Byzantine Baubles: The History of Jewelry

As we examined in last week’s blog, ancient jewelry became more intricate and opulent under the influences of Greek and Roman tastes and technological advances.  Enamel, filigree, openwork design, cameos, and brilliant gemstones had come en vogue and it would seem that the ancient world had reached a golden age of jewelry-making.  The Byzantine jewelry of the Eastern Roman Empire, however, was not impressed.

The jewelry of Byzantine Empire reached new heights in craftsmanship, bringing in what is probably the pinnacle of ornate and opulent jewelry.  While such “statement jewelry” has come in and out of fashion over time, we have never quite reached the heights of Byzantine sumptuousness.

Catch up with our History of Jewelry blog series! Click here for Part I: To Adore Adornment | Click here for Part II: Greece (and Rome!) is the Word | Click here for Part IV: Medieval Treasures

The jingle-jangle of heavy bangles

Bracelet (one of a pair). ca 400. Gold. Via

“No empire had demonstrated a richer tradition in jewelry than the Byzantines.” For 1,000 years, the Eastern Roman Empire reigned supreme and made great strides in advancing art, architecture, public works, and more. “This empire merged the greatness and richness of Greece, Egypt, the Near East, and parts of Russia and North Africa[,]” creating an unparalleled and uniquely lavish style.

Christianity and religious doctrine were at the heart of the Byzantine Empire.  As such, Byzantine jewelry “…made heavy use of the Christian cross and other early religious symbols. The Byzantine time period was full of wealth and riches, so there was an abundance of gold metal used during this time.”

Nothing was held back when it came to Byzantine jewelry.  Heavy gold pieces were set with garnets, pearls, amethysts, jade, lapis, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and other precious stones acquired in trade with India, Persia, and the Orient.  Cloisonné enamel, a finish achieved by pouring colored molten glass into soldered patterns, was especially popular and gave Byzantium its famously colorful pieces.

Necklace with Pendant Crosses. 6th-7th century. Gold, pearl sapphire, smokey quartz, quartz. Via

What made the jewelry of the Byzantine Empire so unique was not that it was made specifically for special occasions or to be passed down.  The Empire prospered from the many gold mines within its borders and its prime location for trade.  This abundance led to jewelry becoming as essential and common to daily dress as shoes.

In this period of prosperity, bracelets, necklaces, body chains, rings, and earrings were made to be worn daily by men, women, and children.  Heavy layered bangles jingled on wrists and arms.  Intricately detailed earrings (usually crescent-shaped) dangled from ears.  Signet rings inscribed with names, symbolic words or engraved with cameos or biblical scenes rested on fingers.  Quite simply, if the Byzantine’s could “put a ring (or any other jewelry) on it,” they would.

As in earlier empires, and even today, jewelry was a status symbol for the Byzantines.  The more adornment one wore, the more affluent and important the wearer was.  Jewelry was so popular and widely-worn that rules regarding what certain people could wear were put in place to differentiate between the classes:

  “In 529 AD Emperor Justinian took up laws regulating the wearing and usage of jewelry in a new set of laws, later to be called the Justinian Code. He explicitly [wrote] that sapphires, emeralds and pearls [were] reserved for the emperor’s use but every free man [was] entitled to wear a gold ring.”

(left) Gold Half Moon-Shaped Earring with Peacocks. 6th-7th century. Gold | (center) Gold Necklace with Pearls and Stones of Emerald Plasma. 6th-7th century. Gold, pearls, emerald plasma | (right) Crescent-Shaped Pendant with Confronted Birds. 11th century. Gold, cloisonné enamel, turquoise; filigree. Photos via

Nothing gold can stay…

byzantine jewelry, jerusalem cross, crusaders cross

The Jerusalem Cross was first used in 1099 as a coat of arms.

After the fall of Rome and the Byzantine Empire, Europe entered its Dark Ages.  Gone was the opulence and wealth of the previous age and “luxuries like jewelry all but disappeared from European life.”  During this time, jewelry was worn not only by the aristocracy and royalty, but by the clergy as well.  If anything remained of the Byzantine Empire, it was the importance of religion in society and in daily life.

Within these “dark” ages, the Church stood as a shining example of hope.  While the focus of religion was not, obviously, on that of luxury, golden bejeweled altars and chalices, fine icons and artwork, and beautiful texts were tangible examples of faith and hope.  In the church, one could not only feel God’s glory around them, but see it as well.


History of Jewelry –
Early History of Jewelry: Ancient Times to the 17th Century –
Timeline of Jewelry –
Byzantine Jewelry –
Jewelry –
History of Byzantine and Chainmaille Jewelry –
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Categorized in: