Kew’s Economic Botany Collection holds a broad range of jewellery made from plant materials, totalling more than 350 pieces. The majority of these are necklaces, but there are also earrings, bracelets, bags and brooches.
Botanical jewellery was donated to Kew as early as 1847, and the collection continues to expand today. The historical material includes items collected by Richard Spruce, Henry Christy and Sir Joseph Hooker, and donations from sources such as HMS Herald and the India Museum. The jewellery also has a large geographical spread with items from places as far apart as the Andaman Islands, Ireland, India and Argentina.
Almost any plant part can be used to make beads and jewellery. Leaves, stems, bark, roots and petals have all been used, although beads made of colourful and durable seeds, fruits and wood are the most common. Large seeds can also be used as pendants. Beads have been used by people for centuries for counting and as weights, as currency, to show wealth and status, and as talismans or medicinal aids.
Some of the oldest beads ever discovered are thought to be 40,000 years old and were found by an archaeologist in Turkey. These beads were made of shell; other early beads (dated 37,000 to 39,000 years ago) were made of ostrich eggshell found in the Rift Valley in Kenya. At Kew, the oldest examples of jewellery are four Greco-Roman necklaces which are about 2000 years old and use seeds, fruit, leaves and flowers. These were found in Ancient Egyptian graves in the nineteenth century, by the archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie.
Many items in Kew’s collection are from the nineteenth century and show how different cultures have used jewellery in the past. However, botanical jewellery continues to be produced today using traditional methods. A major donation of over 250 pieces of jewellery, collected by Ruth Smith of Washington, D.C., demonstrates the creativity and skill still being used to produce beautiful and intricate pieces.
Please contact the Collections Manager to find out more.