Shells and animals were produced widely in earlier times. By 300 BC, the Greeks had mastered making colored gold jewelry and using amethysts, pearl and emeralds. Also, the first signs of cameos appeared, with the Greeks creating them from Indian Sardonyx, a striped brown pink and cream agate stone. Greek gold jewelry was often simpler than in other cultures, with simple designs and workmanship. However, as time progressed the designs grew in complexity different materials were soon utilized.
The Greeks started using gold and gems in their gold jewelry in 1,400 BC. Gold Greek jewelry was hardly worn and was mostly used for public appearances or on special occasions. It was frequently given as a gift and was predominantly worn by woman to show wealth, social status and beauty. The jewelry was often supposed to give the wearer protection from the Evil Eye or endowed the owner with supernatural powers, while others had a religious symbolism. Older pieces of gold jewelry that have been found were dedicated to the Gods. The largest production of gold Greek jewelry in these times came from Northern Greece and Macedon. However, although much of the jewelry in Greece was made of gold and silver with ivory and gems, bronze and clay copies were made also.
Jewelry makers in Ancient Greece were largely anonymous. They worked the types of gold jewelry into two different styles of pieces; cast pieces and pieces hammered out of sheet metal. Fewer pieces of cast jewelry have been recovered; it was made by casting the metal onto two stone or clay molds. Then the two halves were joined together and wax and then molten metal, was placed in the center. This technique had been practiced since the late Bronze Age. The more common form of gold Greek jewelry was the hammered sheet type. Sheets of metal would be hammered to the right thickness & then soldered together. The inside of the two sheets would be filled with wax or another liquid to preserve the metal work. Different techniques, such as using a stamp or engraving, were then used to create motifs. Jewels may then be added to hollows or glass poured into special cavities on the surface.
Gold was money in ancient Greece. The Greeks mined for gold throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East regions by 550 B.C., and both Plato and Aristotle wrote about gold and had theories about its origins. Gold was associated with water (logical, since most of it was found in streams), and it was supposed that gold was a particularly dense combination of water and sunlight.
Their science may have been primitive, but the Greeks learned much about the practicalities of gold mining. By the time of the death of Alexander of Macedon (323 B.C.), the Greeks had mined gold from the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) all the way eastward to Asia Minor and Egypt, and we find traces of their placer mines today. Some of the mines were owned by the state, some were worked privately with a royalty paid to the state. Also, nomads such as the Scythians and Cimmerians worked placer mines all over the region. The surviving Greek gold coinage and Scythian jewelry both show superb artistry.
Jewelry Design Motifs of Ancient Greece
Early Mycenaean Age Greek jewelry consisted of simple beads carved into shell or animal forms. The Greeks started using gold and semi-precious stones in their jewelry around 1400 BC (late Bronze Age). Ivory carving, which was popularized by the Minoans, was also common during this period.
A popular Greek design motif was the Herakles knot, also known as the “knot of Hercules,” or “marriage-knot,” which was influenced by the ancient Egyptians, and later adopted by the Romans. This apotropaic (Greek apotropaios) knot design depicted two intertwined ropes that were used as a wedding symbol (“tying the knot”), or as a protective amulet to ward off evil.
The Greeks where the first to use the cameo and intaglio (en cabochon) gem cut (carving a portrait into a piece of stratified agate called Indian), or Oriental sardonyx. The finest banded sardonyx was required to have at least three layers consisting of a black base, an intermediate zone of milk-white chalcedony, and an exterior layer of brown, tan or red shade. The image was carved into the upper white strata of the stone, leaving the darker layer as the background.
Early Greek jewelry employed simple designs and workmanship which made them distinct from the ornate styles of other Mediterranean cultures, although as time progressed, their designs techniques, and variety of materials grew in complexity. Greek jewelry was mostly about the metalwork however, and they were not as fond of gemstones as their contemporaries. Jewelry items consisted of diadems (headbands), bracelets, brooches, earrings, hairpins, pendants, necklaces and tassels. Clothing was held together by gold clasps, buttons or pins.
The ancient Greeks were fond of pendant earrings and necklaces adorned with the images of doves, or the gods Eros and Nike. Amphora pendants were lightly embellished with gemstones or enamel, hanging from a rosette usually topped by the crown of Isis.
Greek necklaces were made of strap-chain with dangling fruit or calyxes (above, left), or round chain adorned with an animal’s head clasp or dolphin clasp. The necklaces often held a multitude of filigreed amphora bangles, all attached to a chain that was suspended by a series of smaller chains.
Gold wreaths were worn as headdresses decorated with acorns, flowers and laurel leaf foliage, adorned with figures of Eros and Nikes. The laurel leaf was sacred to Apollo, the god of intellect and light, and the laurel wreath was used as a crown of honor for heroes and scholars (above, right). Some Greek earring designs were so complex and large that they were probably suspended from the diadem.
Greek rings were accented with a bezel-set carved glyptic seal-stone or other semi-precious stones, and used with hot wax to seal important documents.