the Gilded Pearl

Gothic Period Jewelry

by Lady Elwisia Mouche de Voujeaucourt
[mka Michelle M. B. Beale]

The culture of the Gothic period was enthralled with concept of chivalry, which focused on the chaste worship of women. This ideology effected many of the arts including the design of jewelry. Gifts of jewelry, exchanged by lovers, assumed a new sentimental value and a highly personal significance for the wearer. Finger rings and ring brooches are frequently enriched with amatory inscriptions and mottoes, praising a woman's beauty as a divine gift and acknowledging the quality of pure love (Heiniger & Heiniger, pp 146-7.)


Brooches, rings, pendants, hat badges or ornaments and decorative belt clasps were worn by men and women in the Gothic era (Tait, p 140.) Necklaces and pendants were popular ornaments worn by women as the neckline began to fall during the second half of the 15th century, despite laws forbidding the showing of the neck and shoulders (Heiniger & Heiniger, p 148.) Beautiful representations of necklaces can be seen in the portraits of the Duchesses of Burgundy - Isabella of Bourbon, Isabella of Portugal, and Margaret of Bavaria. Earrings do not appear to have been popular during this period, most likely due to the elaborately decorated head gear worn by the ladies.


Chains worn around the neck or over the shoulders could be a sign of allegiance to a brotherhood, political faction, or symbol of office. Through the 15th and early part of the 16th century it was common for a prince to reward faithful service with the present of a gold chain, which was easily convertible into cash (Somers-Cocks, p9.) This can be seen in the portraits of the Duke Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold by Roger Van der Weyden, each wearing a chain with a pendant of the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of knighthood, which was conceived and created as a counterpart to the English Order of the Garter.


Devotional jewels became increasingly fashionable during the 14th century and before the end of the century most countries in Europe had introduced sumptuary laws regulating what private citizens spent on luxury goods including restricting the wearing of jewels, which had become a clear sign of rank. For example, in England, Edward III's Statute of 1363, forbid craftsmen and yeoman (and their wives and children) to wear gold or silver jewelry and also denied knights the right to wear rings and brooches made of gold or studded with precious stones. The law not only provided a list of different sorts of jewelry worn at the time, but it was a reminder that jewelry was much more than an optional personal adornment - it was a sign of the wearer's place in society. This also upholds the upper class' desire to maintain a social hierarchy in terms of ornamental display (Somers-Cocks, p 5.)

The sumptuary law also suggests that by the mid 14th century much more jewelry was being made and worn by more citizens than in previous centuries. This is supported by the fact that more pieces survived from this time than previous periods and confirmed by the prominent appearance of jewelry in contemporary portraits (Somers-Cocks, p 6.)

Elaborate gifts of brooches, necklaces and rings were exchanged at New Year by members of court in a princely house, and every diplomatic encounter also involved exchanges of goldsmiths' work and jewelry. For example, the accounts of the Duke of Burgundy for 1396-7 show a payment to three Italian merchants from Genoa, Florence and Lucca for jewels, among which was a gold hind (female deer) with the device of the King of England, decorated with stones which "our Lord gave at St. Omer to the Earl of Derby, when the King, our liege, and the Queen of England dined with him" (Somers-Cocks, p 5.)


The ever-growing luxury of 14th century European courtly society reached its pinnacle at the French courts of Charles VI (1380-1422) and of his uncle Duc de Berry, though for sheer opulence the Burgundian courts of the Netherlands under Philip the Good (1419-67) and Charles the Bold (1467-77) were unrivaled. Quality of craftsmanship and originality of design in the use of gold and precious stones was never more appreciated or encouraged than by these courtly princes.

In 1454, at a pageant in Lille, the Duke of Burgundy wore jewelry valued at over 1 million Thalers, but Burgundy was by then the wealthiest country in the world and this princely treasury of jewels could be converted into a form of capital in times of emergency (Heiniger & Heiniger p 147.)

By the end of the 13th century, French and Italian goldsmiths were again using enamel to decorate their jewels, but in a very different way with a completely different result. The new technique known as bassetaille (bas- relief) enameling, consisted of cutting away a design or figural composition in low relief on a sheet of silver or gold and flooding the area with colored translucent enamel. Because the highest point of the relief is below the surface of the surrounding metal, the enamel lies in varying thicknesses over the whole area and because the enamel is translucent not only does the composition of the low relief show through, but the light is reflected back from the silver or gold through the varying thicknesses of the enamel - thereby adding a brilliant tonal quality to the enamels and creating an impression of three dimensional modeling ranging from the bright highlights of thin enameling to the rich tones of the deep recesses of the engraved relief (Heiniger & Heiniger, p 147.)

