Collecting ancient jewellery

Ancient jewellery styles are in vogue, and original pieces that can be thousands of years old are surprisingly affordable. Here, our specialists offer advice for anyone starting a collection of what are perhaps the most personal objects from antiquity

Consider how often you want to wear it

A Roman gold and garnet intaglio ring, circa 1st century A.D. Intaglio: ⅝ in (1.6 cm) wide; ring size H. Estimate: £7,000-9,000. Offered in Antiquities on 5 July 2023 at Christie’s in London

When it comes to purchasing jewellery — and particularly ancient jewellery — collectors need to consider exactly what they want from it. ‘You might be looking for an amazing piece to wear at a cocktail party once a year, or something that you could wear every day,’ says Hannah Fox Solomon, head of the Ancient Art and Antiquities department at Christie’s in New York. ‘If you want to wear it all the time, I would recommend buying an ancient engraved stone or cameo set in a modern gold ring. That way the gem won’t get damaged.’

Don’t fear being priced out

An east Greek electrum and garnet necklace, circa 500 B.C. 14½ in (37 cm) long. Sold for £6,300 on 7 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

It is understandable that, for many, the term ‘ancient jewellery’ suggests very high prices. But the majority of pieces sold across Christie’s antiquities auctions, held both online and in New York and London, are surprisingly affordable.

‘Bead necklaces can be acquired for less than $10,000,’ says Solomon. ‘They’re ancient and yet can look very modern, and they’re a really interesting alternative to a strand of contemporary beads from a mainstream commercial jeweller. This is a unique statement piece. Bead necklaces can be a fun and accessible way to start your collection, if they suit your taste.’

Ancient can feel very contemporary

A Roman gold snake ring, circa 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D. Snake: 13/16 in (2 cm) long; ring size L½. Estimate: £1,500-2,500. Offered in Antiquities on 5 July 2023 at Christie’s in London

In ancient Greece and Rome, snakes were regarded as symbols of regeneration and rebirth because of their skin-shedding abilities. The ring shown above, depicting a coiled serpent, might be 2,000 years old, but it appeals to modern tastes. 

In the 20th century, jewellers such as Bulgari and Cartier were influenced by ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman designs; and that influence continues today. In the short film above, Marisa Hordern, founder of the contemporary jeweller Missoma, discusses the inspiration she finds in Roman and Byzantine pieces.

Consider material

In ancient Mediterranean, Near Eastern and Egyptian cultures, gold and silver were as much a symbol of luxury and status as they are today, and highly valued.

‘Ancient gold jewellery tends to be comparatively high-carat — close to 24-carat, and roughly 93 per cent pure or better, which gives it a warm golden hue and a texture not typically found in modern jewellery,’ explains the specialist.

A pair of Achaemenid gold bracelets, Iran, circa 5th century B.C. 3 3/16 in (8.1 cm) wide; weight: 208.3 gr. and 194.2 gr. Estimate: £30,0000-50,000. Offered in Antiquities on 5 July 2023 at Christie’s in London

Gold of that purity is also very soft, which means that an ancient stone in an ancient gold setting cannot be resized. Collectors who want to wear a centuries-old gemstone should consider one set in a modern gold fixture as a sturdier alternative.

‘Our earrings can all be worn, but in many cases we advise buyers to add a modern gold post or ear wire,’ says Solomon. While some can be worn as they are, others have lost the parts that can be attached to the ear. Either way, it may be wise to have a jeweller add a modern element to reduce stress on the timeworn components.

Pay attention to symbols

A Greek gold gem-set pendant earring, late Hellenistic period, circa 2nd-1st century B.C. 3 in (7.5 cm) long. Sold for £13,860 on 7 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Christie’s antiquities auctions often include pieces depicting symbolic objects, gods or animals. Part of the decoration of the earring above is an Egyptian crown formed of a sun disc and feather motif — otherwise known as the ‘crown of Isis’ — which is found across the eastern Mediterranean. Below it is a circular rosette with a cabochon garnet centre and, beneath that, a drop pendant figure of Eros playing a lyre and wearing garments associated with Attis.

A Greek carnelian intaglio of Herakles, Hellenistic period, circa 2nd-1st century B.C. 1 in (2.5 cm) long. Sold for £27,720 on 7 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

Many objects don’t have identifying marks or inscriptions, but certain mythological subjects and historical figures are used repeatedly and easily recognisable.

‘Whenever you see a woman with her hair pulled back and a crested helmet sitting back on her head, that is the goddess Athena,’ says Solomon. Athena was a popular subject for ancient jewellery: she was the goddess of wisdom and war, and considered extremely powerful.

Another identifiable figure is an athletic man with a lion pelt draped over his arm or tied around his shoulders, representing the Greek hero Herakles (or Hercules to the Romans) — as in the intaglio above.

Ask about provenance

An Egyptian carnelian bead necklace, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, circa 1540-1292 B.C., and two ‘Egyptian style’ replica brooches. Necklace 20½ in (52 cm) long. Estimate: £6,000-8,000. Offered in Antiquities on 5 July 2023 at Christie’s in London

In ancient jewellery, as with any work of art, knowing the provenance of an object can add another dimension to it. 

The carnelian bead necklace above was once in the collection of Egyptologist Cyril Aldred (1914-1991) and his wife, Jessie Kennedy Morton. Aldred was celebrated for his contributions to the study of ancient Egyptian art and history.

In 1937 he joined the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh as an assistant keeper, remaining with the museum for the rest of his life. His first book, Old Kingdom Art in Ancient Egypt, was published in 1949, followed by volumes on the Middle and New Kingdoms respectively in 1950 and 1952. This necklace was given to the current owner by Aldred as a wedding present in 1984.

The fact that an object was previously owned by a noted expert can make it more attractive to buyers, potentially adding to its value.

Beware of fakes

Collectors should adopt a healthy scepticism when it comes to bead necklaces, gold bracelets and other ancient jewellery. ‘More pieces have survived from antiquity than you might expect,’ says Solomon. ‘But there are fakes that have either been created to deceive, or else fashioned as revival jewellery to imitate ancient pieces in style.’

The specialist recently attended a lecture on diamonds, which do not commonly appear on the ancient jewellery market although they did exist in Roman times. ‘Ancient diamonds were not cut as they are in contemporary jewellery,’ she explains. ‘Instead, they were used in their raw form and set in gold.’

Diamonds were, however, highly valued for their durability and used to carve images into other stones. ‘When you see carved gems set into rings, the very thin lines may well have been created using diamonds,’ explains Solomon.

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The cutting and polishing of diamonds in the way that is familiar today didn’t begin until late Byzantine times, after the 10th century. ‘If I saw a cut diamond in a Roman ring, I would know that it was not ancient,’ says the specialist.

Materials can also play a role in authenticating works purporting to be from certain regions and time periods. Lapis lazuli, for instance, comes from Afghanistan. But Solomon advises caution. ‘The ancient world was so fluid that cultures became interspersed,’ she says. ‘So it’s not impossible that you could find lapis in England, for example, because of the patterns of trade.’

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