The basic structure of the chain, one of the most popular jewellery pieces for men and women, has not changed a lot over the millennia. A series of connected links creates a piece of jewellery whose length and wearability can be adapted. There are many different types, such as the simplest, cable chain, and then marine or anchor chain, in which each link has a bar at the centre, curb chain, in which each link is twisted so that the chain lies flat, and many more. Though the basic motif is simple, the role that the gold chain has played throughout history is more complicated. As far back as the rule of Philip II of Macedonia (359-336 B.C.), Greek artists came up with jewellery designs to allow the affluent and ruling classes to demonstrate their wealth with gold pieces that could be worn and even buried with them upon their death.
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Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire, and during the Hellenistic period, gold jewellery design diversified greatly to create full sets. In addition to earrings, pins, arm bands, thigh bands, rings and a variety of headdresses from wreaths and diadems to hair ornaments, the gold necklace emerged, often worn with a pair of matching bracelets in the same design.
Fast forward to the Renaissance period, during which chains became an essential part of jewellery for both men and women. King Henry VIII wore a heavy gold collar draped around his shoulders with a pendant hanging from a connecting chain. Noblewomen wore long gold chains doubled elegantly around their necks, or they were worn directly on their bodices, complemented by a matching choker with pendant. In an early 17th century painting, Elisabeth of Valois, third wife of Philip II of Spain, is depicted holding a magnificent gold chain in her hands, with a large lion’s head clasp on one end – a favourite motif in Ancient Greece – and links interspersed with gem settings or enamel decoration. The chain became a must-have piece for anyone important throughout the Renaissance.
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We have Coco Chanel to thank for bringing the gold chain into the 20th century. Casually wearing several, together with other bijoux over a black dress, she declared that the gold chain was no longer exclusive to the wealthy and powerful. From the smooth, round snake links of the original Cadenas design by Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1930s, to robust silhouettes, such as Bulgari’s curb links in the 1970s, super-size versions for rappers, or championed by today’s women who love a contemporary yet sophisticated look, the gold chain is without doubt one of the most significant jewellery genres, an eloquent link to our ancestors.
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