Ancient Roman jewellery was an essential public display of wealth. Roman jewellery at first followed the trends set by the Etruscans. Examples of Roman jewellery from this early period, 7th-1st century BC, are extremely rare. Gold was very scarce and the little gold that existed was used for trading and warfare rather than for personal adornment.
The Expansion of the Empire
As the power and spread of the Roman Empire grew however, jewellery designs and materials became even more elaborate both to incorporate different cultural styles from Greece, Egypt, North Africa and the Orient. This reflected Rome’s prosperity as a dominant and conquering city. The wide range of natural resources now available to them enabled artisans to create ostentatious jewellery using a diverse selection of materials that increasingly included sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, garnet and amber from India, and pearls, which were particularly prized. Whilst the wealthy would have favoured opulent gold and silver jewellery, the lower classes would have had a wide range of bronze and glass designs available to them.
Roman jewellery was dispersed all through the Roman Empire, influencing numerous cultures itself. The Celts adopted many aspects of Roman jewellery making. Similarly, the Romans started using some typically Celtic materials like jet, a type of dark brown coal.
The Romans, unlike their Greek forerunners, created jewellery for the mass-market. Pieces were made using moulds and casting techniques, which allowed production to spread across the whole of the Empire. The Romans also produced innovations in decorative jewellery techniques, such as opus interrasile, a system where delicate patterns are cut out of the gold with the aid of a chisel, and niello, a black composition of metal sulphides which forms a clear contrast with the underlying gold or silver.
The influence of the Roman Empire had a distinctive effect. Even with the decline of Rome’s power in the 4th century, its artistic influence still continued into the Byzantine period.