The History and Mythology of Gemstones in Ancient Jewellery

Jewellery in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Amarna Necklace with Flower Beads

Jewellery has been worn by ancient cultures around the world for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt both men and women were great lovers of jewellery and adorned themselves with a profusion of charms and amulets. Jewellery also showed wealth and status and offered protection from evil. Although the Egyptians had access to many precious gemstones, they preferred to use softer, semi-precious stones such carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, quartz and turquoise.

Gemstones across the Roman Empire

Gems were imported into Greece from every location along the ancient Silk Road, from Asia Minor to the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, and the Far East. These jewels included such exotic materials as emerald, ruby and sapphire, as well as semi-precious gems from the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa. The Roman Empire was the seat of power and wealth in the Western world for hundreds of years. Because of their impressive span, they were able to trade with cultures throughout the world, not only in Europe, but also in northern Africa.

Ornate Roman Electrum Earrings

Gemstones in Antiquity

In ancient times gems and precious stones had often a symbolic and deeper meaning. Find below a list of the most popular precious and semi-precious stones in antiquity.

Rare Egyptian Amarna Vulture Amulet in Lapis

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli has always been associated with royalty and with the cult of the deities. Egyptians believed that the precious stone came from the heavens providing protection in the afterlife. For this reason Lapis Lazuli was used to create beautiful statuettes of deities and amuletic jewellery. Ancient Egyptians also used the precious stone to create blue cosmetics.

Amethyst

The word amethyst comes from the Greek word amethystos, meaning sober. In ancient Greek and Roman culture, the amethyst gemstone was associated with the god of wine, Dionysus, and it was common practice to serve this beverage from amethyst goblets in the belief that this would prevent overindulgence. Romans and Greeks would also stud their drinking vessels with amethyst and wear the stones on their bodies.

Roman Gold Earrings with Amethyst
Roman Gold Earrings with Garnets and Pearls

Garnet

Garnet was extremely popular in Classical Times. In Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, Hades gave pomegranate seeds to his lover Persephone, as a token of safety, while she was leaving the underworld to join her mother Demeter in the human world. The semi-precious stone, recalling the colour and the shape of the pomegranate seed, became a typical gift exchanged between separated lovers.

Obsidian

The Natural History written by the Roman author, Pliny the Elder, contains a few sentences on the subject of a volcanic glass called obsidian, lapis obsidianus, discovered in Ethiopia by Obsidius, a Roman explorer. Ancient Egyptians used obsidian imported from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Red Sea regions. Obsidian was also used in ritual circumcisions because of its deftness and sharpness: egyptologists believe that Egyptian embalmers might have used knife and scalpel blades made of obsidian.

Egyptian Miniature Obsidian Headrest

Carnelian

The name Carnelian derives from the Latin word carneus, which means fleshy, a reference to the colour of the semi precious stone. Over 4500 years ago, Sumerian and Egyptian craftsmen were making jewellery set with carnelian stones. Ancient Romans and Greeks also valued the stone, which they used for intaglios and as a part of signet rings.

Jasper

Jaspers have been revered by ancient peoples and civilisations throughout the world as sacred and powerful stones of protection, for both the physical and spiritual realm. The name can be traced back in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Assyrian, Greek and Latin. In ancient Egypt, Red Jasper was linked to fertility, as it was named the fertilising blood of Mother Isis. Legend states it was used to drive away evil spirits and protect against snake and spider bites. Many amulets made from jasper were found in Egypt with inscriptions to protect the wearer from death. The Ancient Greeks and Romans valued jasper, believing it would ease the pain of childbirth if tied to the woman’s thigh.

Egyptian New Kingdom Faience Hair Ring

Ancient Jewellery

At Ancient & Oriental, we stock a wide range of artefacts from most ancient cultures and time periods. If you’re looking to buy Ancient Jewellery from the UK’s leading dealer, with our own certification and authenticity guaranteed, please look around our online shop or call +44 (0)20 8364 4565 if you’d like us to source a specific item.

By Anastasia,

  Filed under: Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Imagery & Symbolism   Tags: , , , , ,
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