have been incorporated into modern primitivist practices today.
Today, specialized jewelry is made specifically to be used in facial and body piercing. Much of today’s piercing jewelry styles were created initially by Jim Ward of the Gauntlet. From the wide variety of earrings available around the world today to the studs, barbells, labrets, ear spirals, nipple shields, tusks, and
other items of jewelry used in modern body piercings, piercing afficianados can choose from a wide variety of pieces made from surgical steel, gold, silver, bone, titanium, glass, and other materials.