The history of gemstone jewellery in Ancient China - Wholesale Jewellery UK

The history of gemstone jewellery in Ancient China, from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty

Gemstone jewellery is one of the oldest and most fascinating forms of art and culture in human history. It reflects the beliefs, values, and aesthetics of different civilizations and eras. In this blog post, we will focus on the history of gemstone jewellery in ancient China, from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty.

Neolithic period

The Neolithic period in China lasted from about 10,000 to 2,000 BCE. During this time, people began to settle in villages and cultivate crops and animals. They also developed skills in pottery, weaving, and carving. One of the most important materials they used for carving was jade, a hard and durable stone that comes in various shades of green and other colours. Jade was regarded as the most precious stone in ancient China, and it symbolised purity, moral integrity, and connection with heaven and earth.

Jade was used to make ritual objects, such as bi discs (circular discs with a hole in the centre) and zong (cong) tubes (square tubes with circular holes). These objects were often buried with the dead as offerings or symbols of status. Jade was also used to make ornaments, such as beads, pendants, bracelets, and hairpins. Some of the earliest jade ornaments were found in the Hongshan culture (c. 4700-2900 BCE) in northeastern China. They include animal-shaped pendants, such as pigs, turtles, cicadas, and dragons.

Other gemstones that were used in the Neolithic period include turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, and quartz. These stones were imported from other regions or countries through trade networks. They were often combined with jade or other materials to create colourful and intricate designs.

Shang and Zhou dynasties

The Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) and the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046-256 BCE) were the first historical dynasties in China. They established a complex political and social system based on kinship, hierarchy, and ritual. They also developed a sophisticated writing system using oracle bones and bronze inscriptions. Bronze was the main metal used for making weapons, vessels, and musical instruments.

Gemstone jewellery continued to be popular in these dynasties, especially among the elites and nobles. Jade was still the most valued stone, but other stones such as amber, coral, pearl, amethyst, garnet, and ruby were also used. Some of the most common types of jewellery were earrings, necklaces, rings, bracelets, belt hooks, and pectorals (chest ornaments). The jewellery often had motifs of animals, plants, geometric patterns, or symbols of power or protection.

One of the most famous examples of gemstone jewellery from this period is the jade burial suit of Liu Sheng (died c. 113 BCE), a prince of the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE - 9 CE). The suit consists of over 2,000 pieces of jade sewn together with gold thread. It was believed that jade could preserve the body and protect the soul from evil spirits.

Han dynasty

The Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) was one of the most influential and prosperous dynasties in Chinese history. It expanded its territory to include parts of Central Asia, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia. It also promoted trade and cultural exchange with other regions through the Silk Road. It also fostered a golden age of literature, art, science, and technology.

Gemstone jewellery reached a new level of sophistication and diversity in the Han dynasty. Jade remained the preferred stone for ritual objects and burial goods, but other stones such as coral, turquoise, amber, pearl, and agate were also widely used for jewellery. Some of the new types of jewellery that emerged in this period were earrings with dangling chains or pendants, necklaces with beads or medallions, rings with engraved seals or inscriptions, and hairpins with elaborate heads or ornaments. The jewellery often reflected the cosmological and philosophical ideas of the time, such as yin and yang, the five elements, the twelve animals of the zodiac, and the eight trigrams of the I Ching.

Tang dynasty

The Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) was another peak of Chinese civilization. It was known for its political stability, economic prosperity, cultural diversity, and artistic innovation. It also had a strong influence on neighbouring countries such as Japan and Korea. The Tang capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world at that time.

Gemstone jewellery flourished in the Tang dynasty, as people enjoyed a high standard of living and fashion. Jade was still highly valued, but other stones such as crystal, amethyst, topaz, peridot, opal, and turquoise were also popular. The jewellery was often colourful and ornate, with motifs of flowers, birds, butterflies, and dragons. Some of the most distinctive types of jewellery were hair ornaments, such as combs, pins, and crowns, which were worn by both men and women to adorn their elaborate hairstyles. The jewellery also reflected the religious and cultural diversity of the time, as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Islam coexisted and interacted.

Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties

The Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 CE), the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE), and the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE) were the last four imperial dynasties of China. They witnessed many changes and challenges in the political, social, economic, and cultural spheres. They also saw the rise and fall of China’s relations with the outside world.

Gemstone jewellery continued to evolve and diversify in these dynasties. Jade was still the most revered stone, but other stones such as coral, pearl, amber, garnet, ruby, sapphire, emerald, and diamond were also used. The jewellery was often refined and elegant, with motifs of auspicious symbols, such as bats, peaches, lotus flowers, and clouds. Some of the most common types of jewellery were earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings, pendants, and brooches. The jewellery also reflected the personal taste and social status of the wearer. For example, court officials wore jade belts and pendants to indicate their rank and authority. Women wore hair ornaments and earrings to enhance their beauty and femininity. Scholars wore jade or stone seals or inkstones to express their literary and artistic talent.


Gemstone jewellery is a rich and fascinating aspect of Chinese history and culture. It reveals the beliefs, values, and aesthetics of different civilizations and eras. It also showcases the skills, creativity, and innovation of Chinese artisans and craftsmen. Gemstone jewellery is not only a way to adorn oneself, but also a way to connect with the past and present.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post on the history of gemstone jewellery in ancient China. If you want to learn more about gemstones, you can visit our blog section 'Everything About Gemstones' for more information and images. You can also check out some of the beautiful and unique gemstone jewellery pieces that we have in out store here:

Thank you for reading and happy shopping! 😊

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