Egypt and the Jeweler's Art

Posted by Kody Klenow on

Compared to today's most powerful civilizations, ancient Egypt is believed by scholars to have featured a relatively stratified society. Despite that social stratification, though, jewelry was available to all Egyptians, from young children of poor farmers to priests and pharaohs. Egyptians of all classes, genders, and generations adorned themselves with beautiful, handmade bracelets, necklaces, amulets, and other pieces.

Because the wearing of jewelry was such a significant cultural act in ancient Egypt, modern scholars often turn to signature pieces to gain a fuller understanding of manufacturing skills, material availability, ritual practices, and even burial trends. Such studies provide additional essential information about issues pertaining to gender, class, trade, economics, and political authority. 

Like scholars, modern jewelers can also draw information and inspiration from the styles and individual pieces created in ancient times. Though modern wearers don't need to know everything about Egyptian history to appreciate the timeless beauty of historically inspired pieces, many people find themselves intrigued. Before settling on any particular piece, buyers can read on to find out about the ancient jewelry trends that have inspired modern jewelers.

Modern Jewelers Draw Inspiration From Ancient Trends

The materials, designs, and overall trends seen in ancient Egyptian pieces have had a strong influence on many modern jewelers and other artisans. In ancient days, these pieces were offered by pharaohs as rewards for military might, buried in the tombs of the nobility to offer aid in the afterlife, and worn to temples, tombs, and marketplaces alike by all Egyptians.

During times of political instability, Egyptian death jewelry was often stolen from tombs. Because most jewelry was small, valuable, and easy to transport, these pieces were usually the first items to be stolen during tomb robberies in antiquity. The metal was typically recast and the jewels sold off, eliminating a potential source of inspiration and knowledge for modern jewelers and historians.

The good news is, there are still plenty of beautiful pieces available for study thanks to Egyptian burial rituals and the fact that many tombs were well hidden. For scholars, even one bead can tell an entire story if its archeological context is clear. Different materials can explain sourcing and origins, and modern scientific techniques allow researchers to create detailed compositional analyses and comparisons with other eras.

These same pieces, from single beads to ornate necklaces and belts, continue to inspire modern jewelers, many of whom use the same age-old practices established by their ancient predecessors. Even if modern jewelry wearers are not fully aware of the supposedly apotropaic powers of the various materials, colors, and styles used in ancient times, they can still appreciate Egyptian-inspired pieces' timeless beauty. The effects are especially powerful when modern artisans employ the same ages-old traditional methods for crafting historically accurate pieces.

Metals and Other Materials

The two metals used to craft most ancient Egyptian jewelry were copper and gold. As a general rule, gold was for the nobility, while copper pieces were more popular among the masses. There was, however, an abundant supply of both materials, as both copper and gold were mined in the Nubian deserts of Egypt centuries ago.

Since silver wasn't readily available in ancient Egypt, jewelers had to exercise some extra creativity if they wanted to create different colors. They could obtain small amounts of silver through trade, and many jewelers mixed this precious metal, along with copper and iron, into their gold to create different shades of gray, brown, and rose.

While noble Egyptians always wore jewelry made from precious metals, gems, and occasionally colored glass, the materials used to make jewelry for commoners were a little different. Those that could not afford precious metals and gems often made jewelry out of rocks, bones, shells, clay, and animal teeth. Regardless of the quality of the materials, these pieces were considered objects not just of display, but of protection and power.

Gems and Stones

The use of gems and stones by ancient Egypt's jewelers was somewhat limited. Only pearls and emeralds were native to Egypt, so other gems and semi precious stones generally had to be imported. 

Lapis lazuli and turquoise were two of the most highly prized gemstones, though they were less available during periods of political instability. Obsidian, garnet, carnelian, and rock crystal were all popular among different classes at various points in ancient Egyptian history.

