Jewelry was most commonly made from precious metals during the Middle Ages. Like nowadays, gold jewelry was the rarest, and therefore the most expensive.
Other materials like silver, platinum, copper, and bronze would also have been used. Precious gemstones and glasswork were often used in expensive pieces of jewelry to make them more beautiful.
Most of the gold used in medieval jewelry was recycled, and was usually obtained by melting down the coins of other ancient civilizations. A large proportion of this gold came from overseas, and particularly from the Middle East.
Gold mining was also popular during the Middle Ages, and the mines of Hungry produced over 85% of the gold in circulation during the Late Middle Ages. When gold was not available, silver and silver-grit would be used, but neither were well-liked by the upper classes.
Because of this, silver jewelry was seen as the commoner’s choice in most European cultures, though this was not the case in Scandinavia. The Vikings worked primarily with silver rather than gold, and saw all non-silver metals as having less value.
The most common forms of jewelry in medieval times were necklaces, rings, pendants, and brooches; though the most iconic form of jewelry was the crown.
Crowns were worn by kings and queens all across Europe, and were perhaps the most ostentatious (showy, highly-decorated) example of medieval jewelry.
In the early Middle Ages, most jewelry was functional. Jewel-laden belts and brooches were the most common types used because they were required to fasten clothing, and there is little evidence of other jewelry being worn for style.
Brooches were often used as signifiers (signs) of a person’s wealth, and particularly in the late Middle Ages, of the family one came from.
Some nobles commissioned brooches which featured their family’s emblem/coat of arms, as a means of showcasing their family’s power to the public.
Rings, belt buckles, and even coat buttons were similarly marked with family emblems in the later Middle Ages, and all became synonymous (associated a lot) with status and wealth.
Necklaces, typically, were only worn as status symbols; however, in the case of the Middle Age Vikings, they were a very common type of jewelry.
Where Southern European necklaces were extremely ornate and complex in design, Viking necklaces were simple bands of metal which hung loosely around the throat, and rarely had any jewels at all.
Both commoners and noblemen owned jewelry in the Middle Ages. As the craft progressed, commoner jewelry became so popular that laws were passed to limit how many pieces of jewelry one could wear that were tied to how much land they owned.
These laws were, however, ignored most of the time, and so the nobles began to wear more expensive/complex pieces of jewelry to distinguish themselves from the commonfolk. This contributed to jewelry’s increasing value over the Late Middle Ages, and explains why the craft became so much more complicated over time.
There were, however, certain pieces of jewelry which could only be worn by specific members of society.
Wearing jewelry emblazoned with another family’s crest was a grave social error, and would lead to a person being ostracized (shunned/kicked out) from their community if they did so.
Crowns were also seen as being exclusive to the king/queen and their court, so were not sold by jewelers, but similar headpieces (coronets/circlets) were produced and sold to mimic the effect. These were only worn by wealthy members of society.
– Precious metals, such as gold and silver.
– Brooches and belts.
– The amount of land they owned.