Accessories take an outfit from costume to clothing, and jewelry played a huge role in the opulent look of middle-class and noble 16th century clothing for both men and women. Portraits show many kinds of jewelry—necklaces, carcanets or collars, bracelets, rings, brooches, pendants worn on the clothing or in hair, beaded hat bands, rings, beaded aiglets, and beaded girdles. In addition to jewelry, pearls, beads, and jewels in settings were frequently sewn to clothing, hats, and headdresses.
While some types of 16th century jewelry require serious metalworking skills or advanced faux techniques in polymer clay and other materials, a huge range of beautiful and authentic jewelry can be made using basic beadwork techniques, supplemented with carefully chosen costume jewelry.
Researching 16th Century Jewelry
But where to find inspiration? Unfortunately, surviving pieces of jewelry are few and far between, and tend to be brooches, rings, or other metal pieces, not the beaded jewelry so commonly seen in portraits. Beaded jewelry, typically strung on silk thread, tended to end up broken or recycled into newer styles.
Extant pieces provide valuable information about styles of beads, shapes of pearls, and types of precious and semiprecious stones used in the 16th century, even when the actual pieces are too complex to reproduce easily. Many museums now provide access to photographs of collections online, including 16th century jewelry. Books are also a great source of photographs of extant jewelry. There are even photo pools on Flickr just for pictures of historical jewelry.
One of the most famous collections of extant 16th and early 17th century jewelry is the Cheapside Hoard, a merchant's stock of jewelry and loose gemstones found in London, England. These pieces of gold, enamel, and gemstone jewelry were affordable middle-class jewelry at the time, although today they would be quite expensive.
Most of the Cheapside Hoard would be difficult to replicate, but it gives an idea of the materials used, as well as guide when shopping for costume jewelry.
Period texts can also provide useful information, from recipes for fake pearls (with ingredients like boiled slugs) to jewelry designs.
The most valuable research resource for 16th century jewelry, however, is portraiture. Painters of the period copied jewelry with meticulous care (and perhaps some artistic license), and high-resolution photographs are now easier to obtain than ever. There are limitations, of course—paintings rarely show clasps, and one has to guess at many of the stones. Comparison with extant pieces and period texts can help narrow down the possibilities. For example, square, faceted black stones are typically table-cut diamonds set into a closed setting. Blue stones are likely to be sapphires. Extant jewelry suggests that the pearls so abundantly depicted in portraiture were probably much more irregular and less well-matched in color and shape than as painted—good news for the modern pocketbook!
Jewelry styles in the 16th century varied widely according to time and place. Even within a single country, styles could be very regional—Florence and Venice, for example, had very different clothing and jewelry styles. German jewelry tended to be heavier and involve more metalwork (although garments could be heavily embroidered with beads). English jewelry evolved from heavy carcanets, necklaces, and girdles made from set jewels and double strings of pearls to be more delicate, with open collars and necklaces made by stringing small beads in networks and other designs.
Flickr Jewelry Pools
You can't go wrong with a string of pearls in England (and most of the rest of Europe), and it almost can't be too long. Portraits show a simple pearl rope as the most common piece of jewelry for women from Elizabeth I down to the well-off middle class. While pearl strands today often have protective knots between the pearls, in the 16th century, the pearls were either simply strung together or separated with smaller seed pearls or small metal beads. A long rope of pearls looped two or three times around the neck could be pinned up to the side with a decorative brooch.
|Anne Boleyn, Queen Consort of Henry VIII of England, 1533-36||The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth I of England, 1575|
A carcanet (collar) with a pendant combined with a necklace that dipped into the square neckline of the dress was a common style for English women through much of the 16th century. These may have been separate pieces or connected by a single clasp in back. The pendant always hung from the collar, and could be an initial, a cross, or an oblong, typically studded with gems and often decorated by pendant pearls. The carcanet was often strung with a double row of pearls separated by stones in settings, while the necklace could be the same style or a single strand of pearls. The necklace could be complemented by a brooch in a similar style pinned to the center of the neckline.
Women wore bead girdles worn throughout the 16th century, often in the same style as the carcanets. The girdles followed the waistline of the dress, often with a long end or ends that dangled in front.
|Jane Seymour, Third wife of Henry VII, Hans Holbein the younger, 1536-1537||The Cholmondeley sisters and their swaddled babies, 1599-1603|
While earrings do not appear frequently in English portraits, large pearl drops strung on gold hoops were the earring equivalent of the string of pearls—popular in a wide range of times and places.
