Ancient jewellery styles are in vogue but, says Antiquities specialist Hannah Fox Solomon, original pieces that can be thousands of years old are surprisingly affordable
When it comes to purchasing jewellery — and particularly ancient jewellery — collectors need to carefully 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 different that you could wear every day,’ says Hannah Fox Solomon, Vice President of Christie’s Ancient Art and Antiquities department in New York. ‘If you want to wear ancient jewellery all the time, I would recommend buying an ancient engraved stone or cameo set in a modern gold ring. That way you'll be able to wear it on a daily basis and the gem won’t get damaged.’
When one hears the term ‘ancient jewellery’, it is understandable that many automatically associate it with astronomically high prices. But that’s not the case with the majority of pieces sold across Christie’s antiquities auctions, held both online and four times a year in New York and London.
‘Bead necklaces are pretty much all below $10,000,’ Solomon explains. ‘They’re ancient and yet they look very modern, and provide a really interesting alternative to going to a mainstream commercial jeweller and buying a strand of contemporary beads. This is a unique statement piece. Bead necklaces can be a fun and accessible way to start your collection, if they suit your taste.’
Christie’s single-owner sale Ancient Art from the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection featured an Egyptian faience finger ring from the 18th Dynasty, or 1550-1295 BC. Even though it’s over 3,000 years old, the slender profile and bold colour appeal to modern tastes and make it a striking accessory.
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. That has meant, however, that some of the most important and valuable ancient pieces have been melted down for their materials over the centuries.
‘Ancient gold jewellery tends to be of 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,’ our specialist explains.
Gold 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 ought to consider one set in a modern gold fixture as a sturdier alternative.
‘Our earrings can all be worn, but we advise in many cases to add a modern gold post or ear wire,’ Solomon says. While some can be worn as is, others have lost the ancient elements that can be attached to the ear. Regardless, it is wise to have a jeweller add a modern element because of the brittle nature of gold, and to reduce stress on the timeworn components.
Christie’s antiquities auctions often include intaglios showing various gods, portraits and animals. The Roman ring above depicts Mercury, the messenger of the gods, with his characteristic staff and money pouch. The Roman ring below shows the god Jupiter Ammon, complete with his curling horns.
While identifying marks or inscriptions aren’t always available, many subjects — particularly mythological ones — or historical figures are used repeatedly.
‘Whenever you see a woman with her hair pulled back and a crested helmet sitting back on her head, the artist is depicting 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. Other identifiable figures include an athletic man with a lion pelt either draped over his head or tied around his shoulders, who would undoubtedly be the Greek hero Hercules, she adds.
As with any ancient work of art, knowing the provenance of an object is essential and can add another interesting dimension to ancient jewellery.
The above intaglio of the Empress Sabina, which was sold in Masterpieces in Miniature: Ancient Engraved Gems formerly in the G. Sangiorgi Collection Part II on 16 June 2020 for $250,000 has had two important owners. One was Giorgio Sangiorgi (1886-1965), a famed dealer and collector of ancient art. In April 2019, Part I of his collection of Classical engraved gems raised over $10 million. The top lot, a Roman black chalcedony intaglio portrait of the emperor Hadrian’s lover Antinous, realised $2,115,000 alone.
The other was George Spencer, the fourth Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817), who amassed one of the 18th century’s most important collections of ancient gems. Marlborough loved this gem so much that he called it ‘truly stupendous and most beautiful’ and commissioned the engraver Edward Burch to make a copy, which is now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in the United States.
Collectors should adopt a healthy scepticism when it comes to bead necklaces, gold bracelets and other ancient jewellery. ‘More ancient pieces have survived from antiquity than you might expect,’ explains Solomon. ‘But there are fakes that have either been created to purposefully deceive, or else fashioned as revival jewellery meant to imitate ancient pieces in style.’
The specialist recently attended a lecture on diamonds, which are not common on the ancient jewellery market although they did exist in Roman times. ‘Ancient diamonds were not cut as they are in contemporary jewellery,’ Solomon explains. ‘Instead, they were used in their raw form and set in gold.’
Diamonds were, however, prominently exploited 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 with the use of diamonds,’ Solomon says.
In late Byzantine times, after the 10th century, the cutting and polishing of diamonds began in a way that is more familiar to today. ‘If I saw a cut diamond in a Roman ring, I would know that it was not ancient,’ Solomon says.
Materials, such as lapis lazuli, which comes from Afghanistan, can also play a role in authenticating works purporting to be from certain regions and specific time periods, although Solomon advises caution. ‘The ancient world was so fluid that cultures interspersed,’ she notes. ‘So it’s not impossible that you could find lapis in England, for example, because of the trade patterns.’