greek crosses, greek jewelry, history of jewelry

Greece (and Rome!) is the Word: The History of Jewelry

As we discussed in last week’s blog, “To Adore Adornment: The History of Jewelry,” not much has changed in terms of jewelry and adornment within the last 100,000 years.  Yes, materials and styles may have evolved, but the basic concept of adorning various appendages with decorative pieces to express individuality has remained the same.

Jewelry, however, does not simply serve an aesthetic expression of our unique inner selves – it also broadcasts our status and place in society.  As jewelry-making became more complex and utilized more precious metals and stones, jewelry (or, rather, what we now denote as “fine jewelry”) became increasingly essential in society.

Miss Part I of this new blog series? Click here to catch up! 

Click here to skip ahead to Part III or click here for Part IV!

It’s all Greek to me

Hellenistic Earrings. Gold with stone and glass. 3rd–2nd century B.C.. Via

The Ancient Greeks often wrote of jewelry and its use in (and impact on) their daily lives.  Considering the influence they had on the history of jewelry, this is not surprising.  Many innovations, from filigree to enamel, were made by the Greeks whose prolific trading and expansion spread these styles and techniques throughout the ancient world.

It was trade that initially brought advanced jewelry-making techniques to Greece, allowing their craftsman to expand upon and improve these methods. The island of Crete was home to the Minoans, a sea-faring civilization who traded with Egypt, the Middle East, and mainland Greece.

As we had mentioned in our previous blog, these locations were especially influential in the history of jewelry.  Indian craftsmen were the first to discover and utilize diamonds in jewelry.  Egyptians placed emphasis on the symbolism and meaning of each piece and pioneered the use of glass and clay inlays.  Mesopotamians pioneered using thin sheets of metal (later set with colored gems) to make their jewelry.

“At first, the Greeks copied Eastern Motifs but then later developed their own style following their beliefs in the gods and symbols. Greek jewelry included crowns, earrings, bracelets, rings, hairpins, necklaces, and brooches. Greek women sometimes wore necklaces with 75 or more dangling miniature vases. Their jewelry combined the Eastern taste for gemstones and the Etruscan use of gold.”

Hellenistic openwork hairnet with medallion. Gold. 200-150 B.C.. Via

These pieces were intricately made and opulent not just for beauty’s sake, but also because they were made to be passed down through generations.  They were stashed away for safe-keeping (perhaps a little too well, as they were not discovered until modern archaeologists happened upon them).  “Some of the best-preserved examples, however, come from tombs where jewelry was usually placed on the body of the deceased. Some of these pieces were made specifically for interment; most, however, were worn during life.”

In terms of decoration and style, the Greeks expanded upon the foreign jewelry brought in through trade and introduced filigree, a fine, lacy design created with intricately woven wires.  They also used this gold wire to create fine chains and linking beads together, rather than stringing them on a thread or strap.

Nature was a common symbol in Greek jewelry.  Many pieces featured images of animals and plants or were made in the shape of various shells.

Adopted from the Egyptian inlays, the Greeks introduced the use of enameled and inlaid gemstones.  This added the impressive color we often associate with Greek jewelry.   With advanced tools, they were also able to intricately carve stones, introducing cameos (a style that would remain popular through the early 20th century).

When in Rome…

Roman necklace. Gold and paste. 3rd century A.D.. Via

Given all that we know and have found in regards to the Roman Empire, it’s surprising that ancient Roman jewelry is a relatively rare find. What has been discovered by archaeologists was either hidden away for safekeeping or simply lost by the wearer.

“The hoards would have been items that were stashed away for safekeeping, or maybe as votive offerings. The individual pieces are often just lost items. Loose ring stones, for instance, have been found in the sewers of Roman bath houses.”

Despite not having many artifacts from Rome, we are able to learn about Roman jewelry thanks to historian Gaius Plinius Secundus’ fundamental work chronicling Roman society, Naturalis HistoriaHistoria gives us an essential first-hand account of who wore what jewelry, what it looked like, what was en vogue, and more (fun fact: Plinius is not a fan of rings).  You can read a translation of his work here.

Roman disc brooch with cameo. Sheet gold, onyx, glass, and wire. ca. 600 (mount); 100–300 (cameo). Via

It is also worth noting that, in regards to the earliest Roman pieces, the jewelry was simply not made to last.  Gold was a coveted material for jewelry not only because of its malleability, but also because it durable material that could hold up to wear and tear.  Early Roman jewelry (dating between the 7th and 1st century BC), however, seldom used gold.  In early Rome, gold was scarce and the little gold available was reserved for trade and other practical uses.  Frivolous use, like jewelry, was pushed to the back.  “The use of gold in jewelry was officially discouraged.”

This changed, however, as Greece expanded its territories and the two civilizations formed a relationship. Under the Greek influence, jewelry became popular among Roman society who coveted the beautiful and opulent designs.  Women adorned themselves with gold jewelry in their hair, on their arms, necks, in their ears, and at their sides.  According to Plinius, they even had their bedecked handmaidens wear little pouches filled with pearls as their mistresses slept.  That way, these high society women could be comforted by their wealth and treasures even when sleeping.

Through foreign relations and trade, Roman jewelry flourished.  Goldsmiths organized themselves into a guild and craftsmen chiseled delicate patterns into gold (a filigree-like innovation known as “opus interrasile,” or openwork design).  Hard gemstones like sapphires, garnets, jet, diamonds, and emeralds were widely used (a popular design was gold wire earrings that dangled with suspended gemstones).

Roman aurei of the Twelve Caesars. Gold, amethyst. ca. A.D. 69–96. Via

In addition to cameos, Roman society was also fond of coin jewelry.  They also favored pieces featuring serpent and “s-shaped” designs.  Rings also gained popularity and “were often simple bands with a single engraved seal stone or a coin but purely decorative rings set with gemstones all around have been found to. In addition[,] more extraordinary rings that acted as keys and rings that covered several fingers were developed.”  

According to, Roman jewelry served a greater purpose than that of beautiful adornment: apparently, women also used their long, sharp hairpins in self defense.  This, however, could very well be a fun, but apocryphal commentary on the dangers of hairpins (if long enough, they can inflict some serious damage to an attacker!).

Timeline of Jewelry –
Early History of Jewelry: Ancient Times to the 17th Century –
Hellenistic Jewelry –
Opus Interrasile –
Greek Jewelry –
Jewelry –
Roman Jewelry –
Filigree –
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