• LeCarie Whitfield

The Perfect Recognition Award: How Ancient Jewelry Was Used as Symbols of Accomplishment


From the cradle to the grave, we all seek to be acknowledged for our accomplishments. To have our contributions recognized and ultimately rewarded is now, and since ancient times has been, a universal human need. Although some research has posited that a simple “thank you” satisfies the desire to be recognized, as recently as 2016, researchers have found that “thank you” has become such a habitual utterance that it lacks significance as a true expression of gratitude. Ancient societies knew that choosing a perfect token of appreciation to acknowledge a job well done was more lasting than a simple message. A quick look at history teaches us that in these early societies, leaders gifted jewelry as the ultimate token of appreciation. Today, perhaps in protest of an overabundance of throwaway goods in our society, we are seeing a resurgence of meaningful appreciation jewelry which has permanence and a long-lasting emotional effect on the recipient.



Signet rings were first used as far back as 3500 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia and by the pharaohs of Egypt. Although initially a symbol of status, by the 13th century signet rings came to represent an award of high office. For example, the College of Cardinals would bestow upon the newly elected Pope a unique Piscatory Ring as recognition of the Pope’s elevation to the highest post in the church. Signet rings remain an important way for corporations to recognize extraordinary achievements—the championship ring given to the winning team in the Super Bowl is one such modern-day example. Not everyone is blessed with the athletic prowess it takes to play professional sports and win a Super Bowl, so corporations are finding new ways to create signet rings for their own teams of all-stars who deserve championship ring recognition.


Germanic Bracteate. Photo Attribution: "File:Germanic bracteate from Funen, Denmark (DR BR42).jpg" by Bloodofox~commonswiki is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In the pre-civilized lands north of the Roman Empire, Germanic chieftains would melt down Roman coins and turn them into metal disks known as bracteates. More valuable to Germanic culture than Italian gold, such a medal would distinguish the wearer as a favored member of the chieftain’s inner circle. Fast forward to today’s organizations in which the “inner circle” could be top salespersons, long-tenured employees, or key stakeholders, and the chieftain is the CEO or executive committee. Those in the top tier work hard and like the Germanic warriors of long ago, hope that by achieving the status of “inner circle” they will be rewarded with a lasting symbol of their distinction. Many more executive teams are now turning to jewelry as that symbol.



Knight's collar made of precious metal. Photo Attribution: "File:Keten van de Leopoldsorde met plaque van grootofficier van de Leopoldsorde Grand Curtius Luik.jpg" by Paul Hermans is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

During the Crusades, the Catholic Church honored its armies for military success as well as demonstration of high Christian virtues. This system of recognizing value based achievements led to the development of chivalric orders, such as the Knights Hospitaller and the more commonly known Knights Templar. Upon induction into the order, a knight would be gifted a collar, a wide chain of precious metal worn over the shoulders. Although a simple gold collar was suitable for a new knight of the Order, as knights distinguished themselves in service, tenure, and valor, the collars became more ornate, featuring precious stones to denote higher levels of achievement. In today’s military complex, the bars and stripes on the uniform serve a similar purpose as the chivalric collars—to signify rank, valor, years of service, and honor.


Universities and associations frequently reward merit and high achievement with a modern day “collar” -- gold-plated medallions worn on a ribbon around the neck. Usually such awards are delivered at a commencement ceremony or annual convention, where recipients are recognized before his or her peers.



More recently, however, we have seen private corporations using such public displays of recognition by “pinning” new hires, tenured employees, and senior team members with medals, badges, lapel pins, and other items worn in the neck area above the shoulders. Entry-level lapel pins are becoming more ornate—no longer is a simple base metal pin acceptable. Instead, entry-level pins exhibit one or two colored stones (imitation, of course). As employees advance up the ranks with the organization, the lapel pins become more decorative, larger in size, and are even upgraded to precious metals or natural gemstones. Employees will wear these pins with pride.


From its ancient origins to the present day, jewelry has a powerful history of recognizing accomplishment. Some things change—heavy gold collars are unlikely to make a comeback—but the dynamics at work are fundamentally unaltered. The ancient societies recognized that when a gift of jewelry is bestowed, that gift is inherently imbued with the authority and respect of its giver. This is becoming truer today because jewelry gifts epitomize value in both senses of the word.



Value means the material worth of an object—broadly speaking, its cost in dollars, yen, pesos, rubles, and the like. However, value also means the intangible good with which a person’s actions are imbued. We say with equal ease “the value of petroleum has risen” as “a good friend has immeasurable value.” When a company, association, or university wishes to recognize a person’s value to the organization, jewelry is one of the few items that is uniquely rich in both types of value. By combining precious stones and metal with aesthetic beauty and symbolic meaning, the right piece of jewelry is simultaneously valuable and invaluable—and thus the perfect way to recognize the value, in all senses of the word, that a person brings to their organization. Jewelry says so much more than “thank you.” It says, “I value you.”


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