The necklace: from antiquity to the present

today7 May 2022

Written by: Claudia Carletti


Speaker: Amanda Triossi


This talk will introduce the readers to the stylistic development of the necklace – from its origins to recent times.

Through this overview the readers will not only appreciate the extraordinary stylistic development of the necklace, which is linked largely to the changes of fashion, but also will appreciate all aspects that determine the value of a particular jewelled ornament.



Necklaces are like rings, items that have always been worn. The very early necklaces date back to 70.000 B.C., and women have always worn them.


In ancient Egypt there were spectacular pieces with broad colours rendered with polychrome beads. In Greek times (circa 330 B.C.), there were fringe necklaces. We have creations in the Roman world, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance down to the 17th and the 18th century. It is a jewel which popularity never fades in time despite the changes in styles, shapes and materials.


The 18th century

In the 18th century, necklaces tend to be worn close around the neck as chokers, not to interfere with the elaborate decoration on the bodice. They tend to be entirely paved with gemstones. The more lavish examples are set with diamonds, which is a great novelty at that time, following the discovery of diamond mines in Brazil. Unfortunately, very few of them survive, and the examples that have come to our days are in the same shape and form, but are set with less precious gems – such as garnets. Same as diamonds, garnets paved the entire surface of the jewel, very tightly set – a typical feature of the 18th century.


Another characteristic of necklaces in the 18th century is that they have no clasp. Instead, necklaces are secured to the back of the neck by a big ribbon bow. Late 18th century necklaces look more geometric. Clear stones are set in close setting (i.e., in a gold foil so that no part of the stone below the girdle is exposed to light, n.d.r.), and they are usually backed in silver, while coloured stones are backed in gold. Gold and silver are the typical metals of and way of mounting a necklace in the 18th century.


The beginning of the 19th century

In the 19th century, in the period post the French Revolution, around 1800, women’s fashion requires to look as classical as possible. Women are wearing white muslin clothes to try and emulate ancient statues as closely as possible. With such a classical look, necklaces are worn on the base of the neck. A typical design presents rigorous oval elements that are very flat, linear and connected by chains, quite often evoking classical themes.


One example is shell cameo necklaces, the cameos decorated with classical themes taken from ancient mythology, to complement this “neo-classical” look. Another decorative art applied to necklaces in this period is the micro mosaic, typical of the souvenir jewels. These necklaces present micro mosaic ovals depicting, for example, views of Rome – quite common at the time. However, in the highest echelons of society, at court, and in particular in the circle of the Napoleonic Court, there is a great abundance of precious gemstones, arranged in the same way as the humbler cameos necklaces – same design, same oval elements and same chains connecting these ovals. The same style is applied to different levels of preciousness.


The Restoration

During the Restoration period, everything classical, related to the Napoleonic era, is scrapped, going back to more nostalgic pre-Napoleonic look. It is fashionable, in the 1820s into 1830s, to wear dresses with very exaggerated sleeves, counterbalanced by long earrings and important necklaces. It is no longer the plain, simple, classical look, but quite an elaborate one.


What is typical of these pieces of the 1820s and 30s is the gold work, which in jewellery is known as “cannetille”. “Cannetille” is a term which defines a type of embroidery – a kind of filigree that looks like embroidery. The jewels of this period are light, lacy and delicate, although showy and very ornate. Definitely that simplicity of the early 19th century is completely “passée”.


The 1840s – 1850s

In the 1840s and 50s the big word is naturalism. And with naturalism, you have one of the most typical examples of necklaces, in the shape of serpents biting their tails.


Precursor of the Bulgari ones by far, one of the most typical examples is the serpent necklace paved with turquoise. In the 19th century, turquoise stands for “forget me not”, and the colour of the Forget Me Not flower is, precisely, turquoise. Therefore, the stone itself means “don’t forget me”. With the snake biting its tail being the symbol of eternity, this necklace is actually a love jewel. The message of these serpents is not at all about evil, but it is a love message: “Don’t forget me. Love me forever”. As the symbolism of forms and stones is deeper, wearers in the 19th century are much more aware of this particular message.


The 1860s and the 1870s

The necklace remains at the base of the neck, but what changes are the motifs and the materials. In the 1860s and 70s there comes to be a craze for archaeological revival jewellery and women go to wear ancient-looking jewellery. Archaeological revival necklaces were copies of genuine ancient pieces. Jewellers like Castellani try to reproduce not only the design but also the materials, and the techniques. Sometimes, these necklaces are close replicas. Some other times they are pastiches: they look like antique in style but are an invention of the late 19th century jewellers, as no such necklace would ever have been created in ancient times.

Materials become unusual: from little shells to tiger claws, for example: this was a consequence of improved travel, of tourism, and people going travelling and acquiring souvenir jewellery in exotic locations and bringing them back to Europe.


The 1880s

Jewellery reverts to more traditional materials, and mainly to diamonds, as a direct consequence of new mine discoveries in South Africa, in 1867-68. Necklaces are worn in great profusion, and there is the comeback of the choker. However, this time the choker is never worn alone, but always together with another necklace underneath.


