Etymologically, the root of the word jewelry is the Latin word for “plaything.” That may hold a clue to how jewelry has been regarded and possibly still is regarded. It’s far from the full story, however. Jewelry may be a plaything – a man giving a brooch to his lover described it as a “jeu d’esprit,” which has a very similar meaning to plaything – but over the millennia it has come to be – sometimes – more than that. It can be a sign of power. It can convey ownership (of the person wearing the jewelry by the person giving it). It may indicate authority. Sometimes, it can even be a challenge.

The very first jewelry known to have existed is a set of beads made from shells. The beads are approximately 100,000 years old. At this distance of time it is impossible to say exactly what they were intended for, and perhaps it was simply personal adornment. It’s entirely possible, though, that the person who wore those beads was recognized by the tribe as a leader (political, religious, in war, or a combination of two or all of those). Today, jewelry is associated with women more than with men but no one can know the gender of the person for whom those beads were made.

Europeans, and Americans of European descent, are used to ornaments such as brooches, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings worn on the fingers. Shells are by now uncommon, though far from unknown, and most items would be either of metal or of metal and gemstones. People from Asia are far more likely also to wear jewelry in the nose and around the ankle, and gold and silver are extremely common there, because jewelry is far more likely in Asia to be about wealth – both a demonstration of personal status and a readily cashable resource should the need arise.