Ancient and classical jewelry


A photo of an ancient winged isis, Egyptian ca 1000 BC
Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design

Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

The earliest known record concerning the making of jewelry is found in Egypt. It is here along the stone walls of the chapel chambers of ancient tombs that the true history of jewelry begins. On these walls are reproductions of the Egyptian lapidary at work. This craftsman was essential to Egyptian jewelry for it was his job to cut and engrave the many small stones found in almost all Egyptian work. During this time, the jeweller was not only a skilled craftsman who made ornaments for personal adornment, but a goldsmith and engraver of metals for any purpose, including the minting of coins. Although the beginnings of jewelry as we know it can be traced to this time, Egyptians also had characteristic forms of jeweled ornaments for which we have no equivalent. The pectoral is one of these.


 It consisted of a breast ornament suspended from the neck by a ribbon or chain. These have been referred to as "portable shrines for the gods," for they were often in the design of various deities. Pectorals were made of bronze and covered in gold leaf, with the finest crafted of pure gold. Lapis, carnelian and turquoise were sometimes inlaid.

Another important Egyptian jewelry form, with which we have little experience, is the headdress. This often spectacular ornament took the form of an outer wig. Cleopatra is frequently pictured wearing a headdress of long flexible strings of gold beads or medallions of jewels falling loosely over the shoulders. They were held in place by a gold head band.

The Egyptian jewellers did show initiative and creativity in many areas, but the largest part of their work consisted of making amulets and talismans. They were not the first to invest their ornaments with powers of magic, but the jewellers of Egypt fully developed this aspect. This custom of wearing amulets seems to have been used since earliest times. Their first known use was to wrap them in with mummies as guardians or protectors of the dead. This then spread to the protection of the living.

Amulets most often represent the receptacle or the jewel which contains a charm. In Egypt, sha-sha or beads, were essential in the realm of amulets. The base word for the naming of beads was sha, Egyptian word for luck. Anyone in the Egyptian order could wear beads, the type being dependent on their wealth. The materials ranged from pearls to pottery clay, so even the poorest worker could posses a string of beads.

Egyptian ornamental devices always had the equal importance of a meaning. The goldsmiths’ designs were symbolic. These symbols, according to popular belief, exercised a magic power on behalf of the wearer. Symbols were produced in a varied assortment. A reproduction of the human-headed hawk represented the union of the body, soul, spirit and the heart. Eternity was symbolized by the eye of Horos. The fly with a human head gave the wearer the power to ascent up to heaven. Other popular designs were the sacred hawk, the hand of the goddess nut, the ankh, the nefer, the lotus flower and the falcon. The oldest amulet was the sistrum, a protection against evil. These amulets were mounted on gold and most often worn suspended around the neck by chains.

Gemstones were also attributed with supernatural powers according to their colors, characteristics and the mystic legends associated with them. Green jasper was an assurance of rain, agates were protection against spider bites and thunderstorms. To keep one free from serpent attacks, lapis lazuli was worn.

The piece of jewelry produced by the Egyptians which has had the most affect is the kheptra or kheper, which stems from the word meaning "to become, to come into being". These are better known to modern man as the shape of the little beetle called the scarab. They came in many forms, including gold, being modeled in clay and glazed with green or carved from stone. The stones could range from soapstone, serpentine, lapis lazuli, hematite, carnelian, jasper or whatever gem its owner could afford.

A photo of an ancient Egyptian scarab, around 1200 BC

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Mrs. Murray S. Danforth
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

The scarab had significance as a religious symbol in Egypt and soon spread into Phoenicia, Etruria and Greece, where it became a timeless motif of design for jewelry. Egyptians dealt only with soft stones, while the Assyrians could take advantage of a harder surface, since they had the drills lacking in Egypt. The form of the beetle was carved into the top of the stone, while the flat base was carved the name of the owner, the reigning king and symbols of certain deities.

When the scarab was set in a ring it possessed a particularly efficient combination of desirable uses, especially in the realm of the amulet. Scarabs served this purpose before they reached the point of development where they took the first step toward being used as signets. It was this instance intaglio was developed. This is a method of cutting, where the stone is hollowed out instead of the design being raised above the surface. This aided the change from the scarab being a simple amulet to its use as a seal. The seals were used to stamp any property or document with the owner’s mark. These were then bound to him and he to them by a link of magic.

These signets were first worn on a woolen cord. Soon a replacement was found by using wire, with its advantage of being more durable. When wire was first in use, it was not drawn, but made by beating out gold, silver or bronze and then cutting them into strips. These were then lengthened and shaped by further hammering. In this way the wire was made flexible. Later the wire was a band of metal, shaped as a rather stiff hoop. The bezel, making up one side, was where the gem was set or the metal enlarged to hold an inscription.

Egyptian jewelry making reached its peak, especially in goldsmithing, during the twelfth dynasty from 1991-1786 BC. jewelry became more colorful, for in addition to stones and metals, glass came into use. 

It became popular immediately, for as mentioned previously, color was an important aspect of jewelry and more colors became available through the use of glass. Glass, when used as enamel, took the place of stones and further required no hand grinding, which was perhaps the most laborious part of jewelry making. Along with glass as enamels, came glass used in flower-like mosaics, similar to the Italian millefiori. This is a method wherein tubes of glass are bundled together in a rod, drawn out and pieces cut from it. The pieces were then set with the cut side showing, resembling a small flower. The Egyptians popularized this by placing the glass in rings.


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A Jewelry History
Table of contents|
 Introduction |Glossary| Ancients and Classical Jewelry| Jewelry of the Middle Ages|
  Jewelry of the Renaissance| Jewelry from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century| Rings| Necklaces|
Bracelets and Earrings| Brooches| Bibliography| Ancient Jewelry Photo Gallery




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