What comes to mind when you think of ancient Greece? Undoubtedly you think of white togas, strapped sandals, and gold adornments. You may think of the first Olympics or the all-powerful gods associated with Ancient Greek culture. As with all developing cultures, once the empire was flourishing and meeting the most basic survival needs, the populace then turned to arts and beauty. The practice of jewelry making and enhancing the body with adornments is a hallmark of its people seeking beauty.
Looking back, we can appreciate much of the contributions the ancient Greeks made toward our modern achievements, including science, art, technology, mathematics, philosophy, and architecture. While it often does not make a list, Greek jewelry is another lasting influence. The Greeks were ahead of their time in this area as well.
Humans have always had an innate desire to express beauty and creativity. Long before metal working became commonplace, our ancestors used various items found in nature to adorn themselves. Feathers, unique rocks, and carved bone were manipulated for beauty expression. These items were transformed from everyday articles to works of art. The art became wearable around the wrist, about the head or neck, or from the earlobes.
As the Bronze Age and its discoveries and technology increased its influence worldwide, the skills and tools for working with and manipulating metals became the cutting edge of technology. The Greeks expounded upon those skills to include producing pieces of jewelry. As the materials were not as readily available as feathers and such, the cost of materials increased. The workmanship and expense required to produce a piece of jewelry made these new works of art available only the wealthiest of citizens. As such, jewelry became a display or art and a way of conveying wealth or status.
The availability of gold in Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures inspired the wearing of gold jewelry. While the artifacts and paintings from those empires demonstrated the use of gold in jewelry, the aesthetics between the cultures were still very individualized and stylized. Each culture, having different representations of their gods, was inspired to create jewelry to honor their unique beliefs. For the Greeks, ancient jewelry was inspired by other empires and yet still made its own.
Ancient Greek jewelry began incorporating gold with the rise of Alexander the Great as a world leader. As the Roman Empire conquered various ancient countries and people groups and grew as the dominant empire of the second century, the influence of cultural preference and fashion, including jewelry, was increased around the known world.
Ancient Greeks adopted their neighboring countries' use of metal and incorporated precious stones such as topaz, pearls, chalcedony, cornelian, garnet, emeralds, aquamarine, and amethyst. Many ancient Greek jewelry wearers used their accessories to honor the gods with scenes from tales of mythology or to celebrate a Greek conquest. The stones allowed a dashing array of colors to be used in representing a scene. The jewelry became not only an accessory but an act of worship and an announcement of worship.
The aesthetic was not the only thing that set Greek jewelry apart from other accessory trends of the time. The Greeks took advantage of the art of jewelry making as an industry. They adopted methods to create duplicate pieces through the use of molds. They used thinned sheets of gold, known as gold leaf, to overlay the costly material on lesser-valued bases to extend the resource to more buyers. The level of artistry was significantly enhanced during this time. It's no surprise that these techniques coincide with the era known in Greek history as the Golden Age of Greece.
As with all civilizations, fashion trends constantly changed. What was popular for a season may not be what is popular in the next. In the case of jewelry, historians can see that the Greeks had different accessories unique to the times. These preferred looks evolved throughout the Bronze Age, Minoan Greece, Mycenaean age, the Classical Greek Era, and the Hellenistic Period.
Earrings were often dangling and tended to have round features. Some feature the bright, bold blue lapis stones. It is evident that the most sophisticated Grecian ladies would prefer gold with a stone or pearl accent. The earrings might be as restrained as a dangling stone trimmed with gold or as intricate as a fully laden gold depiction of the head or entire body of an honored god.
Necklace choices may have been a delicate gold chain or a string of pearls. The wearer would frequently choose a pendant to be worn on the necklace. Similar to earrings, these pendants would often include a stunning stone or a representation of a deity. Also popular in ancient Greece were necklaces of generous width, a design laid out to cover a large portion of the neck area.
The Greeks believed their jewelry's value was such that it should be taken into the afterlife with its owner in burial. Many affluent Greeks were buried with their wealth and treasures. Today, most of the world's collection of ancient Greek jewelry is recovered from burial sites.
While the influences of Greece's history can be seen in correlation with ancient jewelry, trends, and the Greek aesthetic evolution, some elements remained consistent. The overarching hallmark of Greek jewelry seems to be twofold: their gold preference with a brightly colored stone and the caricatures of Greek gods and goddesses. To know Greek mythology, its cast of deities, and its folklore is an excellent way of identifying which pieces of ancient jewelry were of Greek design.
At the Museum of Jewelry, we honor the trends of the past. We search out the known collection, validate their authenticity, and acquire unique jewelry pieces worn by previous generations the world over. We pass those pieces on to those who share our appreciation of the jewelry artifacts as an expression of beauty and identity. Art and beauty are, after all, outside of the bounds of time and place.