Mankind has always been fond of adornment. Throughout history, jewelry has been an essential part of every culture, as it is an art form that has been used not only as adornment but often as a way to demonstrate the wearer’s status, wealth, and power. Jewelry, like everything else, has experienced evolution at the hands of man. Let us explore how its journey unfolded in Greece.
Eras of Ancient Greek History and Their Jewelry
With the import of bronze and copper around 3000 BCE, Greece saw a gradual shift from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age. The primarily agricultural population started using basic bronze-working techniques. The Bronze Age comprises two sub-periods:
Minoan Civilization (2700 – 1450 BCE)
The Minoan civilization is known for its extravagant palaces. Frescoes as decoration, elaborate plumbing systems and grand heights of up to four stories were principal features of such structures. The most noteworthy Minoan palace is that of Knossos. The period is also known for an extensive trade and hence exchange of knowledge and skill between the Near East in particular and other settlements like Crete, Aegean, and the Mediterranean.
Forms of Jewelry: Pendants, diadems, hair ornaments, beads, and bracelets can be seen in this period.
Techniques: Sheets of gold, and techniques like granulation and filigree, a result of Eastern influence, were seen. With the bulk of pieces being handmade, only a few pieces like rings used three-piece molds and the lost-wax technique for manufacture.
Materials: Metals such as gold, silver, and bronze were used in Minoan jewelry. The pieces also used stones such as rock crystal, lapis lazuli, garnet, carnelian, obsidian and red, green or yellow jasper. One of the most popular jewels was amethyst, imported from Egypt.
Minoan Bee Pendant: Made from gold, the distinct bee pendant design shows two bees, with their outstretched wings and their bodies curved towards each other, holding a honeycomb into which they are placing a small drop of honey. The piece was discovered in the Necropolis of the Minoan Palace of Malia on the island of Crete.
Ancient Near East and Aegean cultures believed the bee to be a sacred insect, connecting the natural world to the underworld. This is perhaps the reason why a pendant with such a design was placed in the tomb with the deceased. The bee also played an essential role in Minoan and Mycenaean daily life, as beekeeping was a Minoan craft, which produced the fermented honey drink known as mead.
Mycenaean Civilization (1600 – 1100 BCE)
The Mycenaean civilization absorbed the Minoan one. With its lavish states, inner-city organization, works of art, and writing system, this period showcases the first advanced civilization in mainland Greece. Access to larger quantities of gold resulted in more and more gold jewelry being produced. The designs of Mycenaean jewelry, however, don’t differ much from the Minoan period.
Forms and Motifs: Mass manufacture of beads shaped as spirals, flowers, human heads, flowers, beetles and other stylized forms was seen in this period.
Techniques: With the aid of dies, craftsmen stamped out sheets of gold and created parts of the basic shapes. The parts would then be joined, and the bead would be filled with sand. Development on the techniques of engraving of precious stones allowed Mycenaean artisans to present intricate seals for rings.
Materials: Simple enamels, colored stones for inlay and fine chains from gold wire were used.
Iron Age or The Greek Dark Age
Greek history records the period from the end of the Mycenaean civilization around the 11th century BCE to the first signs of the Greek city-states, in the 9th century BCE as the Greek Dark Age. Around 1100 BCE, outlying settlements and even the palace centers of Mycenaean culture began to be abandoned or destroyed. By 1050 BCE, the population reduced significantly, and familiar features of Mycenaean culture vanished. The decoration on Greek pottery after about 1100 BCE lacks the decorative figures of Mycenaean ware and is limited to simpler geometric styles.
Greek Revival – Archaic Period
With little evidence of any continuation of jewelry production in Greek areas, it is impressive that the jewelry produced after the Greek Dark Age strongly resembles that of the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures. It is often assumed that the Phoenicians, traders from the Levant, had picked up styles and techniques from the Minoans and Mycenaeans before the Greek Dark Age which they now reinstated. The Phoenicians were well known for their excellent craftsmanship around the second to the first millennium BCE. Jewelry became a fascinating mix of old Greek tradition with new oriental accents, owing to the Eastern techniques and styles the Phoenicians brought in.
