Pendants were first worn as amulets, meant to ward off evil or disease or bring the wearer good luck. In medieval Europe, all precious and semiprecious stones were believed to possess powers: Sapphire could chill lust, while ruby, when worn by princes, endowed them with fiery leadership. Such examples of protective medieval jewelry were often shaped like crosses, while others were made into containers for holy relics. As big collars, closed by brooches, fell out of favor, protective gems were hung on light chains, ribbons, or lace worn around the neck. Later, they were attached to metal girdles worn as belts.
Costume jewelry pendants, obviously, are often made of non-precious materials like enamel, rhinestones, Bakelite, Lucite, and pot metal, and lack any magic the superstitious ascribe to fine jewels. However, the costume pendants made in the 20th century, and even today, often take inspiration from early amulets, particularly the cameos, whose carved-relief surfaces were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman motifs.
Fine cameos returned to fashion during the Georgian and Victorian eras, carved from gemstones and, later, shell, ivory, and coral. In the 19th century, cameos carved from the lava excavated at Pompeii were particularly popular souvenirs for women touring the ancient ruins in Italy. Costume jewelry cameos, often depicting mythological figures, religious motifs, or a profile of a woman, are made from shell, glass, porcelain, and plastics like celluloid and Lucite. These grew in popularity at the end of World War II.
The locket is another form of pendant that has its roots in ancient magic, as a container for herbs or ancient remedies. From the 16th century to the Victorian Era, they also served as “memento mori” or mourning jewelry, where an image or lock of hair from the deceased could be kept close to one’s heart. Not surprisingly, some lockets were actually shaped like hearts and contained tokens of romantic love. Around 1860, Victorians took to large, oval gold and gold-filled lockets they hung on wide, thick chains, but toward the end of the century they ditched those for smaller, more discreet lockets. They also had a renewed interest in religious jewelry, like cross pendants made in Berlin ironwork, as well as the trefoils and quatrefoils seen on Gothic churches. By the 20th century, lockets had become a staple of costume jewelry, made in affordable metals and often containing a photograph.
Ancient Egyptians and other cultures often made their gold amulets in the shape of sacred animal totems such as scarab beetles, cats, antelopes, snakes, and birds. In China, amulets were more likely to take the shape of dragons and phoenixes. These Egyptian and Chinese animal themes became popular for enamel pendants, made using techniques like plique à jour, champlevé, and cloissoné, in the Victorian Era. Egyptian themes were employed through the Art Nouveau movement to the Art Deco style, reaching their peak when King Tut’s tomb was discovered in the '20s.
Other utilitarian pendants include bottled-shaped jewels that served as containers for perfume or alcohol. In the Renaissance, bejeweled pendants with long, pointed ends were used as toothpicks. Victorian pocket watches could also be worn like a pendant on a chain around the neck. In the 20th century, pendants were made as mini-photo frames, which didn’t hide the image the way traditional lockets did.
A popular motif for costume-jewelry pendants, especially those by Kenneth Jay Lane, is the Maltese cross, which was the badge of the rulers of Malta island, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, starting in 1530. But jewelers didn’t start using this cross for pendants until 1814, when the Treaty of Paris confirmed British sovereignty...
Thanks in no small part to costume jewelry pendants, we associate these pieces with adornment. In fact, the practice began in the Renaissance, when pendants were first worn simply for decoration. Some featured enameled and bejeweled scenes from classical literature. That tradition continued clear through to the 20th century, when characters from stories and children’s books were made into brooches and pendants alike. These pieces were particularly welcome after World War II, when war-weary women sought out whimsy.
In the 17th century, Georgians favored pendants with a girandole (chandelier) or pedeloque (pear-cut gem) shape—styles that were widely imitated in costume jewelry centuries later. Famous 17th century jeweler Castellani copied the bulla, a double-sided round pendant the Etruscans used as an amulet. Meanwhile, the glass artisans at Murano came up with the millefiori technique for making glass which appeared to contain “a thousand flowers” used in beads and pendants. Millefiori pendants are still made today.
Around the turn of the century, expert glass makers and jewelers in Czechoslovakia and the rest of Bohemia were turning out beautiful crystal glass pendants with delicate openwork filigree metal trim.
Camphor glass pendants were first made as mourning jewelry around 1890. These were a milky white piece of glass, blown or pressed, carved with a starburst pattern. A diamond, marcasite gem, or symbol is usually set in the center of the pendant, which might be square, rectangular, round, or oval. These pendants, which were made until the 1940s, reached the height of popularity in the 1930s when they were available in a stunning array of colored glass.
Jewelers of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco period made pendants in the same styles and shapes of their brooches (many brooches could be attached to chains and worn as pendants, too). The Art Nouveau favored swirling, organic, asymmetrical figures in metal, enamel, and glass; while Art Deco costume jewelry would be made of rhinestone and plastics, in stern geometric patterns and shapes celebrating machines and precision.
After the World War II, many costume jewelers like Trifari, Coro, Mazer, and Pennino patterned their pendants off the fine jewels sold by the likes of Cartier and Tiffany. Pendants emphasized motion with swinging chains and tassels cascading from windmill and propeller shapes, or dangling inside complex circle and spiral motifs. Goldette, starting in the 1950s, even made pendants in old-fashioned antiqued gold that had mini-pendants, or charms, like cameos and faux-pearls.
Miriam Haskell made several unusual large pendants, like her wooden octagon pendant with a gilt metal hinge and lock, or her hand-painted floral cartouche pendant. Paco Rabanne, meanwhile, made bright, plastic modern pendants for Givenchy, while Whiting and Davis produced old-fashioned oval pendants, with centerpiece intaglio cameos or crystals framed by beautiful silver- and gold-tone metalwork.
In the '50s and '60s, many artisans and jewelers, like Monet, abandoned the traditional jewelry styles and cute figurals in favor of modernist, abstract pendants made of metals and plastics, inspired by the Scandinavian concept of “democratic design.”