Re-Enactment of Renaissance JewelryConcentrating on 1450-1500s Florence, by Vangelista di Antonio Dellaluna
Jewelry was terribly important to many people of the Renaissance period. It'd be unthinkable to go without at least some small bauble. However, the bauble itself varied with social class, time period, and gender. If you look over the Garb Pages, URL below, you will see that most portraits don't seem to feature any jewelry at all, or, if they do, very basic jewelry.
If you haven't seen the history of jewelry essay, you might find it useful to visit there.
What to Wear
And also, some suggestions for what not to wear.
Pearls are the last best hope for a re-enactor. You can't go wrong with them, no matter how many you are tempted to use. If you're female, put them around your throat, decorate your hair with them in long strands, sew them to your garb, wear them as pendants and brooches. Pearls are good used as drops from pendants and brooches. Round is the shape that pays here (avoid "potato" or "rice" shapes), though the bigger they get, the more pear-shaped they seem to get. Freshwater is fine, and so is glass. If you are male, hat-pins featuring pearls are very fashionable. I get the feeling pearls were about the most popular gemstone, bar none, of the period, so have fun with them.
Cabuchon (nonfaceted and round-topped) or faceted, you can go either way. Avoid rhinestones and sequins and anything too sparkly. The simpler facets are what you should aim for -- no brilliant-cut diamonds. If you can find "table cut" gems, that's a good bet. As for what sort of stone, just about anything short of turquoise and jade should be fine. Very high-status Italians wore mostly diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, but be aware that imitations abounded. Don't fret if you have to wear imitation gems. Incidentally, heart-shaped stones were pretty fashionable too.
Gold or Silver?
Oh, either one! Very high-status people wore gold, as they almost always did, but the more middling folk wore silver frequently. If silver's what you find, wear silver. One popular silver treatment was called "niello", meaning a darkening agent was rubbed into the recesses of the engravings to bring out the raised part more. Remember, though, that usually the star attraction of a piece of jewelry wasn't the metal itself.
Rings, earrings, necklaces, pins
Rings were extremely popular in period. Wear as many as you like. The most common form was a plain band with a wider flat bit on top where a gem would be mounted. If you want a necklace, go ahead. Women tended to wear snug necklaces and chokers, sometimes on the middle of their necks as collars. Necklaces almost always bore pendants, though the pendant could be simple in nature. Beaded necklaces were common -- they look a little plain to us, but they are seen often in those portraits that do have jewelry in them. Our "slim chain with a pendant hanging off it" doesn't seem to occur often. Usually the necklace is beaded somehow. Men wear very few necklaces. Most of them seem to be carcanets of office. Both genders, however, are seen wearing wedding rings.
Earrings are fine, but go with hoops (for pierced ears). The hoops were sometimes 1" to 2" wide, and are often beaded and have pearl drops on them. Keep designs simple -- concentrate on the stones themselves.
If you are lucky enough to find a brooch that looks right, wear it anywhere you like. Both genders wear them at the top of their doublet/dress opening, in hair (women) and hats (men), on their shoulders, anywhere that made them happy. Wear several if you have them. Brooches should be fairly clunky and not too fussy. Big pearls are good here, clustered around a central stone. Pearl drops are almost universal in brooches.
If you really don't want anything fancy, some women wore a simple cord around their throats, with no gemstones at all, or only a single bead strung in the middle functioning as a sort of pendant.
A Word About Closures
Truthfully, I don't recall seeing any clasps at all on Florentine necklaces. They don't really show that part of the necklace. Since most necklaces seem to have been strung on cord, I suspect they could slip over the head and were knotted in back (some of these necklaces are very simple and inexpensive-looking, so I suspect nobody paid much attention to making fancy jumpring style closures).
One necklace featured here (Portrait of Saint Catherine of Bologna with Three Donors, by the Master of the Baroncelli Portraits around 1470-1480) is a three-strand collar/choker style necklace, worn wound twice around the throat, beaded with what appear to be dark seed beads, with a three-holed gold spacer in front shaped like two clasped hands. The spacer itself is probably the clasp. I found very similar spacers at Fire Mountain Gems, though nothing like clasped hands.
Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of "everyday" jewelry from this era to check with, being that pieces were melted down to make new ones constantly, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that S-closures and wedge closures are probably all right. Cloak-clasp style closures seem like they'd be okay as well (Verocchio did a bust of a girl wearing a giornea closed with these in front, though I realize that may not mean that jewelry was closed that way too).
If you're going to make your own jewelry, be aware that if you deal with real pearls, you just about have to use silk cord (it's traditional modernly and I suspect the silk is gentler to the soft material of a pearl), and that many gemstones, esp. the quartz-based ones, will rip up cord and you have to use wire.
This page last updated: January 23, 2011
All text copyright Vangelista di Antonio Dellaluna, except where otherwise noted. All portraits are understood to be copyright- free and are presented as research aids only. Please do not copy this page or its text without permission from me, but feel free to gank any historical portraits. Any modern photos are copyright to this site and may not be used except for nonprofit purposes.