Jewelry exists since women want to look different, and more beautiful than other women. And since men wear jewelry to express their power and physical strength.
Archeologists found jewelry made around 130.000 years ago and wearing jewelry never stopped ever since.
In another blog, I wrote the story of how jewelry is developed from a beautiful on a string to a golden piece of jewelry in Egypt (for instance). And in this blog, I would like to continue the ‘jewelry journey’ by telling more about Greek jewelry.
Does real Greek jewelry exist?
First of all, you might ask yourself, whether the ‘real’ Greek jewelry exists. Via trade, traveling around and conquests the Greek population and also the artists, like the Greek jewelry makers are influenced by other cultures.
The influences came from the cultures that lived around the Mediterranean Sea and people meeting each other to exchange ideas, techniques, and even styles. The technique of goldsmithing was picked up in Egypt and Syria.
The special designs came from Lebanon, or Phoenicia as it was called in those days. And the Phoenicians traded those special jewelry designs and even techniques to all the other cultures. The (semi) precious gemstones were imported from North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.
All these Mediterranean cultures, also the Greeks, exchanged jewelry styles, motifs, and techniques. And every culture brought its own tradition and ‘swing’ into the jewelry they wore. But time passed and changed the looks.
The Bronze Age
Let us go a while back (3200 BC) in time to understand how Greek jewelry developed. The most important discovery back then was the technique of how to work with metal. They did not start with gold or silver, but in those days bronze (a combination of tin and copper) became available.
And when they knew how to work with metal, that meant the start of a rich jewelry ‘business’. But the workmanship and the material were expensive, so jewelry became a kind of art, and only wealthy people and/or powerful people could afford such a piece of art or jewelry.
Minoan jewelry from Crete
About 200 years later, around 3000 BC, the Minoan civilization started in Crete, with as a center the royal palace in Knossos. Historians think that this culture had its origin in Asia Minor, which you could see in the jewelry they produced and in the technique of how they produced it.
This culture developed into a great civilization of its own and also the style and quality of its Greek jewelry improved.
The Minoan people were traders and everywhere where they came, trading posts were erected and their artists explained to the other cultures how to make jewelry, how to work with precious metal, and what designs they used. Their influence was large and intensive.
Archeologists found out that around 2400 BC Crete was using gold to make jewelry, gold they imported from other Mediterranean countries. They found golden necklaces, pendants, bracelets, earrings, and diadems in graves they excavated.
The pieces of jewelry in those days were made of gold, silver, or bronze. The gemstones used included quartz, lapis lazuli, carnelian, garnets, different colors of jasper, amethyst, and even obsidian (volcanic glass)
You see a clear Babylonian influence in the style of Greek jewelry, for instance in the difficult-to-make loop-in loop chains or the use of sheet gold. Four hundred years later, around 2000 BC, gold- and silver smiths already knew how to use techniques of filigree and granulation.
Some pieces of Greek jewelry, like rings, were molded with the aid of molds. For a ring, you needed three molds and the pieces were joined together with the lost wax technique.
Greek Jewelry from Mycene (Greek mainland)
Between 1600 and 1100 BC on the Greek mainland, in the Peloponnesus, there was a city-state, called Mycene. Actually, it was an offspring from Crete and the Minoan culture, which they conquered around 1450 BC.
Loving the sophisticated jewelry of Crete, the people from the Mycenaean culture adapted their jewelry but did not change much. A historical jewelry expert Reynold Higgins mentioned that ‘Mycenean jewelry is more plentiful but less adventurous in content than the Minoan’.
There is one large difference! The Mycenean jewelers had better and more access to gold and therefore could produce more golden jewelry.
The Mycenean goldsmiths could make beads, shaped like human heads, flowers, animals, and geometrical forms. The basis part was made stamped out with gold sheets with the help of a mold. The two parts would be filled with sand and joined together.
But they used engraving of gemstones, to make cameos or seals for rings. Or made dainty chain necklaces from gold wire, colored (glass of gem) stones for inlays, and enamels to get color in their jewelry.
Then suddenly, this culture disappeared and we don’t know what happened in those days. We do know that for about 200 years hardly any piece of jewelry has been produced in Greece.
Revival from the dark?
The period from 1100-900 BC is called the ‘Dark Ages’, where the Minoan and Mycenean cultures disappeared and nobody knows exactly why and how. And from this period hardly any production of Greek jewelry has been found.
But then suddenly after 900 BC again archeologists find Greek jewelry that resembles a lot of the old Mycenean and Minoan cultures. Just as rich, made using sophisticated techniques, and just as beautiful. How was this possible?
Well, one of the most likely explanations is that the Phoenicians, who lived in Lebanon and were great traders, but also excellent goldsmiths copied the Minoan and Mycenean jewelry. And exported that jewelry around the Mediterranean Sea area.
