Adornment: A History
Every morning, when getting ready for the day, I put on all my rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. If it’s warm outside, I’ll throw on some anklets. Like most people, I don’t think about why I wear jewelry. I just do! It’s pretty and it makes me feel good when I wear it. But lately I’ve been thinking about why? What is it in humans that makes us want to adorn ourselves?
Let’s start at the beginning! The use of manipulated materials for adornment can be traced back as far as 75,000 years ago. Some of the earliest found pieces of jewelry were animal hides, reeds, and leather decorated with animal teeth, berries, and pebbles. Researchers speculate that early humans and Neanderthals alike used these materials as personal decoration or jewelry.
The use of gold and gems in jewelry has been found from millennia ago in cultures across the world including ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India. Self-adornment is evidenced across space and time, across all religions, cultures, and classes.
In the 1940s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with the “Hierarchy of Needs” which dictates human needs from the most basic up to “self-actualization”.
The need for self-adornment falls somewhere between “belongingness” and “esteem needs”. Once our basic needs are met; for food, shelter, and security, we can turn our attention to less pressing matters such as beauty and ornamentation. Evolutionarily speaking, there are a few reasons, both subconscious and not, for self-decoration.
To Be More Attractive
While animals use their bright colors to attract mates, humans have relied on external decorations to stand out from a crowd.
Jewelry holds great aesthetic pleasure, so in place of fancy, jewel-toned feathers like those of a peacock, we use actual jewels and shiny metals to glimmer and draw attention. We value found adornments because they represent nature and beauty that can be created independent of human interference.
Self-decoration and what it considered attractive differs widely between cultures. In some regions people paint their bodies, while other use scarring or binding. Some cultures have made jewelry with teeth, shells or seeds. Some cultures value tattoos and piercing. The desirability of decoration is determined by the values and traditions in each society, so what may seem attractive to some may be considered abhorrent to others.
To Display Social Status
Today, as it has been since the beginning of wealth, we can adorn ourselves with Hermes or Gucci to show our social status. Kings and queens were always the most elaborately adorned, conveying their power and status. Even in the beginning, perhaps someone who was clever enough to create their own beautiful adornments was flaunting their skill and ability to provide. Today, a huge diamond engagement ring symbolizes a provider’s ability to take care of their mate financially.
Jewelry can also convey status by showing “who you know”. Paleontologists note that since prehistoric times jewelry may have been used to convey the wearer’s age, sex, and clan affiliation. Secret societies and fraternities may wear jewelry with special symbols denoting that they belong to a specific group. The need to affiliate oneself with a group in this way secures a certain social status and sense of belonging. The same can be said of best friend necklaces where each friend has one half of a heart on their chain.
To Satisfy the Need for Self-Expression
How we adorn ourselves tells the world who we are, what we care about, who we know. Unique jewelry may help us stand out from the crowd. The rarity and value of what we wear boosts our self-esteem and can enhance our self-concept.
We also use jewelry to express our love for others. The best example of this is the custom of giving engagement rings, and exchanging wedding bands. These adornments serve as an announcement to those around us of our feelings and commitments to each other.
To Gain from its Energy or Power
For thousands of years, humans have allocated significance and meaning to certain stones and metals, wearing them in hopes of imbibing those qualities into ourselves. Some jewelry was said to bring luck while others may have healing powers or the ability to open the wearer to love.
In native cultures jewelry made from a certain animal may be able to bring the qualities of that animal to the wearer. For instance, wearing a bear claw may make a man stronger and more courageous while wearing bird feathers could bring a sense of freedom and swiftness.
Religious pendants such a crosses may bring the wearer a sense of protection and serve as a reminder of the divine in everyday life. Other types of pendant serve as specific talismans, a common example is donning a pendant of Saint Christopher who is said to protect travelers on their journeys.
The idea of birthstones and crystal healing encourage adornment with certain gemstones to achieve a goal or establish a meaningful connection.
In conclusion, jewelry is our way of reminding ourselves and telling the world who we are and what we care about. All of the concepts that make us human- love, God, eternity, fidelity, wealth, and so on, have inspired us to create a language of jewelry and adornment to express ourselves and to define our nature on this earth.