NEW YORK – Looking for a unique statement piece of jewelry for that little black dress? Ancient jewelry offers a distinctive look as well as a great alternative to mainstream factory-made jewelry. Surprisingly, many of these pieces look contemporary even though they were made centuries earlier.
“People are drawn to antiquities in general because of the tangible connection to the ancient past. Ancient jewelry takes that one step further and allows people to feel connected to this ancient history in their daily lives and enables them to share the history with others. Not to mention its sheer beauty and aesthetic appeal,” said Gabriel Vandervort, owner of Ancient Resource in Los Angeles, Calif. “Ancient jewelry was fashionable during the Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th century when an appreciation of the ancient world experienced a Renaissance of sorts.
“After Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922, ‘Egyptomania’ swept the world. Being some of the most plentiful Egyptian antiquities, faience beads were fashioned into earrings and necklaces, and bought in a frenzy by tourists,” he added. “Jump forward almost 100 years and ancient jewelry is making a comeback. Fashions come and go, but people in all walks of life are now turning to ancient jewelry to make a statement with something that has true meaning, and honestly leaves others speechless when they learn the history behind it.”
Among medieval and Byzantine pieces, crosses and pendants are highly desirable and have evolved past their initial purpose in the late Roman and Byzantine era as expressions of one’s faith to become stylish jewelry for modern wearers. Often they depict Christ or the Virgin Mary and sometimes might contain within them pieces of saints or martyrs from bone or stone chips to ashes.
“There are really lovely bronze cross pendants from the Byzantine and medieval periods — 6th to 12th century A.D. — that are still wearable and quite affordable. They are pretty special items to have to hang around your neck,” Vandervort said.
In ancient times, rings conveyed status and wealth, often donned by Greek and Roman senators and the affluent. Rings worn by commoners usually were embellished with depictions of gods, animals or patterns and more. Sometimes they were used with hot wax to seal important documents. “Still wearable, these often have engraved depictions of animals, crosses, inscriptions and other motifs. Ancient coins set into pendants are also very desirable,” he said.
Even more plentiful and equally desirable is bead jewelry. “Egyptian bead jewelry is probably the most collected and sought-after of them all,” Vandervort said. Mummy-bead-type jewelry, circa 664-535 B.C., was made of colorful faience beads handmade. The earth-colored material, when fired, took on brilliant hues of red, green, yellow, orange and blue. In ancient times, a body would be entombed, and a shroud woven of dozens of these beads was placed atop the sarcophagus.
“The Nubian Nile valley was home to highly sophisticated and dynamic cultures, and their spectacular jewelry demonstrates the technical skill and aesthetic sensitivity of Nubian artisans. Few people are familiar with this fascinating civilization — it might even be called the ‘greatest ancient civilization you’ve never heard of,’” said Denise Doxey, curator, Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art at the MFA, in the museum’s press release announcing the exhibition.
Buying any kind of antiques requires doing one’s homework and buying from a reputable seller for whom this is a specialty.
“There are a lot of fakes and reproductions offered in the market as authentic, and there always have been,” Vandervort said, “There are also legalities that pertain to ancient items which need to be adhered to. As with any area of collecting, sellers who specialize in this area have experience in knowing what to look for as far as authenticity, as well as knowledge of the various laws regarding these items. They will also be able to provide information regarding the ancient uses of the items, the items’ history, and any other questions you may have.”
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