Jewellery is a universal part of human culture; its individuality – social, ethnic and personal – lies only in how its universalness responds to the traditional aesthetic rules and values typical of a particular group, nation or individual.
In view of this, the jewellery loosely defined as Serbian denotes ornaments that were worn (though not necessarily made) in the lands inhabited by the Serbian people. The jewellery was there for adornment, as well as an obligatory part of the traditional dress. The national costume has undergone a series of transformations over the centuries, to go out of use completely in the mid XX century. Fate has decreed that both national costumes to live in museum collections, as carefully guarded valuables, cultural wealth whose historical and financial value cannot be estimated by conventional standards.
Serbian national jewellery was extremely diverse; it differed endlessly in form and shape, in the parts of dress and body which it adorned, in the material it was made from, and it the techniques employed in its manufacture. Some of the ornaments were made at home, from relatively simple materials. However, jewellery properly so-called was made in specialized shops by artisans and craftsmen known as smiths. Smiths made jewellery mostly from silver alloys, often with a thin gold coating. Pieces of coloured glass or more expensive materials, such semi-precious stones, pearls and coral, were often inlaid for effect.
The techniques used were many and complex: forging, cutting, casting, embossing, lacing, enameling, engraving, enchasing, and many others. The most beautiful jewellery, however, was made in the filigree technique. By twisting thin silver wire, with an almost obligatory addition of ornamental studs, the artisans achieved outstanding decorative effects and wonderfully imaginative forms. This technique was used to make necklaces, bracelets, sashes, rings, hairpins, brooches, ear-rings, belt buckles – in fact, all kinds of jewellery worn by girls and young women, as well as men, though in a far lesser measure. Filigree workshops were to be found in all major centers in Serbia, though the highest quality filigree jewellery, unsurpassed to this day, was certainly made by the masters of Prizren. The filigree tradition in Prizren dates from the distant past. In the 19th century, this town had numerous specialized workshops for the manufacture of filigree jewelerry. However, new times and a gradual abandoning of the traditional way of dress has weakened the interest in old jewellery, affecting the supply and quality of the products and finally leading to the dying out of the craft.
Jewellery was worn on formal occasions: feast days visits to the church and, mostly, weddings. It was the custom to bedeck the bride with a large quantity of different jewellery, not only for adornment, but also as protection against evil believed to threaten the bride on her wedding day, jewellery being considered to have magical properties. Greatest attention was devoted to decorating the woman’s head: on the forehead was worn a complicated headdress held in place at the back of the head by hairpins, and the ears were hung with massive earrings. Across the chest were worn strings of chains enchased with coins, at the waist, a webbing belt with silver plates, and rings on the fingers and bracelets on the wrists.
Men’s jewellery, although much less luxurious in terms of variety, was no less beautiful than the women’s. The best known men’s adornments were massive, richly enchased filigree watch-chains worn by well-to-do town tradesmen visibly displayed across the chest; above all hung chains made of row upon row of gilded silver plates, adorned with rosettes, huge metal studs and braids – unique jewellery in kind and look, whose origin is the subject of many ancient legends.
The aesthetic and artistic value of traditional Serbian folk jewellery lies in the endless wealth of form and design. Although there are typical repetitions, each individual artifact is still unique in itself, with its own distinctive stamp bestowed by a detail which makes it an original and inimitable work of art. Some of these pieces of jewellery could take their place alongside the choicest products of the goldsmith industry in the world and be an asset in any elite jewellery collection in Europe and the world.