6 Jewelry Traditions from Around the World

6 Jewelry Traditions from Around the World

While there are many universally loved accessories, there are also jewelry pieces and variations that are unique to certain countries. Some accessories are shaped by culture and are used to represent beliefs, abide by social norms, or pay homage to the history that helped shape a place and society. In some ways, these jewelry traditions may be considered more valuable than your usual gold and diamond accessories because they are imprints of generations and times gone by.

Here are six jewelry traditions that reflect unique cultures from around the world.

6 Jewelry Traditions and the History Behind Them

1. Jade (China)

The word “jade” instinctively calls to mind a glossy green stone that is inherently linked to Chinese culture. For more than 7,000 years, jade has been an integral part of Chinese culture and is frequently used to craft family heirlooms.

The stone is carved and shaped into all forms of jewelry – jade rings, jade beaded bracelets, jade pendants – but is also crafted into home décor and artwork. The term “jade” is an umbrella term for two types of similar yet different silicate minerals, Nephrite Jade and Jadeite Jade. The former is more commonly used to create today’s jade products.

Jade is revered in Chinese culture, symbolizing the balance of yin and yang and good fortune. Around 3,000 BC, the stone was considered the royal gem, and many powerful members of society were buried in jade suits. During the Han Dynasty, Xu Shen listed the five virtues of jade: benevolence (for its luster and brilliance), honesty (for its translucence), wisdom (as it has a tranquil tone), integrity, and bravery (for it may be broken but not twisted).

Today, the highest-quality jade is priced per carat equivalent to diamonds in the United States.

2. Claddagh Ring (Ireland)

The famous ring, characterized by a crowned heart held by two hands, is popularly used as a friendship ring among close friends, or a commitment ring between lovers. There are certain rules to follow when wearing the ring to connote your status.

  • Single and Ready to Mingle – right hand with the heart facing outward (point of the heart towards the fingertip)
  • In a relationship – right hand with the heart facing inwards (point of the heart towards the wrist or body)
  • Engaged – left hand with the heart facing outward
  • Married – left hand with the heart facing inwards

The ring originated from the place it takes its name: a small fishing village named Claddagh which is now part of Galway. While there are several origin stories, the most popular one credits a lovelorn man named Richard Joyce. It’s said that Joyce was a fisherman who was captured by Spanish soldiers and sold as a slave. He was bought by a goldsmith, taught the trade, and crafted a ring for the woman he loved in hopes of seeing her again.

Eventually, Joyce was able to return to his hometown where his love, a woman named Margaret Smith, had patiently waited for him.

2. Beads (Africa)

For centuries, beads formed an integral part of African culture. Some of the earliest African beads found date 40,000 years back and were made from ostrich eggs. Today, most beads can be made from anything, from glass to natural materials like shells and bone.

gold anchor bracelet

Tribes may have different beliefs and rules regarding the making, meaning, and wearing of beads. Factors that are typically taken into consideration are the significance of the materials, bead colors and sizes, how the beads are to be worn or used (on the body, on clothes, or as articles), and the wearer’s sense of self.

More than accessories for aesthetic purposes, the purpose of beads has grown and evolved. Beads and beadwork are widely used for diverse purposes – praying, currency, traditional medicine, gaming, etc. Waist beads are particularly interesting as they symbolize and celebrate different things, like womanhood, wealth, fertility, healing, protection, and seduction.

3. Hei Matau (New Zealand)

The Maori have a proud and rich culture that is abundant in symbolism and design. Relatively isolated from the rest of the world, this society has its own language, mythology, and art style that reflects nature and its surroundings. One of the most famous Maori designs is the Hei Matau, a stylized fishhook that is commonly seen on necklaces, pendants, and other types of jewelry. It’s traditionally crafted from jade or bone. The Hei Matau symbolizes strength, prosperity, fertility, and safe travels over water. It’s a cultural treasure that is worn by men and women alike.

new zealand landscape

The Maori consider fishing as a sacred and important activity, such that they have rules on when they can fish and how the fishing nets must be made. They also have rituals, such as releasing the first fish caught as an offering to please Tangaroa, the god of the sea. Maori fisherfolk also wear talismans, like the Hei Matau, to protect them on their voyage.

4. Turquoise (Native Americans)

The blue-green gemstone is commonly worn by Native Americans, particularly by the Navajo, one of the largest tribes in the country. According to Maxine McBrinn, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s curator of Archeology, the blue-green color represents creation and hope for beauty and security, and turquoise represents water, sky, health, protection, and bountiful harvest.

Native American gods are often housed in and carry weapons crafted from turquoise. Unlike the Irish who believe in the pot of gold, the Apache believe that a pot of turquoise waits at the end of the rainbow. In Zuni ceremonies, turquoise-colored masks and body paint are used to represent the sun’s life-giving power. In certain tribes, brides and grooms wear as much turquoise jewelry as possible to symbolize protection. Turquoise is also worn as a status symbol within some tribes.

5. Name Bracelets (Hawaii)

Name bracelets are thin gold bangles that are inscribed with the wearer’s name in old English lettering, typically in black enamel. These are popular gifts and heirlooms in Hawaii, worn by couples to celebrate milestone anniversaries, gifted on birthdays and graduation days, and passed down by mothers to daughters when they are old enough to care for an heirloom. It’s traditionally crafted from 14K yellow gold, but name bracelets can also be made with white gold, rose gold, or sterling silver.

It’s said that the tradition originated from Queen Victoria who, in her 1887 Jubilee, gifted her guests with gold bangles. They were mourning jewelry as Queen Victoria wore hers in honor of Prince Albert, hence why the names were in black enamel. One of the attendees was then Princess Liliuokalani, who replicated the tradition upon returning to Hawaii. But the supposed primary catalyst for the spread of the trend was Zoe Atkinson, the principal of Pohukaina Girls School who was gifted by the Liliuokalani, now Queen, with a gold bangle inscribed with “ʻAloha ʻOe” in black enamel letters as a thank you. When Atkinson wore the bangle to school, her students loved it. Soon, mothers were ordering these for their daughters and a tradition was born.

Jewelry is more than an aesthetic. It tells a story and carries with it a specific history. For meaningful, hand-crafted jewelry that’s made with intention, check out Himalaya Jewelry’s collections.