The History of Giving Jewelry as a Gift
Almost everyone has given or received a piece of jewelry as a gift at some point in their lives. We love to give our loved ones rings, necklaces, or bracelets for special occasions, such as graduations, engagements, weddings, births, and anniversaries. These objects will often have a special meaning to us, because of the occasion and our relationship to the person who gave them to us. Often, we even give custom jewelry or handmade jewelry, like inscribed rings or bracelets with meaningful beads, to make the gift truly personal. But how did this tradition of giving jewelry as a gift start?
Already in prehistoric and ancient cultures, it was common to give loved ones handmade jewelry like talismans or amulets to ward off bad luck, bring fertility to newlywed couples, or keep someone safe on a long journey. The function of jewelry as protection or good luck charm has continued through the centuries. Ancient Greeks hardly wore jewelry in their daily life, keeping it for public appearances and special occasions instead, but they often gifted jewelry to protect the wearer from the Evil Eye, or to endow the owner with supernatural powers. The ancient Romans kept this tradition going and the jewelry they gifted to their loved ones often also had the purpose of warding off the Evil Eye. In Southern Italy, as well as in some Italian-American neighborhoods, there is still a prevalent belief in the Evil Eye. A small pendant that looks like a red chili pepper, called a cornicello, is often gifted to loved ones to protect against it. It was historically made of red coral, but nowadays comes in many forms. Several modern makers of designer jewelry have even made cornicello charms. It is considered bad luck to buy one for yourself, so a cornicello has to be gifted to you for the protection to work.
Of course, weddings are another important reason for which to gift jewelry to someone. There is evidence that couples in Ancient Egypt already gave each other hemp rings to signify their married status, long before there was anything like modern wedding rings, engagement rings, or other wedding jewelry. Betrothal rings were used by the Romans and became a common part of Christian tradition by the 13th century, although they were not made of diamonds yet.
The first known diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477. In the Renaissance, it was common in the aristocracy and wealthy merchant classes to give jewelry to a bride as part of her dowry. These items could be family heirlooms, used to show allegiance to her old family. Jewelry was also often gifted to a bride by the new parents-in-law, to welcome her into the family and signify her membership of the new family. It was only in the late 19th century, when diamond mines in South Africa were discovered, that the diamond engagement ring became more widely used, and in the 1930's it became a staple wedding tradition. Today, we often gives gifts as the 'something blue' gift for a wedding.
Jewelry has played an important part in our gift-giving tradition through the centuries, and the meaning or symbolism we ascribe to our jewelry surely means that this custom will last for a long time. So, next time there is a special occasion and you want to give your loved one a gift to celebrate, consider giving them a piece of unique jewelry!