While men wore less jewelry than women, there are examples of men wearing necklaces in portraits, as well as chains of office, jeweled hats, and earrings. A large pearl drop earring strung on a hoop, or a plain gold hoop, was occasionally worn, typically by younger, more fashionable men. Necklaces, generally looped only once or twice, were composed of metal beads, set stones and pearls, and were less ostentatious than women's necklaces. Like earrings, these seem to appear most often in portraits of fashionable men.
|Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and 1st Duke of Somerset, c1540's||Detail of rings worn by Mary Nevill or Neville, Baroness Dacre, in a double portrait with her son Gregory Fiennes, 10th Baron Dacre|
Regional fashion was particularly pronounced in Italy. Fashions of Florence and Venice were quite different from each other in the 16th century, so this is only a general overview of some Italian jewelry styles. As with the rest of Europe, pearls were the number one stone, used in everything from simple short necklaces to pearl collars and drop earrings.
In Florence necklaces tended to be shorter, almost as short as collars, but made from a single strand of beads, typically pearls. These short necklaces could have jeweled pendants. As well as pearls, they could include other stones—pearls and coral being a popular combination—or be made of metal filigree. Double-loop necklaces were also worn, with the shorter loop close around the neck and the longer hanging over the bodice. These were still shorter, on average, than English necklaces.
|Picture of a girl with a book, Angelo Bronzino, 1545||Maria de' Medici. (Daughter of Cosimo I), Angelo Bronzino, 1551|
One early 16th century Venetian portrait (below, left) shows a simple short necklace of bicone beads (perhaps silver or black in color) separated by groups of pearls in two strands. Longer double-loop necklaces, sometimes pinned up to the bodice in the middle with a brooch, also remained popular in Venice.
|Portrait of a Ventian Woman, Albrecht Dürer, 1505||Tiziano Vecellio (Titian), 1560-65: Portrait of Lavinia, his daughter|
Earrings appear fairly commonly in both Venetian and Florentine portraits—large drop pearls were popular, but several other styles were also worn, including chandelier-style earrings with multiple pendant pearls.
Girdles were also a popular accessory and could be very elaborate, made of jeweled gold beads, pearls, cameos, and other expensive materials.
|Lucrezia Panciatichi, 1540, Angelo Bronzino||Portrait of a woman, 1550-1555, Angelo Bronzino|
French jewelry was most similar to English, with multiple strands of pearls, heavily jeweled carcanets, and long necklaces draped over the shoulders and pinned to the bodice with brooches. As in England, fashionable men sometimes wore necklaces, and jeweled clothing and hats were popular with both sexes.
|Charles IX of France by Francois Clouet||Anna d'Este, post 1550||Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of France and Navarre, 1570, Francois Clouet|
Germany and the Low Countries
Jewelry in Germany and the Low Countries tended to be heavier and involve more metalwork and enameling than in other parts of Europe. Large chains, numerous rings, brooches, and wide gold collars with jewels were all popular—beadwork was mostly reserved for clothing. Some beaded jewelry was still worn—one Dutch portrait shows a plain necklace of round coral beads on a young girl, perhaps worn for its protective qualities.
|Portrait of a lady and her daughter, detail 1530-1545, Bartholomaus Bruyn the elder||Portrait of a lady, 1545, Christoph Amberger||Anna von Minckwitz, Lucas Cranach the younger, 1543|
Spain and Portugal
The love of pearls may have been even stronger in Spain than in the rest of Europe, due to their association with purity and Catholic modesty. Pearl cauls, aiglets, girdles, carcanets, and of course necklaces all appear frequently in paintings, often with black velvet. Jewels in settings were often sewn to clothing and hats, as in England and France, and much of the jewelry shown in portraits is in similar styles.
Portuguese jewelry shared aspects of both French and Spanish styles.
|Isabella of Portugal, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, 1548, Titian||Elisabeth de Valois, third wife of King Philip II of Spain, eldest daughter of King Henry II. of France and Catherine de Medici, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1566|
Of course, this is only a brief overview of some of the many styles of 16th century jewelry! Since there are so many options, it's best to look for extant pieces and portraits from your specific place and period of interest for more inspiration.
Finding Bead Supplies and Costume Jewelry
Beads and other jewelry supplies can be purchased from local and chain craft and bead stores, bead and gem shows, and online retailers. All of these sources have pros and cons.
Local stores typically have the least selection and highest prices, but it can be useful to be able to physically browse for supplies. Chain stores have better prices, but still poor selection, and shopping at low-priced chain stores puts pressure on manufacturers of specialty craft supplies and can even drive them out of business. Bead and gem shows have large selections and good prices, but may require a long trip or only occur once or twice a year. Ordering online allows you to buy a huge range of supplies at good prices, but you won't know exactly what you get until it arrives.
Thrift stores and antique shops can also be a surprisingly good, if unreliable, source of supplies—from brooches, rings, and earrings that can be worn "as is" to necklaces and bracelets that can be taken apart and made into other pieces. I have found excellent freshwater pearls and nice focal pieces very cheaply at thrift stores.
