Jewellery in Ancient Latin American Civilizations
Jewellery played a very central role in the culture and history of all ancient Latin American civilizations: from the Incas to the Aztec and Mayans. Gold was easily accessible in large amounts but it was not the only precious substance used in the creation of an array of beautiful pieces of jewellery. As a matter of fact, while gold was used liberally in making ornaments like necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings; it was not considered as valuable as jade or turquoise. Indeed, the Aztecs of ancient Mexico considered feathers from certain birds, which were used for the lavish dresses of their nobility and priests, as even more valuable than gold.
Jewellery Among the Incas
The Incas were a people who largely lived in the area covered by the modern-day state of Peru. They were skilled craftsmen who made a host of beautiful jewellery items as well as masks and pottery. The Incan empire was actually made up of different language groups though Quechua was the official lingua Franca of the empire before the Spanish conquistadores came and practically wiped out the ancient culture.
The Incas created and adorned many items to be used as ornaments and jewellery. Their crowns, earrings, nose rings, necklaces and chest aprons were particularly intricate. The Mochica people in particular were very skilled and took gold jewellery to a whole new level, creating intricately patterned gold ornaments with inlays of turquoise, mother of pearl, amethyst and spondylus shell. Their nose and ear ornaments as well as chest plates, containers and ceremonial whistles are today held as masterpieces of the ancient cultural heritage of Peru.
Ancient Incas made their jewels and ornaments using braided fibers and cured llama leather. Their jewelers used gold, gemstones, seeds, seashells and bird feathers to decorate their jewellery. However, Inca necklaces and earrings were made almost exclusively from heavy pieces of gold. Their earrings were particularly so heavy and intricate that they often stretched the earlobes to the shoulders.
Inca nobles, priests and government officials wore jewellery on a daily basis. Lower class citizens only adorned themselves in jewellery during religious festivals. No-Incas captured in battle and used as slaves were forbidden from wearing jewellery or ornamentation of any kind.
Jewellery Among the Aztecs
The Aztec people comprised a collection of ethnic groups which came together to form a sprawling empire spread over a large part of Mesoamerica between the 14th and 16th centuries. Just like the Incas of Peru, the Aztecs took the practice of forging gold jewelry to a great art. The jewels and stones prized by the Aztecs were not just used for personal adornment but were also often found as artistic embellishments in their soaring temples and pyramids.
Among the Aztecs gold ornaments were used as a mark of power, wealth and social rank. Generally speaking, the more gold an Aztec noble wore, the higher their prestige and status in society. When the Aztec emperor and his high priests made public appearance for instance, they would be covered almost from head to toe in lavish jewellery. There were strictly enforced rules about what sort of jewellery could be worn by who with severe punishment reserved for anyone found contravening the law. For instance, all Aztecs apart from the royalty were forbidden from wearing headdresses with gold ornamentation and Quetzal (a tropical bird with brilliant blue-green plumage) feathers.
Gold was universally used as a depiction of power and wealth but silver was also used for this purpose though to a lesser extent. They also believed that turquoise had magical healing powers and it was therefore not uncommon to find Aztec faithful bringing turquoise as an offering to their gods as they prayed for their own good health or that of their families. A lot of the jewellery recovered from the ruins of the ancient Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (Mexico) featured a lot of turquoise and emerald jewellery. As emerald is especially brittle to work with, this was testament enough of the great technical excellence of the Aztec jewelers of the time.
Jewellery Among the Mayans
The Mayan empire and civilization dominated large parts of southeastern Mexico as well as the whole of Guatemala and Belize. The Mayans were not as advanced as the Incas or the Aztecs in forging of metal jewellery but their costumes and regalia were no less spectacular.
As was the case in the other civilizations of the greater Mesoamerica region, jewellery was an important aspect of delineating social class and material worth among the Mayans. Mayan headdresses, made of gold, feathers and bedecked with precious stones, were preserved for those of royal blood. Pendants in the shape of animals were also popular depictions of wealth and power.
Jade was one of the prized precious stones in Mayan culture. They mined the substance in the Motogua Valley of Guatemala. To the Mayans, jade was the ultimate element; a symbol of all that is good and holy including eternal love. Towards the time of the Spanish conquistadors, the jade mines were almost exhausted and preference for precious stones for encrusting ornaments moved to other green gems such as serpentine.