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 carefully 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 different that you could wear every day,’ says Hannah Fox Solomon, Vice President of Christie’s Ancient Art and Antiquities department in New York. ‘If you want to wear ancient jewellery all the time, I would recommend buying an ancient engraved stone or cameo set in a modern gold ring. That way you'll be able to wear it on a daily basis and the gem won’t get damaged.’
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 majority of pieces sold across Christie’s antiquities auctions, held both online and four times a year in New York and London.
‘Bead necklaces are pretty much all below $10,000,’ 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.’
Christie’s 12 April Antiquities sale in New York features a Western Asiatic Banded Agate Bead Necklace from the late 3rd to early 2nd millennium BC. Even though the necklace is about 4,000 years old, the bold patterning of the agate and large size of the beads appeal to modern tastes and make it a striking accessory.
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 one set in a modern gold fixture as a sturdier 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.
Christie’s antiquities auctions often include intaglios showing various gods, portraits and animals. The Greek scarab above depicts Hermes, the messenger of the gods, with his characteristic kerykeion. The Italic ringstone below shows the god Fufluns (the Etruscan equivalent of the god Dionysus) with his characteristic kanthatos – a wine vessel.
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.
As with any ancient work of art, knowing the provenance of an object is essential and can add another interesting dimension to ancient jewellery.
The above cameo depicting the Sasanian King Narseh was first collected by Jean-Pierre Collot (1774-1852), the French banker and intimate of Napoleon Bonaparte. After financing the Coup of 18 Brumaire which brought Bonaparte to power in 1797 with five hundred thousand francs in gold, Collot was appointed commissary for the French army in Italy. This lucrative positioned enabled him to participate in the art-buying frenzy which followed the French invasions of Venice and the Papal States.
The cameo was originally mounted in a decorative engraved gold frame of circa 1810, presumably commissioned by Collot. This was later embellished with a more elaborate mount of silver-topped gold circa 1850, likely commissioned by his daughter, Victoire Pauline Antoinette Collot (1814-1895), La Marquise de Lillers, following her inheritance. The top and bottom rows are centered by a large old mine-cut diamond, and the frame is surmounted by a central ring and a symmetrical undulating ribbon, also set with old mine-cut diamonds.
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, 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 comes from 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.’