Coin Jewelry – Part II: Fakes and Forgeries

Last week, we introduced a new blog series chronicling the history of coins and sharing some pieces from our Coin Jewelry Collection (click here for Part I: From Cattle to Coinage or skip ahead to Part III: Heads or Tails, Part IV: Hammer Time, Part V: The Good, Bad, and Deceptive, Part VI: Spreading Rumors, and Part VII: The Son Also Rises.).  As we left off, coins were a practical, transportable alternative to barter (it’s much easier to bring a sack of coins to market than a herd of cattle to trade) and their use quickly spread throughout the ancient world.  However, with this newfound popularity came a new issue: forgery.

Forgery and deceit are problems that have plagued man since…well, forever.  With the widespread use of coins, however, it became easy for forgers to create phony coins to introduce into circulation. Counterfeiting was something of an epidemic in Rome where phony coins were struck (ranging from poor imitations to indecipherable replicas)  and the unscrupulous would even shave off metal from the circumference of the coin, keep the scraps for themselves, and “[pass the coins] off as full measure.”

As protection, Athens was first to establish anti-counterfeit laws in the sixth century (B.C.) and other cities were soon to follow.  When making the coins, treasuries soon began to include “fine detail such as hair locks, harp strings, etc., within a protected area of the design which served to indicate any appreciable signs of wear or removal.”

In modern times, the replication of these coins has become something of an art form.  No longer legal tender, ancient currency is sought out for its aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship. Ancient currency has become modern couture.

Our Coin Jewelry Collection celebrates the detail and artwork.  Each piece is cast from an ancient coin and is true to the coin’s detail and origin.  We invite you to explore this collection and discover the history behind each piece.

Justinian the Great Coin

Justinian mosaic from Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. Photo by Petar Milošević, via Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Justinian I ruled the Byzantine Empire 527 to 565 AD. His reign is characterized by his colossal efforts to strengthen the empire and return it to its former glory.

Given the grand nature of his rule, it is surprising that Justinian (like his wife, Empress Theodora, who we had chronicled in a previous blog post) came from humble stock.  The son of a peasant, Justinian would have hardly left a footnote in history had it not been for his uncle, Justin I.  A high-ranking military leader, Justin took his nephew under his wing and saw to it that he received the best education (though legend has it that Justinian spoke Greek with a poor accent).  When the childless Justin ascended the throne in 518, his favored nephew’s input and influence was highly valued.  It was only natural that Justinian should inherit the throne upon his uncle’s death in 527 AD.

Despite his newfound power, Justinian’s humble roots did not escape him.  Though it was forbidden for him to marry former actress Theodora (actresses were ranked below prostitutes in Byzantine society), Justinian was taken with the beautiful and intelligent young woman and used his position to legalize marriage between lower class women and high-ranking men.  Within their marriage, Justinian regarded Theodora as his equal and the empress was given equal power in government.

As Britannica writes, “Justinian was a man of large views and great ambitions, of wonderful activity of mind, tireless energy, and an unusual grasp of detail.”  His reign is characterized by his colossal efforts to strengthen the empire and return it to its former glory.  He set forth an ambitious public works plan which included building monasteries, orphanages, churches, and rebuilding entire cities (which had been destroyed by earthquakes).  His greatest achievement, however, was rebuilding the Hagia Sophia, which still stands today and is regarded as one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture.

While Empress Theodora fought to give women equal rights and abolish human trafficking, Emperor Justinian “was genuinely concerned with promoting the well-being of his subjects by rooting out corruption and providing easily accessible justice.”

The reign of Justinian is considered to be the greatest of Byzantine history. He and his wife Empress Theodora have been canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church and are celebrated on November 14th.

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Dating between 538-539 AD, our Justinian Coin pendant features the famed emperor’s helmeted, cuirassed, bust facing holding cross on globe and shield.  It is a rather large piece of currency (the biggest of our coin jewelry collection), measuring 1 3/8″ wide by 1 5/8″ high.  According to Forvm Ancient Coins, coins like this one are highly valued because they are larger and of better style than most later examples. These massive coins must have given their users a solid assurance of value.”

The reverse side features a large M (Greek numeral for 40), ANNO to left, cross above, regnal year XII to right, officina letter below, mintmark CON (for Constantinople).  Unlike other coins, our Justinian Coin does not flip left to right, but rather up and down.  This means that the front and obverse sides of the coin do not face in the same direction.  In keeping with this historic detail, the reverse of our Justinian Coin appears to be upside down.

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