Ancient jewellery styles are in vogue but, says Antiquities specialist Hannah Fox Solomon, original pieces that can be thousands of years old are surprisingly affordable
When it comes to purchasing jewellery — and particularly ancient jewellery — collectors need to consider carefully 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 different that you could wear every day,’ says Hannah Fox Solomon. ‘If you want to wear an ancient ring all the time, we would recommend buying a ring with an ancient stone and replacing it in a modern gold setting. You'll be able to wear it on a daily basis and the gem won’t get damaged.’
Your lifestyle is also a key consideration. ‘If you wear the ring every day, you need to consider how active you are and how much you use your hands for work, because the gold is close to pure and is therefore quite soft.’
When one hears the term ‘ancient jewellery’, it is understandable that many automatically associate it with astronomically high prices. But that’s not the case with the objects that will be sold in the upcoming online auction (29 November – 8 December), or through the department’s live auctions held four times a year in New York and London.
‘Bead necklaces are pretty much all below $3,000 — certainly below $5,000,’ Solomon explains. ‘They’re ancient and yet they look very modern, and provide a really interesting alternative to going to a mainstream commercial jeweller and buying a strand of contemporary beads. This is a unique statement piece. Bead necklaces can be a fun and accessible way to start your collection — if they suit your taste.’
The sale features a pair of Byzantine gold crescentic earrings from the 9th century A.D. Their openwork gold lunate shape is as contemporary as they come and would make the perfect finish to a festive holiday outfit.
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. That has meant, however, that some of the most important and valuable ancient pieces have been melted down for their materials over the centuries.
‘Ancient gold jewellery tends to be of comparatively high-carat: close to 24 carat, and roughly 93 per cent pure or better, which gives it a warm golden hue and texture not typically found in modern jewellery,’ our specialist explains.
Gold 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 ought to consider a stone set in modern gold fixtures as an alternative.
‘Our earrings can all be worn, but we advise in many cases to add a modern gold post or ear wire,’ Solomon says. While some can be worn as is, others have lost the ancient elements that can be attached to the ear. Regardless, it is wise to have a jeweller add a modern element because of the brittle nature of gold, and to reduce stress on the timeworn components.
In our online auction, we offer a number of intaglios featuring various gods, portraits and animals. One beautiful Italic example in banded agate from the 2nd century A.D. depicts a draped female goddess, likely Venus, goddess of love.
While identifying marks or inscriptions aren’t always available, many subjects — particularly mythological ones — or historical figures are used repeatedly.
‘Whenever you see a woman with her hair pulled back and a crested helmet sitting back on her head, the artist is depicting 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. Other identifiable figures include an athletic man with a lion pelt either draped over his head or tied around his shoulders, who would undoubtedly be the Greek hero Hercules, she adds.
Given the delicate nature of ancient gold, collectors should handle gold jewellery gently, particularly when wearing it. Bead necklaces are quite a bit more stable, Solomon says, although the composition of such pieces may be less certain if they have been re-strung in more recent times.
‘It’s unclear whether this group of carnelian beads as they appear now was strung in the same way in ancient times,’ Solomon says. ‘We know from wall and vase paintings from antiquity about some of the fashions, but it is impossible to be sure exactly how all bead necklaces were originally worn.’
Collectors should adopt a healthy scepticism when it comes to bead necklaces, gold bracelets and other ancient jewellery. ‘More ancient pieces have survived from antiquity than you might expect,’ explains Solomon. ‘But there are fakes that have either been created to purposefully deceive, or else fashioned as revival jewellery meant to imitate ancient pieces in style.’
The specialist recently attended a lecture on diamonds, which are not common on the ancient jewellery market although they did exist in Roman times. ‘Ancient diamonds were not cut as they are in contemporary jewellery,’ Solomon explains. ‘Instead, they were used in their raw form and set in gold.’
Diamonds were, however, prominently exploited for their durability and used to carve images into other stones. ‘When you see carved gems set into rings, as there are in our sale, the very thin lines may have been created with the use of diamonds,’ Solomon says.
In late Byzantine times, after the 10th century, the cutting and polishing of diamonds began in a way that is more familiar to today. ‘If I saw a cut diamond in a Roman ring, I would know that it was not ancient,’ Solomon says.
Materials, such as lapis lazuli, which is endemic to Afghanistan, can also play a role in authenticating works purporting to be from certain regions and specific time periods, although Solomon advises caution. ‘The ancient world was so fluid that cultures interspersed,’ she notes. ‘So it’s not impossible that you could find lapis in England, for example, because of the trade patterns.’