Expert guide: 7 tips for collecting ancient jewellery

Ancient jewellery styles are in vogue, but 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

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  • Know how often you want to wear it

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.’

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  • Don’t fear being priced out

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

An east Greek electrum and garnet necklace, circa 500 BC. 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 provide 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.’

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  • Ancient can feel very contemporary

The necklace above, consisting of a doubled loop-in-loop chain with a fringe of small seed-pod pendants (possibly symbolising fertility), might be more than 2,000 years old, but its bold patterning and abstract recurring motif could appeal to modern tastes and make it a striking accessory.

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

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  • 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 texture not typically found in modern jewellery,’ explains the specialist.

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.

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  • Pay attention to symbols

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

A Greek gold gem-set pendant earring, late Hellenistic period, circa 2nd-1st century BC. 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 BC. 1 in (2.5 cm) long. Sold for £27,720 on 7 December 2022 at Christie’s in London

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

While identifying marks or inscriptions aren’t always available, many 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.

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  • Ask about provenance

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

The Roman cameo above came from the collection of the art dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi (1886-1965), who acquired the work in the 1930s. Sangiorgi amassed one of the greatest modern collections of classical gems — many of which came from notable earlier collections, such as that of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817).

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  • 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 meant 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 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 notes. ‘So it’s not impossible that you could find lapis in England, for example, because of the patterns of trade.’