Greece presents her Classical Age around the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. During this period, Greece was known to have a powerful influence over the Roman Empire and on the foundations of Western civilization. Much of the artistic thought in architecture and sculpture, modern Western politics, scientific concepts, literature, theatre, and philosophy stems from this period of Greek history. Riddled with wars, the Classical period saw the conquest of much of modern-day Greece by the Persian Empire and its subsequent independence, the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century, and the eventual fall of Sparta and rise of Athens in the 4th century.
Also known as the “Golden Age,” the Classical period is an essential stage in jewelry history.
Forms and Motifs: Nature-inspired wreaths appeared over the 5th century BCE and became popular during the 4th century BCE. Rosettes were a common motif, as were flowers and tassels. Ornate wreath designs, stones, and engravings on finger rings, intricate necklaces, and bracelets as complete circles with decorative designs were created.
The only adult male present in female jewelry is Dionysus – the ancient Greek god of wine, winemaking, grape cultivation, fertility, ritual madness, and theater. Jewelry features birds and bees in its design. Plants and trees like oak, olive, ivy, vine, laurel, and myrtle inspired designs for wreaths while the seeds or fruits of these plants feature as pendants or earrings. Acorns and beechnuts also became popular.
Technique: Filigree and miniature sculpting became popular. The period also saw extensive use of engraving. The precision and intricacy of the jewelry are said to be a result of the construction techniques. Hammered sheet, wire, and granules carefully shaped and joined together can also be seen in many jewelry pieces.
The term Hellenistic came from the Ancient Greek word Hellas, the original word for Greece. The Hellenistic Age showcases a time in Mediterranean history that sees the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the emergence of the Roman Empire, and the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt that followed. At this time, Greece’s cultural influence and power were at its peak in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, experiencing affluence and progress in all areas.
In 331 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. His domain stretched from Greece to Asia Minor, Egypt, the Near East, and India. This established contact with distant cultures that not only spread Greek styles across the world, but also brought in new and exotic influences for Greek art and artists. With technical flair, Greek artists created gorgeous designs, such as the Herakles knot, the beechnut pendant, and the acanthus leaf.
Form and Motifs: Egypt introduced the reef knot which stayed popular into Roman times. Western Asia presented the crescent, which was seen as a representation of the moon god and was transformed as a pendant in Hellenistic jewelry. Greek motifs like the gods Eros and Nike gained popularity.
Hoop earrings with animal or human heads and diadems with reef knot motifs emerged. New necklaces designed with complicated chains and animal heads were now worn from shoulder to shoulder rather than around the neck or straps with pendants of buds or spearheads.
Techniques: The use of stones and glass for colorful inlay brought us polychrome jewelry – characteristic to this period. Beads were not threaded but linked together, a technique typical for the 2nd and 1st century BCE. Stones were drilled with the help of a bow drill or wheel, using abrasives and diamond tips for fine lines. This helped introduced cameos. Sardonyx became a favorite stone for cameo jewelry, for its banded structure was perfect for creating a contrast between fore and background.
The Herakles Knot: The Knot of Hercules is a secure knot formed by two intertwined ropes. While it is said to have originated as a healing charm in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome popularized this knot as an amulet and a notable wedding symbol. This symbol was a likely origin of the phrase “tying the knot.” It was bonded into the protective girdles worn by brides, which were ceremonially untied by the new groom.
Reproductions of Ancient Greek Jewelry
Even today, designers and jewelers find tremendous inspiration in the look and appeal of Ancient Greek jewelry and produce pieces with crescents, granulation and filigree details. Often finished with an oxidized look, these replicas allow you to indulge in the breathtaking charm of the antique.
Does Greece inspire you? Which jewelry piece has the potential to be a part of your collection? Let us know in the comments below!