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Ancient jewellery - Greek and Roman

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Jewellery is universal, from pre-historic times onwards. Most ancient jewellery that survives today is made of metal, chiefly gold, silver and electrum (white gold). In classical antiquity and before, stones were worn for their magical as well as ornamental powers, while glass technology added a multitude of possibilities. While jewellery use changed within cultural, economic and political contexts, classical jewellery can seem very contemporary, and as such, is often collected preferentially if it is to some extent still wearable.




Precious metals

In the ancient world the discovery of how to work metals was an important stage in the development of the art of jewellery. Over time, metalworking techniques became more sophisticated and decoration more intricate.

Gold, of all the metals, is arguably the most useful for jewellery being reasonably available in its usable metallic form. Other metals require more complex processes to become workable. Gold also survives well, unlike silver and other metals, which are perishable. This may explain why gold jewellery from ancient times has survived in the largest quantities, even though other metals such as silver may well have been as popular. Ancient gold is often of high carat giving it a particular hue and texture compared with modern pieces (Christie Online, 2023).


Metal working


The goldsmith and silversmith's techniques and tools changed little over the long span of classical antiquity. Sheet metal and wire of varying thicknesses were the principal forms initially fashioned from blocks for use in creating jewellery. Sheet metal was hammered, heated and cooled quickly to retain workability. It could even be made thin enough for use as leaf and gilding. Wire was made by twisting and rolling blocks of metal. Ooccasionally it was made by hammering, pulling through pre-made holes or casting.


Decoration in metal


Repousée is ornament made by hammering, punching, stamping, striking or rubbing sheet metal against a softer material, core or into a mould to produce a design in relief, 'embossed' from the back or 'chased' from the front.


Ancient Roman gold pendant with phallus design in repousee
Roman gold pendant / bulla with repousée design of a phallus; circa 1st to 3rd century AD

Chains were much used in jewellery in the Classical World, as they still are. Wire was used for hoops, links and simple chains, as well as for more complex, elaborate chains such as loop-in-loop and twisted figure of eight links.



Filigree was a form of decoration using fine wire twisted, plaited or arranged in shapes such as spirals and soldered to a background.


Granulation was the soldering-on of grains of gold from tiny to even tinier, in a range of patterns. Granulation demonstrates the high levels of skill, patience and expertise in ancient jewellery-making.


The art of granulation finally died out in Europe about AD 1000. In the nineteenth century attempts were made to revive it, but the difficulty always lay in the method of attaching the grains.

R Higgins, Greek and Roman Jewellery 2nd edition, 1980, Methuen & Co Ltd, p21



Engraving was frequently used on the bezels of metal rings.

Ancient Roman solid silver ring with good luck inscription
Roman silver ring engraved with a good luck message; circa 2nd-3rd century AD

Motifs and styles

Hellenistic


The Hellenistic period, beginning at the time of Alexander the Great, saw an increased availability of gold from Thracian mines and the dissemination of captured Persian treasures (HIggins, 1980). This period brought new motifs into jewellery making, for example the Herakles (reef) knot, popular well into Roman times. Below is a fine example of ancient gold working of the metal itself for decoration and to create the motif.


The Herakles knot is an ancient symbol of love and marriage. In Roman weddings, the Herakles knot was tied around the bride and only her groom could untie it. This custom may have been the origin of the phrase ‘tying the knot’. The knot is found as a healing charm in ancient Egypt, but is also known for its use in ancient Greece and Rome as a protective amulet.

New forms of earring depicting human or animal heads became popular in the Hellenistic period.



Roman


With the exception of the bulla, there is little evidence for jewellery from Roman Republic times (up to 27 BC), perhaps because there were laws restricting the wearing of gold and the amount that could be used as grave goods (Higgins, 1980).


The Roman bulla / amulet, worn around the neck like a locket for good luck, perhaps containing small amulets, was popular in Late Etruscan Italy through to 1st century AD. (See above for example).


Under the Roman Empire, a period of relative stability and prosperity, the 2nd century AD saw the popularity of a style of earring introduced from Western Asia with a horizontal bar and two or three vertical pendants. Also during the 2nd to 3rd century AD, a new 'piercing' technique known as 'opus interrasile' produced a fretwork, openwork lattice effect, which remained popular into the Byzantine period. Incorporating gold coins into jewellery also became popular at this time (Higgins, 1980)

The most common form of Roman earring has as its basis a hoop of gold wire with a circular shield of boss, decorated either with filigree or granulation.

