The ancient Romans considered jewellery to be an essential accessory, for it provided a public display of their wealth. Roman jewellery at first followed trends set by the Etruscans, using gold and glass beads, but as the power and spread of the Roman Empire increased, so too did jewellery designs became increasingly elaborate. Different cultural styles from Greece, Egypt, North Africa, and the Orient were all incorporated to reflect Rome’s prosperity as a dominant, conquering city. The wide range of natural resources enabled artisans to create ostentatious jewellery using a diverse selection of materials: this increasingly included sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, garnet and amber from India, and pearls (which were particularly prized). Archaeological finds of Roman jewellery are relatively rare, considering the magnitude of Roman civilisation, and the historical and geographical span of the Empire.
The custom of wearing rings was popular amongst the Romans, and was probably introduced by the Sabines, who are described in early legends as wearing gold rings with precious stones. During the Roman Republic it became customary for all the senators, chief magistrates, and at last for the equites also, to wear gold rings.
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, and ancient Greeks and Romans also valued the stone, using it for intaglios and as a part of signet rings. Carnelian is a translucent variant of chalcedony, and ranges in colour from light orange to dark brown. It is slightly softer than the likes of sard, and so is ideal for carving. The colour of stones was important in antiquity, with some varieties considered, through sympathetic magic, to increase fertility, ease childbirth, and provide relief and protection from afflictions (such as scorpion bites, stomach ailments, and eye disease). Written sources list a host of powers attributed to stones, for instance protection against the evil eye, the guarantee of safe travel, a better understanding of rhetoric, and even victory in court. In ancient Greece and Rome, carnelian in particular was believed to enhance passion, love, and desire.
To find out more about intaglios, please visit our relevant blog post: Engraved Gemstones in Ancient Rome.