Do you remember who the first Europeans were to travel by ship to foreign parts? To trace the history of jewelry in Europe, we should remember the history of navigation and colonialism in long gone times.
The first shipping power in Europe was Portugal. The Portuguese under the guidance of Prince Henri the Navigator, set off in search of spices and gold. They landed up primarily with Brazil, a country immensely rich in gemstones. So, when we look at antique jewelry in Europe, it was the Portuguese who led the pack. They made wonderful jewels, miraculously cut and set to trick the eye into seeing them as being much bigger than they were. Enormously long earrings, huge rings, as finely made as they were big and as sexily wearable today as they were so long ago.
Many women in those days entered convents. Perhaps a husband was not found for them. Perhaps the husband died and they were left widowed. Whatever the story, they brought tremendous jewels and wealth to the convents where they spent their days. Thus, the beautiful antique Portuguese jewelry was saved from the usual melt and re-styling that befell most jewelry in the rest of the world. About 100 years ago, the King unilaterally decided to dissolve the convents (and monasteries), thus releasing much of the jewelry onto the open market.
The Dutch/Netherlanders followed the Iberian Peninsula in colonial adventures. Antique Dutch jewelry is not very well known, but it is out there and very beautiful and well-made it is.
Italy has always produced fantastic jewelry. Long ago, the ancient Romans and Etruscans made gorgeous filigree and granulated work. Castellani, 150 years ago made it his life’s work to emulate them. While he eventually moved to London, we can still attribute his work and study of jewelry to Italy. Similarly, his follower, Carlo Giuliano was a leader of European jewelry manufacture who moved to London.
Even before Castellani and Giuliano, every region in Italy produced its own style of jewels. Tiny pearls often decorate long gold ear pendants of the Georgian era. They are not to be confused with similar-looking jewelry made in Mexico to this day. These long pearl earrings are a huge draw when worn today. They are usually day/night or top and drop, which means that you can wear the tops alone by day or together with the drops at night for a more elegant look. These natural pearl earrings are perfect for a bride on her wedding day.
The Italians are the source of two more wonderful kinds of jewelry: micro mosaic and Florentine Mosaics. Micro mosaics are sometimes referred to as Roman mosaics. They are like little paintings, but instead of pigment, the artist uses tiny stones, called tesserae to compose a picture. Florentine mosaics are inlaid colored stones, much like miniature pietra dura with the subject matter depicting flowers, butterflies and birds.
German jewelry is a little heavier and more solid in look than jewelry made in western Europe. Hungary made fabulous enameled jewelry, set with semi-precious gems on silver. These jewels are made in the style of the Renaissance and depict maidens and monsters of that era. Because it’s in silver, it is often more affordable than a lot of other jewelry, but prices have been rising consistently in this area too.
Many countries in Europe developed national traits in their jewelry making. The Swiss excelled in enamel; the Bohemians in garnets and the Danish in Modern Design. However, craftsmen were often on the move. Whether to escape from religious persecution or to look for rosier financial conditions, there was a continual flow of design and technical skills from country to country. Nearer to our own times, we know of many top designers and companies that ultimately found their way to American shores. Today, we live in something of a global village and it is often difficult to differentiate national characteristics of modern designers.
Every country had its traditional gold standard. For example, in Italy, gold is usually 14k, but not always so; in Portugal, gold to this day is 19.25k. When the French influenced a region, the purity of gold was 18k regardless of the country.
While there may not be stringent rules and regulations applicable to all of Europe, one law should always be observed by the savvy buyer: look for top quality and buy what you love. You are sure to find a lot of that in the beautiful jewelry made in Europe.