Greek Jewelry

A photo of a two-tone ancient Greek ring, 5th century BC

Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Museum Appropriation Fund
Photography by Erik Gould

Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

In the history of jewelry, the Greeks do not have a fixed style. Their designs do not represent a national idea, for there was a great influence felt from other countries. The only period in Greek history which largely dominated Greek style and design was the archaic period.

The first noticeable influx of style arrived from Egypt and Assyria. Greek mythology and  history appear through Greek jewelry. This is seen as jewelry portraying their deities, subjects from heroic legends and athletes. 

The Roman influence is noted when Greek jewels used more gems, particularly topaz, amethyst, aquamarine and the Syrian garnet.

Even though the Greeks gathered their styles and designs from other cultures, they still hold the front rank among goldsmiths. Greek gold filigree developed into extremely fine pieces of jewelry. Necklaces consisted a braid work, arranged in a varying intricate pattern with numerous small pendants portraying popular beliefs. Gold filigree pins were used in the fastening of the hair.

Throughout the Greek history of jewelry, gold maintained its first place of importance. Methods of working with the metal included embossing patterns filigrees and designs similar to the Phoenician gold granulation and its use of gold beads. Greek ladies were aglitter with gold having the delicacy of fine lace or embroidery. Since color was secondary to gold, gems and enamels were applied sparingly. Most of the jewelry representing ancient Greece is entirely of gold.

A photo of a long and slendor Greek pendant earring,500 to 700 BC

Greek Pendant Earring 
Museum of Art
Rhode Island School of Design
Museum Appropriation Fund
Photography by Erik Gould
Click on the above image for a larger detailed view

Characteristic among their jewelry was the use of pendants, sometimes the ladies were "a jangle with them". Necklaces of seventy-five or more, with their dangling vases, all worn together were not uncommon. These little vases of solid gold were typical among those who could afford them. Another popular pendant was the cross, made centuries before the Christian era.

Earrings were particularly varied. What began as tiny images of gods, were soon enlarged and embellished until the ear could no longer support the weight. It became necessary to attach the earring to the diadem, so that they hung over the ears, taking on the look of a type of pseudo-earring. Many of the more spectacular pieces suspended past the shoulders.

It has been conjectured that infrequent use of stones in Greek jewelry was because they decided that gems did not hold all the magical powers that other cultures attributed to them. Strangely enough, even the progressive physicians of Greece could not dispel the belief in the essential healing power of certain stones. Even the physician himself did not alter this in his own feelings. Instead of the stones being worn as an amulet, the soft stones were ground and the patient was prescribed the treatment of swallowing the mixture made with the gem. When the stones were hard, a paste was made with them and it was placed externally over the ailing part. Jasper was popular as a treatment for epilepsy, while amber and coral were the formula for eyes and throat trouble.

With regard to the scarab, Greek artisans developed this Egyptian custom into something designed for the Greek needs. The scarab became carved more realistically, while the engraved base became a reflection of Greek art. Using the intaglio method, the Greeks perfected the swivel ring. This shall be dealt with more thoroughly in the chapter entitled "rings", but basically it was a scarab which could be turned over and used as a seal for the owner. Soon only the scarab form was retained, and the ring became purely the holder of the signet stone. The signet was set solidly in a bed hollowed out of the metal. Often the flat top consisted of scenes of everyday life, particularly the duties of women.

It would be plausible to state that the most important and long lasting contribution of the Greek jewellers was the cameo.

 These small stone portraits first appeared under Alexander the great. A cameo is the reverse of the intaglio, where the stone is carved in relief. In this instance, the sculptor, not the lapidary, created the stone likenesses. At first the only portrait allowed by law was one of Alexander.

And perhaps for this reason the cameos were in an idealistic form. After his death, other persons were represented and the cameos began to portray more realism.

To demonstrate the staying power of these jewels, one has only to turn to the many revivals of this style of ornamentation. The cameo quickly spread to Rome, where the ladies of Rome joined those of Greece in wearing cameos in their hair and as clasps for their robes. Military men wore them as shoulder fasteners, a custom carried on into the crusades of later centuries. After the death of Severus in Rome, cameo cutting fell into disuse. When they were revived, the cameos showed traces of the changes in religion due to the influence of Constantine the great. The medieval and Victorian rebirth of cameos will be dealt with in their respective chapters

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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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