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The History of Jewelry: Ancient Egyptian Jewellery Design

Ancient Egypt Timeline

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

The first evidence of jewelry making in Ancient Egypt dates back to the 4th millennia BC, to the Predynastic Period of along the Nile River Delta in 3100 BC, and the earlier Badarian culture (named after the El-Badari region near Asyut) which inhabited Upper Egypt between c.4500 BC and c.3200 BC. From 2950 BC to the end of Pharaonic Egypt at the close of the Greco-Roman Period in 395 AD, there were a total of thirty-one dynasties, spanning an incredible 3,345 years!

The first pharaohs of Egypt were kings Serket I and Narmer, at the beginning of the "Early Dynastic Period" (1st-3rd Dynasties, from 2850—2575 BC). The remaining twenty eight dynasties were divided into eight sub-groups which ended with the demise of the Greco-Roman Period in 395 AD. It was during this final chapter that Egypt was ruled by the Macedonians, Ptolemies, and finally the Romans.

Pyramid Complex at Giza

   Egyptian Jewelry Items

Egyptian Jewelry Motifs & Materials

The ancient Egyptians placed great importance on the religious significance of certain sacred objects, which was heavily reflected in their jewelry motifs. Gem carvings known as "glyptic art" typically took the form of scarab beetles and other anthropomorphic religious symbols. The Egyptian lapidary would use emery fragments or flint to carve softer stones, while bow-driven rotary tools were used on harder gems.

Monument building, along with opulent collections of furniture, art, and jewelry helped to symbolize the glory, power, and religious dominance of the Pharaohs, both within the community, and throughout the broader region. This projection of wealth was not only important in one's earthly life, but became especially important in their after-life.

Egyptian Necklace

   Felucca on the Nile

In ancient Egypt both men and women wore jewelry; not only as a symbol of wealth and status, but also for aesthetic adornment, and as protection from evil. Although the deceased was always buried with their earthy possessions, tomb-robbers have plundered much of Egypt's buried treasures long ago. Amazingly, much of the stolen treasure would be recycled by successive Kings for their own use in the afterlife.

Gold was the metal of choice for the Ancient Egyptians, and it was used extensively throughout the several thousand year history of pharaonic Egypt [2]. Bronze was also used extensivly, and would sometimes be covered in gold-leaf. The Egyptians also used an alloy of gold, silver and a trace amount of copper called "electrum," which occurred naturally in Lydia (Western Anatolia). Electrum was mentioned in an expedition sent by the Fifth dynasty Pharaoh, Sahure.

Temple of Philae in Aswan

Temple of Philae in Aswan

   Mask of King Tut

Pharaoh Tutankhamun

Although the Egyptians had access to many precious gemstones, they preferred to emulate their colors using polychrome glass, because natural gemstones were much harder to work with. The use of cold-worked glass in jewelry may have been an invention of the Middle Kingdom, around 2000 BC. Solidified glass was also formed into beads, amulets and shawabtis, which were small figurines that were buried with the deceased. Clay objects known as "faience ware" were coated with vitreous glass glaze made of silica-sand, clay, and soapstone (steatite), and glass was used as an enamel inlay in metal jewelry. Egyptian enameling was the precursor to cloisonné, and the rich opaque enamel colors included cobalt or turquoise blue, green, purple, and white.

There were also several softer gems that were perennial favorites with the ancient Egyptians. Carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, malachite, rock crystal (quartz) and turquoise were all used extensively throughout ancient Egypt. In many ancient cultures royalty was represented by the color blue, and this was especially true in ancient Egypt, making lapis one of the most prized of all gemstones.

Tutanhkamun pendant

Tutanhkamun pendant (photo: J. Bodsworth)

   King's Inlaid Diadem

19th Dynasty inlaid diadem, or wig (J. Bodsworth)

Most of the raw materials that were used to make jewelry were found in, or near Egypt, but certain prized materials such as lapis lazuli were imported from as far away as Afghanistan. One locally-obtained gemstone which was said to be Queen Cleopatra's favorite was emerald, which was mined near the Red Sea, at the Wadi Sikait Emerald Mines in Mons Smaragdus, Egypt.

Jewelry coloration was very important to the ancient Egyptians, and each color had a different symbolic meaning. jewelry that featured the color green was meant to symbolize fertility and the success of new crops, while according to the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" a deceased person would wear a red-colored necklace which was meant to satisfy the God Isis' need for blood.

Egyptian Jewelry Items

Lapis & carnelian pendant (J. Bodsworth)

   Temple of hatshepsut

Temple of hatshepsut

A jewelry item's motif was as important as its color, and no symbol was as important to the ancient Egyptians as the scarab, or dung beetle. Scarab amulets were symbolic of rebirth due to the dung beetle's proclivity for rolling a piece of dung into a spherical ball, then using it as a brooding chamber from which the newborn beetle will emerge.

Egyptian Lapis Scarab Jewelry

Tutanhkamun lapis scarab (J. Bodsworth)

   Glass Pendant

Inlaid glass pendant detail (J. Bodsworth)

Egyptian jewelry items included such commonly found ornamentation as bracelets, brooches, clasps, coronets, girdles, and earrings, but also included items that were unique to ancient Egypt. The pectoral, which is an ornamental item that has been found on many mummies, is an elaborate breast decoration that was suspended by chain or ribbon, and decorated to represent various dieties. There was also a unique headdress that formed a type of outer wig, flowing like waves of hair in long, flexible strands of gold beads. This was held in place by a gold diadem, which was designed to secure the wig during ceremonies. The diadem was also worn by the mummy, to protect the king's forehead in the hereafter. Even mundane household objects such as vases, plates and furniture were made of hammered gold, festooned with jewels.

Although many treasures were lost to tomb-robbers and piracy, one insignificant king's treasure remained intact and unmolested for thousands of years. That king was the now famous Pharaoh Tutankhamun, son of either Amenhotep III or Akhenaten. His short reign as Pharaoh began at age 9. Although he ruled for only 9 years (1336—1327 BC), he was able to amass a modest legacy of wealth and treasure that lives on today. Given the size and scope of Tutankhamun's wealth it is hard to imagine the vast treasure accumulated by long-reining kings such as Seti I or Ramesses II.

Tribal Ethnic Jewelry Books
Asian Ethnic Jewelry Books

Bibliography on the Jewelry of Ancient Egypt

1. Ian Shaw, Illustrated History of Ancient Egypt . Oxford University Press

2. John Baines, Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Facts On File Press

3. Christina El Mahdy, Mummies, Myth and Magic. Thames and Hudson

4. Carol Andrews, Ancient Egyptian Jewelry. Harry N. Abrams Press

5. Lisbet Thoresen, Gem Archaeology . ancient-gems.lthoresen.com

6. F. Rogers, A. Beard, 5000 Years of Gems & Jewelry. FA Stokes Co., N.Y.

7. Jon Bodsworth, Egypt Archive . www.egyptarchive.co.uk

8. Travel, Photos of Ancient Egypt . www.khulsey.com

9. T. Garcia, Egypt home of the first written language? . www.abc.net.au

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7000 Years of Jewelry