Rock and gem stores can also be a good source of affordable gemstone beads and sometimes silver-and-gemstone pendants. These stores can also be overpriced, though, so it's a good idea to shop around.
Jewelry supplies can be found in surprising places. I once found a stationery and paper store that sold milagros, small Spanish religious charms. Some types of milagros are great components for 16th-century-style rosaries.
When shopping for costume jewelry, try to avoid filigree in favor of more "solid" metal settings. Gold was nearly universally preferred in period, but given a choice between a gold filigree pendant and a period-looking silver pendant, the silver pendant is probably the better choice. Most gems in the 16th century were table-cut, a cut which today is used primarily for emeralds. Unfortunately, most rhinestones are far more faceted. Look for pieces with less faceted rhinestones and cabochons.
While not costume jewelry, much modern silver and semiprecious stone jewelry, especially jewelry from India, looks 16th century from a few feet away.
Museum replicas can sometimes be picked up at affordable prices as well—last year I bought a pair of enameled Tudor rose earrings similar to some of the Cheapside Hoard jewelry. They were based on Victorian jewelry that was based on Tudor jewelry!
Choosing Beads and Other Materials
A huge range of materials was used for making jewelry in the 16th century—gold and silver for settings, and gems such as emerald, topaz, amazonite, spinel, iolite, chrysoberyl, ruby, lapis lazuli, turquoise, peridot, opal, garnet, amethyst, and many others. Cameos might be made of sardonyx or shell.
Some of the materials commonly used in 16th century jewelry are prohibitively expensive now—gold, saltwater pearls, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds—but others are still available or can be substituted. For example, while large uncut polished sapphire beads are nearly impossible to come by now, similar beads made from amethyst or citrine can be used instead.
Freshwater pearls are affordable and come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Round, oblong, and teardrop-shaped are the most useful for 16th century jewelry. In larger sizes, glass pearls are more affordable—and were used in the 16th century, too. Gold-filled jewelry findings make an affordable and hard-wearing substitute for gold. Amethyst, carnelian, garnet, coral, and glass are also available cheaply. Low-grade rubies, emeralds, and sapphires can sometimes be purchased from India, although these are typically semi-polished and often microfaceted, cut very differently from period stones. If you're on a really tight budget, base metals can be substituted for gold-filled and sterling silver findings.
Modern technology has ensured very uniform beads, and the cultured pearl industry has made matched, relatively uniform pearls readily affordable. But do you need to spend your money on the most perfect beads?
Extant 16th century jewelry suggests that beads, especially pearls, were far from perfect—so unless it's important to you to have perfectly round beads, you can easily get away with B or C grade freshwater pearls instead of A, and imperfect leftover gemstone beads.
Pendant initials may be hard to come by, but jeweled crosses, ovals, cameos, lockets, portrait frames, and other pendants can be found in many styles.
My collections currently contains some jeweled crosses from a rock shop (amethyst, carnelian, garnet, moonstone, and silver), Swarovski crystal and gold-filled chandelier earring findings, a picture frame ready for a portrait and a pendant pearl, a large resin cameo, some pewter chandeliers, large brass lockets, a milagro charm of a woman praying, and a pair of costume jewelry earrings similar to some jewelry from the Cheapside Hoard.
If you want accurate reproductions and have more money to spend, jewelers like Raymond's Quiet Press and Carl W. Lemke Unique Jewelry sell a range of brooches, pendants, chains, portrait frames, and other pieces of 16th century reproduction jewelry.
Swarovski crystal two-hole sliders are invaluable for replicating English- and Spanish-style jewelry. Although they won't pass up close due to the style of the settings and the faceting of the crystals, they pass admirably from a short distance.
Metal bead caps and spacer beads are also useful to keep on hand. For more specialized pieces, odd beads may come in hand—like bone skull beads for rosaries.
Beadwork tools will be discussed in Part II, but the last set of supplies are the most important. Most period beaded jewelry was strung on silk thread or made of links of wire.
Silk thread will wear out fairly quickly, so for jewelry that doesn't need to be extremely flexible, some costumers choose to substitute coated beading wire. This wire comes in different sizes and flexibilities—the more flexible the wire, the better it drapes; the thicker the wire, the stronger it is. If working with freshwater pearls, you will need one of the thinner wires.
Silk thread is great for the more elaborate beadwork of late 16th-century English jewelry, and for authentic rosaries. However, if you do choose to string your rosary on silk, be warned that you will need to restring it frequently!
Wire link jewelry is impressive and easy to do, but more time-consuming than simple stringing. Sterling silver and gold-filled wire are the easiest to work with, but any strong, flexible wire can be used.