Topaz for good works

JEWELRY IN BRITAIN Diana Scarisbrick Michael Russell £65

In 1205, Pope Innocent III sent four rings to King John, a subtle diplomatic gift. Their roundness signified eternity, and their number constancy of mind. They were set with precious stones: emerald for faith, sapphire for hope, ruby for charity and topaz for good works. No wonder the loss of all his jewels in the Wash hastened the death of this unhappy king.

Diana Scarisbrick's book is full of such detail. Linking the history of England to its jewelry, she surveys nearly eight centuries in a readable and scholarly illustrated account, the first of its kind and unlikely ever to be bettered. All sparklers are celebrated, from special treasures like the Darnley Jewel or the Dunstable Swan to more wearable trinkets.

As the centuries advance, coronets and chaplets, orbs and caules are handed out as love-tokens and mementoes. Early grandeur gives way to more intricate spangles, bezants and aglets, billiments and bodkins, nouches, gauds and botoners. In 1600 comes the extraordinary Pasfield Jewel, a little wheel-lock pistol, containing swivelling ear-pick and tongue-scraper. Was it the ancestor of the Swiss Army knife? I can't think how I manage without one.

Among the many lost arts remembered here are two that deserve revival. One is the use of ornaments to ward off diseases. Forget injections for cholera: take vinaigrette imbued with aromatic essences; and always wear bloodstone to fend off nose-bleeds. The other is the art of relics. How wonderful that Joseph Severn was able to create a mourning brooch in memory of John Keats, made of luminous opaline on which, framed under glass, rests a Greek lyre whose strings are made of the young poet's hair.

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