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Ancient Jewelry

Reprinted by permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy

Jewelry began with the discovery of metal working. Copper and gold were worked into small ornaments and pins. In the Mesopotamia area around 3500 B.C., copper was cast into implements. The pieces of jewelry represent the beginning of the advanced metal-working process. At Tepe Gawra in the Jamdat Nasr period, gold rosette appliqués and studs were found, together with electrum and gold beads. The city of Ur produced a wealth of exceptionally fine pieces of gold and silver jewelry. Not long afterward, the Egyptian also started producing fine stone, metal, and carved ivory jewelry. The vast trade networks resulted in amulets, beads, and other ornaments being made throughout the Egyptian and Western Asiatic regions.

The Sumerians produced fine jewelry objects in gold, silver, copper, and semi-precious stones. Precious stones were thought to have specific properties. Gold was associated with the sun, and silver with the moon. The Mesopotamian Early Dynastic period produced headdresses, earrings, hair rings, diadems, necklaces, gold and silver beads, pendants, amulets, and pins. Schools of jewelry working spread to Anatolia from 2500-2000 B.C. Especially fine were the objects from Troy. Gold jewelry was produced in Cyprus beginning around 2100 - 2000 B.C. Jewelry from Phoenicia, Syria, and Palestine were introduced by Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Cyprus.

To make the jewelry, gold was hammered from sheets, cast gold and gold wire were drawn, and molds were used in casting and stamping. Casting was usually done by the lost wax process. Chisels were used for piercing and cutting, although bead-makers used blow-drills.

Egyptian jewelry manufacturing reached a high pinnacle during the Early Dynastic period, resulting in fine bracelets, finger rings, collars, and necklaces. The inlay work for pectorals, girdles, earrings, and bracelets were unsurpassed during the New Kingdom. Much of Egyptian jewelry had magical significance. The decorations on Egyptian jewelry are limited to hieroglyphic signs, the scarab, and floral patterns such as the papyrus of lower Egypt and the lotus of Upper Egypt. Birds appeared more than animals, and humans were rarely used.

The earliest Greek jewelry was from the Minoans from the 17th century B.C., and later from Mycenae. The mainland Greek offshoot of the Minoans culture produced fine jewelry into the 14th and 15th century B.C. Rings, earrings, stamped appliqués and pendants were made. During the Archaic and Classical periods, jewelry was scarce due to conflict with the Persians. It was in the period between the defeats of the Persians and the rise of Alexander the Great that some of the finest jewelry of all time was produced. These masterpieces rank with the best gold work. Hellenistic jewelry was also in a high state of artistic merit, and is more available to the collector today. Earrings, necklaces, and pendants with animal heads depicting dolphins, bulls, goats, lions, lynxes, and gazelles are beautiful. By the end of the period, brightly colored stone and glass beads added to the decoration.

Etruscan jewelry is characterized by its technical perfection and variety. The use of granulation was unsurpassed. The fibula was made in a wide assortment of varieties.

Roman jewelry can be said to have started in 27 B.C. with the accession of the Augustus to the title of Caesar. During the Republican period, jewelry was under official disapproval, and surviving examples are copies from the Etruscans and the Greeks. Roman jewelry takes various forms. Ball earrings and earrings with hoops were popular, and are available today for the collectors. Finger rings were extremely popular during the Empire. They were worn by male and female alike. The satirist Martial reported that there were some men who wore six rings on each finger. The fibula was extensively used by the Romans to fasten their garments. These fibula were re-introduced into Rome by the Celts. The most common was the crossbow type. Many collectors find it quite rewarding to collect these fibula, in all their many designs.


Andrews, C. Ancient Egyptian Jewelry. (New York, 1997).
Boardman, J. Archaic Greek Gems. (London, 1968).
Coarelli, F. Greek and Roman Jewellery. (London, 1966).
Deppert-Lippitz, B. Ancient Gold Jewelry, Dallas Museum of Art. (Dallas, 1966).
Henig, M. A Corpus of Roman Engraved Gemstones from British Sites, Part I. British Archeological Reports 8(i). (Oxford, 1974).
Hoffmann, H. & P. Davidson. Greek Gold, Jewelry from the Age of Alexander. (Mainz, 1966).
Marshal, F. Catalogue of the Jewellery, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman in the Departments of Antiquities, British Museum. (London, 1969).
Münzen und Medaillen A.G. Werke Antiker Goldschmiedekunst, Griechenland - Etrurien - Rom - Spatantike, 8. Jahrhundert v. C. bis 7 Jahrhundert n.C., Sonderliste M, Basel, Sep 1970.
Spier, J. Ancient Gems and Finger Rings: Catalogue of the Collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum. (Malibu, CA, 1992).
Wilkinson, A. Ancient Egyptian Jewellery. (London, 1971).

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