Medallions to be worn as pendants or sewn on the dress, as well as small pendant reliquaries (saintly mementoes), designed to be worn around the neck, were enameled in this technique with both secular and religious scenes.

Great use was made of a new enameling technique developed by French and Burgundian goldsmiths in the late 14th century known as email en ronde bosse ( in the round), or encrusted enameling, which consisted of creating a miniature sculpture in gold, either in the round or in very high relief and covering it with layers of differently colored enamel. This meant that jewelry could almost be as multicolored as painted sculpture (Heiniger & Heiniger, p 148.)

Stones were beginning to add great brilliance to jewelry. Near the end of the 14th century, Parisian lapidaries developed improved methods for diamond and stone cutting, they could do more than merely table-cut the natural diamond and polish colored stones (Somers-Cocks, p 15.) Table cutting consisted of grinding off the tip of a natural octahedron, one of the shapes in which diamond crystals occur. Lapidaries began to discover how faceting of diamonds and other precious stones caused light to be captured within the stone making them more appealing to the eye and increased their popularity, especially that of diamonds (Mason & Packer, pp 106-108.) Gold and precious stones became essential ingredients of the new fashion. The increased supply and demand for precious stones led to laws forbidding the use of paste gems and false pearls. In 1355 French jewelers were forbidden to use river pearls mixed with Oriental pearls or to put tinted foil under amethysts and carbuncles to enhance their color (Heiniger & Heiniger, pp 147-8.)

A diamond with as many as six facets appears in the jewelry worn by the Madonna in Jan Van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece (completed in 1432.) As the fire and brilliance of the stones was released, they came to occupy a larger part in the overall design of jewels. Diamonds had a sudden rise in popularity in the 15th century. Skilled stone cutters of the Netherlands began to lay the foundations of their future eminence in gem cutting around this time (Heiniger & Heiniger, p 148.)

Rings were very popular during the Gothic period ranging from simple bands to very elaborate works. Several were worn on each hand with usually more than one on a finger having one or two at the base and one between the first and second knuckle. Occasionally rings were also worn on the thumb. Styles ranged from round bands, polygon-shaped hoops, prominent bezels, Gothic lettered inscriptions worked in niello, to precious stones. One beautiful example is the ring of John the Fearless, the second Duke of Burgundy. The Duke's ring has a bezel in high relief flanked by two dragons arising out of fleurs-de-lys crowns and on the top part of the ring is his likeness carved from different stones making up his face, hat, collar, and shoulder then set in gold (Gregorietti, pp84-85.)

Seal-rings were by far the most common form of jewelry since they were an essential mean of identification and were worn by more than just the upper classes - such as non-armigerous owners often engraved with a so-called merchant's mark which was an abstract symbol of a geometric nature (Somers- Cocks, p 15.)

Another more specialized aspect of the lapidary's craft was also flourishing at this period, in the French and Burgundian territories, and in Italy; the art of cutting intaglios and cameos on precious and semi-precious stones. In the course of the 15th century, the art of cutting cameos and intaglios flourished because of an important change which was taking place in European culture - the revival of interest in the literature and art of Greece and Rome. As the movement spread across Europe - the decorative arts were effected. The vocabulary of ornament changed from the naturalism, the architectural elements, and black letter inscriptions of late Gothic to the acanthus leaf in all its forms, to Cupids, grotesques, gods and goddesses, Roman lettering and all the elements of classical architecture.

Many new techniques and styles flourished during the Gothic period to embellish the fashion of the age. Enameling once again became popular and has survived through our present day, still allowing us to appreciate its beauty. Jewelry served many purposes during this era - appreciation and honor towards a lady, religious devotion, reward of service, represent a person's station in society, political tendencies, and the symbol of office. The beauty of the Gothic era has been captured in these works of jeweled art.


  1. Calmette, Joseph. The Golden Age of Burgundy.
    W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York 1963

  2. Gregorietti, Guido. Jewelry, History & Technique from the Egyptians to the Present.
    Chartwell Books, Inc., Secaucus, New Jersey 1979.

  3. Heiniger, Ernst A. & Jean Heiniger. The Great Book of Jewels.
    New York Graphic Society, Boston, Massachusetts 1974.

  4. Mason, Anita & Diane Packer. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewellery.
    Osprey Publishing Ltd., Reading, Berkshire, Great Britian 1973.

  5. Somers-Cocks, Anna. An Introduction to Courtly Jewellry.
    Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, England 1982.

  6. Tait, Hugh. Jewelry, 7,000 Years.
    Abradale Press, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, New York 1991.

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