The possibility of tracing jewelry’s historic itinerary derives primarily from the custom, beginning with the most remote civilizations, of burying the dead with their richest garments and ornaments. Plastic and pictorial iconography—painting, sculpture, mosaic—also offer abundant testimony to the jewelry worn in various eras.
It is probable that prehistoric humans thought of decorating the body before they thought of making use of anything that could suggest clothing. Before precious metals were discovered, people who lived along the seashore decorated themselves with a great variety of shells, fishbones, fish teeth, and coloured pebbles. People who lived inland used as ornaments materials from the animals they had killed for food: reindeer antlers, mammoth tusks, and all kinds of animal bones. After they had been transformed from their natural state into various elaborate forms, these materials, together with animal skins and bird feathers, provided sufficient decoration.
This era was followed by one that saw a transition from a nomadic life to a settled social order and the subsequent birth of the most ancient civilizations. Most peoples settled along the banks of large rivers, which facilitated the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. Indirectly, this also led to the discovery of virginal alluvial deposits of minerals, first among which were gold and precious stones.
Over the years the limited jewelry forms of prehistoric times multiplied until they included ornaments for every part of the body. For the head there were crowns, diadems, tiaras, hairpins, combs, earrings, nose rings, lip rings, and earplugs. For the neck and torso there were necklaces, fibulae (the ancient safety pin), brooches, pectorals (breastplates), stomachers, belts, and watch fobs. For the arms and hands armlets, bracelets, and rings were fashioned. For the thighs, legs, and feet craftsmen designed thigh bracelets, ankle bracelets, toe rings, and shoe buckles.