The decoration of fingernails dates to ancient Babylon when men would color their nails with kohl, ground lead sulfide known as galena. Today, of course, nail art and nail care is a booming industry. Manicurists employ various tools like brushes and picks and techniques to achieve a wide array of designs. On the other hand, the adornment and decoration of nails has also risen to the level of art. As an art form, nail art and its extraordinary examples can be viewed online as well as in some galleries. There is even an online museum devoted to nail art known as Nailpolis.
Historically–during the period of antiquity–painted nails reflected status. In ancient Babylon, men of upper classes adorned their nails with black kohl while men of inferior status adorned with their nails with green coloring. In ancient Egypt (5000 BC – 3000 BC), women had their nails decorated to denote their status as well. Sometimes the juice of henna was used as nail adornment. According to historians, Nefertiti had her fingernails and toenails painted red while Cleopatra favored rusty shades of red with undertones of gold. Ancient Egyptian women would refrain from painting their nails the same dark colors at the queen. Moreover, while women of the upper classes could wear darker colors, women of lower status had to be content with pale colors to adorn their nails.
In ancient China, nail art was also customary. Artisans used beeswax, gelatin, vegetables dyes, egg whites and other natural elements to create lacquers and varnishes for the fingernails. The Chinese also favored enamel decoration for the nails. Historians suggest that nail art was popularly practiced in India as well as the Americas by some Native American tribes like the Inca. Modern nail art and design has its roots in nineteenth-century Europe. The first modern manicures came into vogue around the year 1830 and subsequently nail shops began to sprout up.
Of course, the twentieth century and the cosmetic boom–especially Revlon’s development of modern nail enamel–witnessed an increased popularity in nail art. Today, nail art is at an all-time high in terms of popularity. The mere painting of nails, which was commonplace throughout the twentieth century, is accompanied by elaborate nail designs that may feature intricate patterns and even nail jewelry to achieve a unique composition. Though closely aligned with the beauty industry, nail art as an art form is increasingly celebrated for its inherent artistry as well as the talent of the nail artisan.