Charles Ede, Collecting Antiquities - An Introductory Guide, JM Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1976, p 123.


Ancient Roman gold earrings with decoration
Example of typical Roman gold earrings with shield, filigree and granulation; circa 2nd-3rd century AD

Stones and glass

Precious and semi-precious stones had been used for personal seals since the earliest times, but it was not until the Hellenistic period that their use in jewellery became widespread.

Charles Ede, Collecting Antiquities - An Introductory Guide, JM Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1976, p 123.


Stones were usually polished and ring stones in bezels were often carved with intaglio (a raised negative relief) of heads/busts, animals, daily scenes, royalty and deities or cameo (a raised positive relief). See below and title image for examples.


Ancient Roman gold ring with cameo bust
Roman hollow gold ring with carnelian cameo; circa 2nd-3rd century AD

Ancient glass was made from silica, lime and soda, and was used in jewellery during the Bronze Age as beads, plaques, pendants, enamel and inlay.

After the Bronze Age, glass was used less for plaques and pendants, more for other purposes, in particular for beads and seal stones. All conceivable colours are now found and, in Roman times, all possible degrees of density, ranging from complete transparency to complete opacity.

R Higgins, Greek and Roman Jewellery 2nd edition, 1980, Methuen & Co Ltd, p41


In Hellenistic and Roman times, stone and glass beads were attached by wires to jewellery.



Enamel

Enamel is a coloured glass fused to a metallic base. Gold and electrum were the metals generally enamelled; silver occasionally; bronze in Romano-Celtic jewellery.

R Higgins, Greek and Roman Jewellery 2nd edition, 1980, Methuen & Co Ltd, p24


Glass pieces or powders were fused to the metal surface at melting point and then slowly cooled. Alternatively the metal was dipped into molten glass, which was then worked while still hot. Enamelling was used during the Bronze Age, including cloisonné, for which the process was invented in New Kingdom Egypt. From 6th century BC filigree enamelling was used in Greek jewellery, but enamelling was superseded in Roman goldwork by inlaying of stones and glass.


Inlay

Another form of polychrome decoration ... is the inlaying of jewellery with coloured stones, glass and other substances. Inlays are cut to shape and cemented in cells formed by strips of metal soldered to a background.

R Higgins, Greek and Roman Jewellery 2nd edition, 1980, Methuen & Co Ltd, p27


The surface of the inlay was usually designed to be be flush with the top of the metal cell. Sometimes however, for example in ring bezels, the inlay was 'en cabochon', raised above the metal clamped around it. Inlay was long used in the Bronze Age, probably originating in Mesopotamia and was used extensively in Ancient Greek and Roman jewellery.

Towards the end of the [Roman] period, in the third century AD, the stones had become definitely more important than the settings.

R Higgins, Greek and Roman Jewellery 2nd edition, 1980, Methuen & Co Ltd, p28




Ancient stone-use timeline (R Higgins, 1980)

Bronze Age (3000 to 1100 BC)

'Orientalising Period' (900 to 600 BC) - cultural influence from Ancient Near East

Archaic and Classical Periods (600 to 300 BC) & Etruria (800 to 330 BC)

Hellenistic Period (for jewellery purposes) (330 to 27 BC)

Roman Empire Period (27 BC to 400 AD)

Other stones used in ancient jewellery

 

References - Ancient Greek and Roman jewellery


Christies New York Auction Catalogue, Ancient Jewelry and Seals, Wed 6 Dec 2000

Christies New York Auction Catalogue, Ancient Jewelry, Fri 11 Dec 2009

Ede, Charles, Collecting Antiquities - An Introductory Guide, JM Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1976

Higgins, R, Greek and Roman Jewellery 2nd edition, Methuen & Co Ltd, 1980

Russeva-Slokoska, L, Roman Jewellery, Alpine Fine Arts Collection, UK, 1991


Online


Metropolitan Museum of Art New York: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/the-collection



Logot for UK Antiquities Dealers Association


 


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