As you can read in my blog about the Phoenician jewelry they were capable of making stunning pieces of jewelry and due to their trade, they picked up all kinds of styles and fashions in the countries they visited. And implemented these influences in the jewelry, they sold again in this area.
It is possible that the Phoenician goldsmiths and jewelry designers learned the Greek jewelers the techniques and styles of their own ancestors so that they could proceed on the path that was so suddenly stopped around 900 BC.
And again in the 9th and 8th centuries BC we have found excellent pieces of gold Greek jewelry, mainly in Athens, Crete and Corinth. The quality was great and the techniques used were sophisticated.
Then we see a decline in the gold Greek jewelry that was produced (and found) in Athens, probably due to a shortage of gold, while on the Greek Island the production never stopped.
Then another ‘dark age’ occurred between 575 and 475 BC. We have found hardly any Greek jewelry from this period, and the jewelry we did find came from the Greek colonies in Italy. After the wars against the Persians between 490 and 480 BC the production of gold jewelry raises again.
The Classical Greek Period
This period started around 485 BC and finally, some changes in making and designing jewelry can be seen. Greece had a strong influence over the Roman Empire and the foundations of European civilization. This period is also called ‘the golden age’
The gold wreaths in the shape of olive leaves became popular around the 4th century BC. They were worn as a symbol of victory and power, mostly by men.
Wearing earrings, depicting human figures, became popular around 350 BC, although later in the Hellenistic Period, we see them more than in the Classical Period. And the beads and pendants known from the Minoan and Mycenean times got modernized.
Archeologists have found stunning necklaces with beads or pendants depicting human heads, acorns, and birds from this period. Together with bracelets in the shape of an upgoing spiral ending with stunning covers.
Rings were not only used as a seal or signet ring, to sign documents but they were also used as a finger decoration, without any direct utility. And the filigree and enamel techniques got more popular.
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, theater, fertility, and ritual madness is often represented in the female jewelry. The designs included a lot of wine leaves, branches, birds, and bees. The wreaths were inspired by the branches and leaves of the common trees, like oak and vine.
The Hellenistic Period of Alexander the Great
The Hellenistic Period is one of the most interesting periods, not only in Greek history but in the history of all of Europe. It started in 325 BC and ended with the upcoming of the Roman Empire in 27 BC.
One of the most important statesmen and strategists was the young Alexander the Great, son of Philip II. In his young career (he died at 33 years old) he conquered Persia (now Iran), Egypt, and Asia Minor.
His idea was to mingle the people of these states and to make it one culture and one nation. To give the example he married Roxane, a princess from Bactria, but also other ladies from different cultures. Also, his soldiers married girls from the countries he had conquered.
Back to the jewelry.
Due to the successful campaigns, Philip II and Alexander the Great received many bounties, like the gold, which the Greek jewelry makers needed so much to keep the production of gold jewelry up.
The market for gold Greek jewelry became huge. Even after Alexander the Great died the jewelry industry stayed important and the Hellenistic royal courts were the favorite customers.
Another result of all those wars was that cultures mingled, styles mingled, and also traditions mingled, which you could see in the pieces of gold Greek jewelry, especially after the 2nd century BC.
What exactly changed?
- New motifs in Greek jewelry were introduced, like the reef knot originated in Egypt. Or the crescent in a pendant, which came from the Western Asia tradition, depicting the moon god. And the Greek motifs, like the images of Eros, Aphrodite, and Nike. But also animal and plant motifs
- New shapes became popular, like large hoop earrings with pendants hanging on the hoop in the shape of an animal- or human head. Or diadems in the shape of a reef or Hercules knot. And complicated chain necklaces with animal head pendants worn from shoulder to shoulder instead of around the neck or on straps together with pendants depicting buds or spearheads.
- New techniques were invented like using glass and gems to create more colorful pieces of jewelry. The beads were not linked but threaded and the gemstone beads were drilled. Cameos from sard, sardonyx, or carnelian were introduced.
- New styles became the fashion. In the old days, most women wore jewelry. Men only had signet or seal rings and sometimes on occasion a gold wreath. But now men started to wear more pieces of jewelry, that is the more they wore, the more social status they had.
Bracelets were often worn in pairs, like the Persian fashion. Jewelry was frequently produced in sets, like parures. And jewelry became more colorful, to contrast the gold a bit more.
They used colorful gemstones, like agates, chalcedony, emeralds, garnets, carnelian, and sardonyx, to accomplish that and even enamel (simple) was used.
The Hercules or reef knot
The Hercules know is also called the reef knot, or the love knot, or the marriage knot. Actually, it is a wedding symbol, that symbolizes unconditional love and commitment to each other. This knot is made of two entwined ropes representing the legendary fertility of the god Hercules.
