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The Allure of Ancient Jewelry

Posted by Catherine Claus on


I love the beauty and sparkle of gemstones and jewelry as much as anyone. But it’s what lies beneath the surface that really fascinates me. 

Jewelry exists at the intersection of art, history, and science.

When you look closely at a piece of jewelry, you can see evidence of the place it came from, the people who made it, and what meaning it carries. 

 Ancient Roman necklace

Ancient Roman necklace from the MET collection

Encountering Cultures Through Jewelry

I recently visited the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in NYC, where jewelry is prominently featured. I saw case after case of intricate gold Egyptian jewelry made thousands of years ago, each displaying incredible metalwork.

A single hair comb from 3200 B.C. illustrates ancient Egypt’s highly skilled artisans, natural resources, intricate ceremonies and class structures, and even their creation story.

Ancient Egyptian ceremonial hair comb  

Ancient Egyptian ceremonial hair comb from the MET collection

From the Mayans to the Greeks, ancient cultures used gemstones and jewelry for adornment, identity, wealth, and good fortune. Jewelry is intimately tied to culture.

This is evident across the globe.The ancient Indus Valley civilization crafted beautiful jewelry, like the gold and agate pieces below, for adornment, status, and trade.

 Gold and agate ornaments

Gold and agate ornaments of the Indus Valley Civilization. (Source)

The Journey of a Single Pearl

Often a piece of jewelry tells a story that is much bigger than its individual journey.

This is particularly true for gemstones. While you hopefully know the source of your precious stones, that’s only a piece of their whole story.

A little digging may reveal how your gemstone is entangled with a long history of people, politics, and economics.

You may know that at Thesis we source our pearls from the Sea of Cortez. But do you know how these particular pearls, known as Perlas del Mar de Cortez, became one of the most prized gems in 16th century Europe, valued above gold and silver?

Amici Pendant 

Amici Pendant with opal, ruby, and Perlas del Mar de Cortez pearl

Chasing rumors of a Sea of Pearls, Spanish conquistadors reached what is now known as the Gulf of California in 1533. Soon, the pearls became New Spain’s most important export.

After centuries of over harvesting, fishing in the Gulf was banned to save the vanishing pearl oysters. Today, the unique gems are sustainably cultured to protect their population and ecosystem.

Ancient Roots in Modern Jewelry

Many earrings commonly sold resemble the earrings of the ancient Etruscans. Ancient Persian bracelets would be en vogue today and the symbols and designs of ancient Celtic jewelry are still being recreated.

From tiaras to nose rings, even the most contemporary looking jewelry was first conceived by the ancients.

 Etruscan gold ear studs

Etruscan gold ear studs (Source)

When selecting or designing jewelry today, we get to draw from a great wealth of cultures and traditions. We can choose to wear pieces that reflect our own cultural heritage, represent a special place, or carry a meaning that resonates with us.

For example, you might choose pieces with turquoise after learning that the stone symbolized rebirth and new life to the ancient Egyptians.

What Story Will Your Jewelry Tell?

Like the ancients, gemstones and jewelry are still an important means of holding and passing on wealth. Chosen wisely, jewelry is a lasting and cherished investment.

When you look closely at your jewelry and dig into its past, you may find layers of fascinating people and histories to explore.

If you are interested in repurposing heirloom jewelry, or designing a custom piece with ancient influences, get in touch today. I would love to offer my guidance.