when she stride, she clatters...  

(runosong from Mustjala on Saaremaa)

Of all the things that have survived from what previous generations have used, jewellery is among the most resilient to age. All around Estonia, archaeological excavations or farmers ploughing their fields keep unearthing pins or brooches or some other kind of adornments that have been buried in the ground for centuries. This kind of information offers a slight chance for scholars to learn about the taste canons of Estonians beyond the range of literary sources.

Pennanular brooches from Kostivere
Penannular brooches from Kostivere trove (early 13th century)

Certain types of ornaments were distinctive to particular nationalities in the 13th and 14th century Estonia. For instance, the persons depicted in the bas relief of the interior of the Karja Church - one of the earliest rural churches of Estonia - are thought to be the Estonians, judging by the conspicuous penannular brooches they are wearing.

Basso-rilievo in Karja Church
Basso-rilievo 'Estonians' on the console of the triumphal arch of the Karja Church

These pieces of cast, hammered and minted metal bear witness to the extensive and bustling trade network Estonia was involved in at the beginning of the second millennium AD. Boat rivets in the burials, Arabic coins and Oriental jewellery in the hoards, all relate to the traffic on the Neva-Volkhov-Volga waterway as well as the famous route 'from the Varangians to the Greeks' that took local sailors and oarsmen to the distant lands of the Great Bolgar, Constantinople and the Arab Khwarazm. After all, Northern Estonia ranks only second to the Island of Gotland, concerning the number of Arab coins found in a limited area in the whole Northern Europe.

Estonian bride
Estonian bride (oil, 1852) by Gustav Adolf Hippius (1792-1856)

The share of silver and other metal ornaments in Estonian clothing has been diminishing ever since ancient times. The abundance of metal that lasted several centuries after the conquest - before the devastating wars of the 16th and 17th centuries the churches received large donations of money and jewellery not only from town-dwellers and the nobility, but also from wealthier peasants - gradually retreated into ever more remote regions, mostly as a result of the clothes becoming more 'European' and the general circumstances more miserable.

The German Enlightenment man of letters Johann Christoph Petri (1762-1851), describing the life of Estonian peasants in the early 19th century, found that the silver jewellery of the peasant women jingled so loudly that "it could be heard from afar as if a horse with sleigh bells was approaching."

The Estonians who still continue to own considerable varieties of silver jewellery - including twined and meshed necklaces clearly showing the influence of the Orthodox church tradition - are the Setus in the remote south-east.


Unlike textiles and woodwork, jewellery of the Estonian peasants was usually made by professional artificers who quite often were not ethnic Estonians. In spite of the fact that the ornaments were mostly purchased or traded - the conical brooch and the flat brooch, for instance, both considered to be genuinely Estonian types of adornments, were 'introduced' by the non-Estonian guild jewellers in the 18th century - one is still justified to speak in terms of 'Estonian-style jewellery'. Aesthetic preferences naturally got mixed when the gold- and silversmiths had ideas of their own; it was however up to the client, a peasant woman or man, to accept or reject a design. It was that sort of practice that led to Estonian brooches being decorated with Medieval Gothic imagery, or with rich renaissance mauresques.

Ring brooch with mauresque ornament (16th-17th cc.)

Ussikäevõru ('Serpent bracelet', 1981)
by Tiiu Aru

Strong traditionally, jewellery art today has managed to retain a lot of its originality and dignity in Estonia. Could this be explained by the fact that the designers and artisans have always been professionals?

Brooch Minu Eestimaa
Brooch Minu Eestimaa ('My Estonia', 1984) by Krista Laas
estonian institute publications