Wearable ancient jewelry only gets better with age


November 2, 2022

Although wearing precious jewelry has long symbolized wealth, power and social status, it was far more expensive in ancient times.

Back then, jewelry was typically worn only by royalty and the wealthy class. Today, these historic adornments recall the artisans who created them, the privileged few who donned them and also the marvelous fact that they have withstood the test of time beautifully. Often such items are just as wearable as when they were new, and if they require any updating to ensure durability or fit, usually an imperceptible tweak or two are all that are required.

Ancient Greeks typically favored elegant, simply styled gold hair ornaments, armlets, rings, pins, pendants and necklaces embellished with rosettes, crescent moons, laurel wreaths, filigree and granulation – a term that describes finely patterned points of gold. Others wore more dazzling jewels such as the garnet and turquoise gold earrings Artemis Gallery auctioned for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022.

Romans were very superstitious, and members of the upper class often wore or carried tiny, stylish gold amulets in the forms of acorns, wild boar or sun discs to repel scorpions, safeguard their health and deflect disaster. Others relied on crescent-shaped amuletic brooches or pendants representing Luna, the Roman divine embodiment of the moon. In October 2022, Apollo Art Auctions sold a highly embellished 1st-century A.D. wearable beauty featuring a suspension loop, a corded border and applied spheres for £650 (about $720) plus the buyer’s premium.

According to Bob Dodge, founder and executive director of Artemis Gallery Ancient Art, Romans believed amethyst amulets offered not only protection and good fortune but also staved off drunkenness. An amethyst pendant sold at Artemis that realized $1,800 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021 was probably donned for Imperial Period (circa 1st to 4th century A.D.) symposiums – gatherings featuring drink and discussion of daily events. “This amulet could have been worn by male or female,” Dodge explained, adding, “but because of the cost of gold and the polished stone itself, it would have been someone from the elite class. A common individual never could have afforded such luxury.”

Ancient glass or gemstone beads, when restrung on new, secure gold chains, are alluring alternatives to contemporary necklaces, but their compositions may reflect the tastes of contemporary jewelers rather than their age-old, original designs. Furthermore, the beads themselves may hail from a wide range of times and places in the ancient world. The wearable, modern-looking necklace auctioned by Artemis Gallery for $600 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022, for example, features Phoenician and Roman glass beads that span some 800 years, circa 400 B.C. to 400 A.D.

A Merovingian (circa 500–700 A.D.) gold ring, its band featuring a flared shoulder and an applied oval bezel set with a garnet, achieved $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Apollo Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During the Merovingian era (mid-400s to 751 A.D.), Frankish women typically secured their outer garments with decorative bronze or silver-gilt brooches. Only rich merchants, people of high social status, those associated with the church, and royalty could afford gold jewelry. Because Merovingian rings were produced in limited numbers, they remain highly collectible. In May 2021, a stunning, fully wearable gold ring, set with a cabochon garnet, realized $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Apollo Art Auctions. According to its director, Dr. Ivan Bonchev, a solid, high-carat gold ring such as this can usually be altered by one or two sizes in either direction without ruining its integrity.

In wealthy Byzantium (395–1453 A.D.), sumptuous gemstone and enamel pieces, some featuring Christian iconography, were especially popular. So were sizeable crescent and D-shape openwork gold earrings. In September 2019, a wearable matched pair, each depicting two doves, realized $997 plus the buyer’s premium at Apollo Art Auctions.

This pair of Byzantine (circa 1000 A.D.) matched earrings, each depicting two doves rendered in filigree, sold for £900 (about $997) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019. Image courtesy of Apollo Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Ancient gold is not as refined as modern gold, since it was often used as found in nature,” Dr. Bonchev observed. “Merovingian and Medieval gold, for instance, is mixed with silver, copper, platinum, lead and small quantities of other elements. Yet, because it doesn’t oxidize and is quite impervious to corrosion, most ancient gold artifacts are normally wearable. In fact, any type of jewelry could be worn as long as its antiquity is intact and the piece is examined and identified by an expert. However, it’s very important to highlight that, unlike modern pieces, ancient jewelry has to be worn with a lot of care. It should not be exposed to chemicals and is best saved for special occasions.”

Bob Dodge remarked: “Much like 2000 years ago, we might assume that antique wearable jewels would be purchased by someone rich, as a trapping of their wealth. But today we see people across all walks of life who buy these incredible wearable treasures. We have sold them to teachers, doctors, lawyers, business professionals, retirees, people in the entertainment field, students and more. The common thread is more likely to be a fascination with the ancient world than the depth of one’s pocketbook.”

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All of the ancient artefacts included in this article have been offered for auction by Apollo. Many are sold but please get in touch is you’re interested in purchasing similar pieces from us by emailing [email protected].