This Hercules knot was the most famous not in this period and was considered magical. Used in a piece of Greek jewelry it had the significance of an amulet, a way of protecting yourself.
The knot is used in diadems, with a knot in the center and little pendants hanging down on the forehead. But you see it also in belts, rings, or bracelets
Archeology and the Hellenistic Period
All that we know about the pieces of jewelry dating from the Hellenistic period or even before that comes from the findings of the archeologists in graves, pits for safe keeping, or temples.
Therefore we know that in this period jewelry was passed on from one generation to the other as a family heirloom. Sometimes a part of that heirloom was offered to the gods in dedicated temples or sanctuaries.
We found records of those gifts for instance of the Apollo temple at Delos, which shows a large number of hair ornaments, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, brooches, and rings in the inventory of this temple.
Most of the jewelry we have found come from graves, where jewelry was placed on the body of the deceased. Some of that jewelry was made for the ‘occasion’, but most of the pieces were worn by the deceased during her or his life.
Wealthy and powerful Greek in the Hellenistic Period buried their deaths with huge amounts of gold jewelry. But later we did not find those ‘rich’ graves anymore, probably because people thought it was a waste of money and property to bury all that lovely jewelry.
After the Hellenistic period
The Hellenistic Period was a glorious time, especially for the upcoming of excellent pieces of jewelry. There was enough gold, precious gemstones, but also oriental inspiration to make Greek jewelry stunning pieces of art.
But the heritage of Alexander the Great did not last long. In the 2nd century BC, his large empire broke into small parts and the Roman Empire took over. The result was too that there occurred dramatic changes in the jewelry style.
Christianity came to blossom and the worldly powers were in the hands of the Byzantine Empire. The result of those events was high-quality jewelry, the sophisticated technology to make this jewelry, and the skilled jewelry makers and designers spread over the world.
This Renaissance ended with the victory of the Turks over the Greeks in 1827. The styles of jewelry clashed and many of the stunning pieces were demolished or even melted to make new jewelry that looked more like the modern European style of those days.
The different pieces of jewelry
Most of the Ancient Greek jewelry was made of gold or silver, but also ivory, clay, bones, gemstones, or bronze was used. And the Greek ladies wore a lot more jewelry than nowadays, like necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, pendants, thigh bands, pins or brooches, wreaths, diadems, and hair ornaments.
The wreath is a piece of jewelry we don’t use that much, maybe at the Olympic Games, but even there it has almost vanished. But the Greeks loved this jewel, especially for winners at athletic events. The equivalent, the diadem, was used by the royals as a crown.
Bracelets were used a bit differently than we do. Of course, you could wear a bracelet around your wrist, but also on your upper arm and in your hand.
Rings were originally a bit small, but still beautiful and they were worn from the Neolithic Period. Later they became rather useful as seal or signet rings and in the Hellenistic Period even pure as decoration of the finger.
Earrings had often the shape of a hoop and could be extremely large. They could be decorated with small pendants and gemstones, or seashells at the end. The larger earrings have been found in graves and as an offering on altars. It could be that those shapes were made especially for these purposes.
The popular gemstones the Greeks used in their jewelry were emeralds, garnets, chalcedony, amethyst, and pearls.
Then the styles!
The styles of pieces of Greek jewelry there were found were the cast pieces and the pieces of jewelry that were hammered out of sheet metal.
The casting pieces of jewelry were made by casting the metal, mostly gold or silver, into two stone or even clay molds. The two halves were joined together with wax.
The more common style was the hammered sheet jewelry. The goldsmith used a certain sheet of precious metal and hammered it until it had the right thickness. The two sheets were soldered together inside a layer of wax or another liquid for preserving the metal.
When I visited my grandmother she often (too often according to my taste) told me ‘everything used to be better’, or ‘where is this world going?’
When you study the ancient Greek pieces of jewelry you might say she is right. Certainly when you look at the contemporary jewelry that is favorite in Greece, like the blue glass pendants with the evil eye, or the silver pendants depicting the hand of Hamza or Myriam (depending on your belief).
That is really very rudimental in comparison with the gold jewelry of for instance the Hellenistic or Classical Period.
Maybe times come back, including the experienced jewelry makers and goldsmiths, the use of beautiful material, and of course the ancient Greek jewelry style.
Whatever happens, the most important is that you look awesome, maybe with a little ancient Greek jewelry influence? If you don’t exactly know what looks good on you, or what jewelry makes you look stunning?
Ask for the free PDF made by FlorenceJewelshop, with dozens of tips on what jewelry looks best on you. Just let me know to whom I can send it.
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