The History of the Cross in Jewelry

Posted by Monica Pichler on

A painting of a young woman with dark hair, worn up, in a blue dress, plays a guitar

Young Lady Playing Guitar, 19th century, Attributed to Julie Volpelière, Public domain, Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Now a ubiquitous symbol of faith and devotion, the cross (two simple, intersecting lines of sometimes varying lengths) has been used by cultures both modern and ancient for many reasons. Crosses were used by pagan religions long before Christianity, and the ancient Egyptians used their own version of a cross, the ankh, as their representation of eternal life. The story of the crucifixion and its importance to Christianity led to the symbol being adopted as an easy way to mark ones’ Christian faith.

It is hard to know when exactly crosses became widely worn as pendants, however there are examples from the second century AD. Jewelry design was still in its relative infancy, so these early designs were more simplistic and nowhere near as ornate as crosses would eventually become. As trade increased and the world became more connected, gold and precious stones were worked into crosses, particularly for the very wealthy. By the Renaissance, crosses were extravagant statement pieces. They can be seen in paintings of the important people of the day, a handy visual shortcut for viewers of the work to know that the sitter has a strong faith.


A royal Spanish princess sits in a black dress with white lace collar in front of a red curtain with a scenic backdrop

Above: La infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, ca. 1615, by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
In this stunning portrait, a large cross with dark stones and dangling pearls is just visible amongst the portrait sitter’s dark attire. Isabella Clara Eugenia ruled the Spanish Netherlands and Low Country with her husband, and she was the daughter of the King of Spain. Her large cross is a strong symbol of her faith that powered her and her family’s rule.
Queen Mary I of England sits in a black dress with white color and white head covering and large pendant, as well as large cross

Queen Mary I, unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The cross in this painting is an important symbol for Queen Mary I, also known as “Bloody Mary,” who reinstituted Roman Catholicism as the religion of England during her rule. Her father, King Henry VIII, was infamous in his establishment of the Church of England and Protestantism as the religion of the land. After the death of her younger brother Edward VI, Mary, a staunch Catholic, refused to give up her faith and began a persecution of Protestants (leading to her unflattering nickname chosen by her Protestant opponents). After her death, her younger sister Elizabeth took the throne and switched England back to Protestantism.

A black and white photograph of a young woman in a white lace dress wearing a black cross

Theresa Meiring, Toledo, Ohio [approximately 1890], Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Public domain, Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This young American girl wears a humble cross on a necklace over her lacy white gown. Perhaps she had just been Confirmed. For many every-day Americans, crosses were a simple jewelry item and not as ornate as what was worn in the past.


Crosses were not just for the very wealthy - many normal people wore their own versions, albeit much simpler. For some, the cross is a powerful piece that will not only show a dedication to faith, but also ward off evil. As centuries passed and religion and jewelry morphed, the cross became less of a symbol of a religion than a fashion statement. By the late 20th century, pop stars like Madonna were wearing them as an accent to her wardrobe, often in a cheeky or ironic way.

Whatever the reason for wearing one, cross jewelry is a beautiful example of the power of jewelry and design! I have been so lucky to have some incredible crosses in my shop!

Click here to shop cross jewelry on my site!

Below are some images of gorgeous crosses:

Above is a beautiful antique 14k yellow gold and natural split pearl cross! The pie-crust/collette settings around the pearls dates this to the Georgian era, and its ornate detail makes it look almost Iberian. Either way, it is a fantastic example of how detailed crosses became!

 An assortment of vintage and antique cross pendants in yellow gold with sapphires and diamonds

An assortment of vintage cross pendants in gold. Two are studded with diamonds and one also includes beautiful blue sapphires!

Here are some examples of cross pendants throughout the centuries:
A Byzantine cross with glass, garnet, sapphire, and pearl in gold, shown on a gold chain
Chain with pendant cross, ca. 500s AD, Early Byzantine, Cleveland Museum of Art, Daderot, CC0, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This relatively simple cross is an early Byzantine example that is crafted out of gold with glass, garnet, pearl, and sapphire accents. It is relatively simple in design, but would have been a powerful statement when worn.


A gold Byzantine cross with open detail work
Gold Cross Pendant, Byzantine, 500 - 700 AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This Byzantine cross is crafted out of gold and has the Maltese cross design rendered five times on it. The open work is an amazing example of early craftwork by an incredibly talented jeweler.


An antique German chased silver pendant depicting the crucifixion of Christ from the second half of the 15th century
Pendant representing the crucifixion of Christ between Mary and St. John. Chased silver, Southern Germany or Austria, second half of the 15th century, Musée de Cluny, Public domain, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This is a wonderful example of a figural cross that tells the story of the crucifixion. It was relatively uncommon for people to know how to read, so much of the story of the Bible was told visually, with scenes of the stages of the cross painted in murals or in stained glass in churches. This pendant is an example of this easy visual storytelling shortcut.


A 16th century European gold cross pendant with enamel
Pendant in the Form of a Cross, European, probably late 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This pendant is loaded with symbolism rendered in enamel over gold. It is a visual testament to faith.


A Polish cross pendant from the 17th century with rubies, emeralds, enamel, gold, and pearls with a double headed eagle on top
Cross pendant with double-headed eagle, second half of 17th century, National Museum in Warsaw, CC0, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This incredible cross is studded in rubies, emeralds, pearls, and enamel, with the double-headed eagle just under its bail - the symbol of Poland. This cross is not only a symbol of faith, but also of the land where it was made.


An Iberian cross pendant in gold with diamonds, from the 1700s
Iberian cross, ca. 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Some of the most ornate and fantastic crosses were produced throughout the 1700s in Portugal and Spain. The “Iberian” cross, as they are known, often is studded with foiled diamonds or rock crystals and glowing gold.

 A Berlin Ironworks cross and chain pendant from 1830, in dark silver colored metal
Berlin ironwork necklace with cross pendant, German or French, circa 1830, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Made entirely of iron, this is a large statement necklace with a cross with open metalwork and would have been worn by the devout and fashionable.

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