A bijou (plural: bijoux) is an intricate jewellery piece incorporated into clothing, or worn by itself on the body.
Besides its decorative function, a bijou serves as a signal for many other purposes. These have varied over time and space, and really its perceived function is dictated by the wearer, not those who view it. Nevertheless, it is possible roughly to categorise:
A bijou can be a mark of social status, and indicates whether the wearer is married, engaged, a debutante, and so forth. Traditionally, these kind of bijoux are enjewelled with jade, or other black stone.
Bijoux can indicate the membership of some group, be it a religion, a profession, a political allegiance, one of ethnicity or sex, or allegiance to a sports team: as wristbands might do in other cultures. They are also used as purely identification symbols, for example the Companions of the Tour de France wear them as earrings to show their allegiance to a particular rider. In a crowd, it may thus distinguish them from others supporting other riders, depending on how dedicated each are to recognise the symbol.
Bijoux are often used for physical therapy, like amulets. Generally, a significant date is inscribed thereon, and perhaps their birth colour, or their astrological sign, a patron saint, or other magic symbols. They may also be used for fun in guessing-games.
The date, generally, is that of the birth of the wearer. A fish symbol, often called an Ichthys, indicates that the wearer is a Christian.
A bijou can be used in daily life as various significands by the wearer, and can be put on scarves, capes, hats, handbags, and so on.
Bijoux are often given as a symbol of love, specifically to one person. It has a special meaning to the wearer, and similarly to that of an engagement ring, is displayed publicly and proudly. In French it is sometimes called a souvenir, but this is a false friend, souvenir being the infinitive for the verb "to remember".
Bijouterie, the art of makingor wearing bijoux, has thus developed its own private language or rebus known only to the initiated. Symbols may be religious or allegorical (two hands interwtwined, for example, indicate the love of two fools, like Romeo and Juliet); Pansies (French: fleurs de pensée, literally "Flowers of thought") indicate "I am thinking of you".
Sometimes the bijou will have, hidden under a clasp, a photograph of the lover-to-be, or a strand of their hair, or one of their baby teeth.
The bijou is usually given as a symbol of eternal love, and also its fragility: it can be easily broken, lost or discarded. Sometimes the gemstone is made of glass to emphasise this fragility and essential uselessness, such as those made by Foire de Beaucaire (Gard-France) in the 18th century (The name comes from the small cry made by the wearer when it was torn from her.)
Baudelaire writes of the bijou's function thus in his novel Les Bijoux, as does Diderot in Les bijoux indiscrets. (Roughly, "The Indiscreet Jewels"). In both novels, the bijou serves as a symbol, like a pink carnation may do in English culture. It is worn by the wearer to show that she is available but must be wooed, before any touch, sight or smell, and is an erotic act of self-denial.
As a well-known symbol, this same object can still have various uses. Among others, it is a symbol of emancipation and a symbol of sexual equality, but most people in Western culture wear it as a sign of faithfulness, be it in marriage, religion, or society. Not to wear one is a statement in itself.
Body ornamentation predates that of writing. Some consider it as itself part of human evolution, and call it the Révolution Symbolique, the rise of Symbolic culture.
The oldest well-identified bijoux are some 45 pieces unearthed from Blombes, South Africa. These perforated and styled bijoux have been dated to being 75,000 years old.
Beyond Africa, Yvette Taborin has devoted her life to studying the use of language symbols in Europe. She divides her analysis of the first objects of interaction between people into two types: those that are simply to collect things, as hunter-gatherers do, and those that are deliberately made or modified to be ornaments. Taborin does not classify on which material or source these ornaments were made from.
Most paleoarcheology concentrates on remains of bodies themselves, such as fossils, or animal remains such as teeth. Taborin took a different tack, to investigate the remains of those around them. In doing so, she literally unearthed a whole new classification and understanding of our prehistoric ancestors, based on scientific evidence and statistics. For example, she established that the teeth used as ornaments in jewellery were not statistically correlated with the animals living thereabouts, neither browsers nor carnivores, so that they were specifically ornamental and not just "spare parts" after killing an animal to eat it.
Most ancient jewellery is of bone, ivory, antler or some soft stone (such as limestone or lignite). The diversity and manufacture of these pieces, then, indicates a significant development in human evolution, especially as it comes in such various forms (hairbands, placed in clothing, bracelets, anklets, and so forth).
In Europe, the Celtic people were foremost in their work in bijou and filigree; strapwork variations on the celtic cross are still popular today.
Once metal had become part of the human way of life, and particularly during the Iron Age, various techniques such as filigree and embossing. An enormous variety of objects, of the highest quality, have been found. Bijouterie flourished in the civilisations around the Mediterranean Basin, and slowly but surely, bijouitiers established a trade and business, passing on their knowledge through guilds and adapting their wares to the tastes of their clients and the fashion of the day.
The art of bijouterie was pretty much stable, over many centuries, and reserved and codified as a profession.
After the 1950s, three distinct strands of the art developed:
A parure, if made since the 18th century, should be an ensemble (assembly) of several bijoux:
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