Quite often the necklaces are convertible, and can be worn either at the base of the neck, under the choker, or as tiara through their frames. The story goes that this trend started with Alexandra, The Princess of Wales, who set this fashion to conceal a scar that she had on her neck.


Between the 19th and the early 20th century

Chokers, mainly set with diamonds, continue to be worn also in the early 20th century, together with an abundance of other necklaces. The difference of a 19th century choker compared to a 20th century one is that, in the 1880s, they would have been with diamonds mounted in silver and gold. Instead, in the 20th century, diamonds are mounted in platinum, which makes them light and lacy.


Furthermore, chokers present one of the typical motifs that make them so recognisable: the Garland motif, which defines the period known in jewellery history books today as the Garland Style – one of the elements inspiring the Garland style being the decorations in ormolu that can be found in furniture typical of the Louis XVI style and which presents garland-style ormolu decorations – thus leading the way to the international spread of this style in jewellery.


The 1920s

In the 1920s chokers are replaced by long necklaces, which become the must-have jewel because they enhance the vertical line of the 1920s dress, which calls for long necklaces.  Sometimes some rare examples also have exotic motifs. This is the period of the Egyptian revival jewels and Egyptian motifs feature very prominently, specially following the sensational discovery, in November 1922 of the tomb of Tutankhamun. These Egyptian-styled sautoirs would feature for example faux hieroglyphs, and the Egyptian inspiration is very visible, making them another IT-jewel.


The 1930s

Into the 1930s the necklace becomes short again and is worn at the base of the neck. The necklaces of this period are characterised by geometric motifs and are very precious, with great abundance of diamonds. A typical feature of necklaces of the 1930s is that they are convertible, with detachable parts that can be worn as clips, as ear clips and even as a tiara.


The 1940s

In 1940s, the changes in the manufacture of the necklaces are linked to the material used: yellow gold. The 1940s is the decade of the Second World War, and materials are scarce. Platinum is requisitioned for the armament industry, and the supply of gemstones is interrupted. These “war jewels” are still fantastic pieces, but compared to the ones of the 1930s, they are intrinsically less valuable.


The 1950s

With the 1950s, after the Second World War, there is the comeback of opulence and of important diamond necklaces of high intrinsic value. The necklaces of the 1950s are fluid in design, they are characterized by asymmetrical motifs and, often, by diamond baguettes mounted in channel settings which would end with a cascade of fancy-cut diamonds.


For less formal looks, in the 1950s gold is still a fashionable option. In the 1950s jewellers start competing with the haute couture world, trying to create jewels that seem to be made of precious fabric. Wearing these gold jewels is like having lace, or a scarf in gold mesh, around the neck. An iconic jewel of this period is the Zip Necklace, by Van Cleeef & Arpels, created for the Duchess of Windsor – with a functioning zip, the jewel transforms into a bracelet, and it is recognised as one of the maison’s signature pieces since then.


The 1960s

The 1960s is the period of the miniskirts. It is a period of transgression, where everyone in every field was trying to break the rules of the past and being innovative. In fine jewellery, we still have traditional materials, but the design is unconventional.


The gold texture becomes rough, gemstones are set uncut. This gives the jewels a very organic look. Even those designers that are choosing more traditional materials are conveying this abstract design in their creations, a roughness that is typical of the 1960s, and in break with jewellery tradition.


The 1970s

In the 1970s a change in fashion brings in a maxi and deconstructed look, with strong references to ethnicity. All this is reflected in the jewellery of the period, with the necklaces that turn, once again, to the sautoir, presenting ethnic elements like the tassel, which refers to the Indian culture, or the Buddha, which goes back to Asia, together with vividly coloured gemstones. The sautoir necklace is then a common reference in both the 1920s and the 1970s, with the difference that, in the 1970s, diamonds and/or coloured stones would be mounted in yellow gold instead of in white gold or platinum.


The 1980s

This decade is characterised by another tremendous change in fashion: from the maxi, ethnic deconstructed look of the 1970s, to more rigid and very tailored dresses.

These call for equally tight necklaces, very structured and colourful collars – Bulgari and Marina B leading the way.


The whole idea, in this period, is to be bold, and one perfect example in this sense is by Marina B, who set one of her collars with the famous Jonker diamond – at the time the 4th largest diamond found, a D Flawless of over 13 carats. Bold but casual, too, as it is not uncommon to accessorize casual looks with very important jewels.


From the 1990s into the Future

Each and every period in history is a reaction to what comes before. The 1990s react to the boldness of the 1980s with a defined sense of understatement and minimalism. Minimalism becomes the keyword of the period. Jewels become almost invisible, hardly to be seen – one example being necklaces with one single little diamond on a nylon string.


Looking forward to the future: it is fascinating to see how the necklace has changed in terms of shape, largely a result of change in fashion. What the future has in stall has yet to be established, but clearly the development for necklaces, and jewels in general, will be as exciting and as interesting as it has been for the last 72,000 years.

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