As with metalworking, jewelers sometimes had to get creative with their use of gems and stones. When political strife made it too difficult to obtain imported gems, they sometimes used a ceramic material called faience to replace them. To make faience, jewelers would mix ground quartz with colorants that could be heated and molded to resemble more expensive, natural stones. The most popular form of faience in ancient Egyptian art and jewelry was a blue-green shade designed to mimic turquoise.

Ornate Beadwork

Much of what modern scholars and jewelers know about ancient Egyptian beadwork was garnered from tomb scenes. Beads could be made from metal, stones, ceramic, shells, clay, bone, glass, or faience. In the scenes found in Sobekhotep and Rekhmire, for example, observers see workmen drilling beads with bow drills and others stringing them together to make ornate beaded necklaces and other jewelry.

One of the most interesting materials used in ancient Egyptian beadwork was colored glass. Though the use of colored glass in making beads and other types of jewelry was fairly commonplace in ancient Egypt, it was unheard of before that time. 

Because it was rare, at least upon its initial discovery, colored glass was considered precious by many and was used in ornate jewelry. It's common to see colored glass beads used as feathers in jewelry depicting birds, for example, but only among the noble classes who could afford these ornate pieces.

Types of Jewelry

Arguably the most iconic type of jewelry in ancient Egypt was the wide-collar necklace. These necklaces were made using rows of beads, and were often shaped like animals or flowers. Wearers stretched the necklaces from the breast to the collarbone and often strung pendants bearing amulets of protection to them. There were, however, also many other types of jewelry that were popular in ancient Egypt.

Protective Amulets

Protective amulets were often integrated into other forms of jewelry, though they could be worn as independent pieces. In ancient times, people believed that these amulets were charms, or talismans, that could be infused with power or protective properties. Protective amulets could be carved into varying forms, with some shaped like symbols and animals and others designed to look like humans or even gods.

Amulets weren't just seen as protective talismans for the living. There were also jewelers who specialized in making memorial amulets and pieces specifically for the dead to wear in the afterlife. The New Kingdom Book of the Dead even defined what materials should be used for which amulets and where they should be placed on the body.

Heart Scarabs

Heart scarabs were a specific type of amulet used to guard the deceased. Heart scarab amulets were supposed to help the deceased perform better in the god Anubis'  Weighing of the Heart Ceremony, in which the justice of the person's heart was supposed to be compared against the weight of the feather of truth. Since Egyptian mythology defines the heart as chronicling a person's actions throughout his or her life, the heart amulet was also believed to help the deceased by counteracting the separation of the heart from the body after death.

Heart scarabs were sometimes heart-shaped, but most of them were oval-shaped or carved to look like beetles. The name refers to the placement of the amulets over the heart, not to their specific shape. 

Beaded Necklaces

Wide-collar necklaces weren't the only pieces of jewelry made from beads. Single-string beaded necklaces were also quite popular in ancient Egypt. These necklaces usually featured charms and amulets in addition to beads, which were typically made from clay, glass, minerals, semi-precious stones, or polished and carefully inscribed oyster shells. In poorer classes, the beads could also be made from bone or teeth.

Other Types of Jewelry

Though necklaces and amulets were seen as having the most significance, ancient Egyptians also wore other types of jewelry. Both women and men in the nobility often sported rings, earrings, pendants, bracelets, and hair beads, and pharaohs can be easily recognized even by the average modern American by their elaborate crowns or headdresses. Military leaders were often given "Golden Fly" pendants as rewards. Because nobles and military men wore their most impressive pieces of jewelry in death as well as in life, modern jewelers have an entire treasure trove of perfectly preserved examples to draw from.

Find the Perfect Piece Online

The Museum of Jewelry in California boasts an entire collection of hand-made jewelry made by master artists and inspired by the trends of ancient Egypt. Each piece is a unique, sustainably created work of art that creates a link to the past while simultaneously bringing a touch of ancient beauty to the present. Browse the collection online or call (800) 835-2700 to speak with a dedicated and knowledgeable representative about specific pieces.

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