Sacred Treasures: Jewelry in Ancient Egypt
As jewelry fashion has had a serious case of Egyptomania, with designer brands like Chanel turning to ancient Egypt for inspiration, it’s clear to see that the ancient spell has never been broken with the enduring craze for neo-Egyptian motifs and gold collar necklaces. Ancient Egyptian jewelry has some of the most exquisitely intricate designs from the ancient world, dating as far back as 4000 BCE. Materials and techniques used along with the creativity of these symbolic pieces revolutionized ancient fashion and highlights the astounding level of artistry, ingenuity, and craftsmanship in jewelry making from as early as the predynastic period.
While the ancient Egyptians were simply dressed in white linen, their jewelry was unapologetically ornate and colorful. Jewelry had profound importance in ancient Egyptian culture; however, these adornments were not only worn for aesthetic purposes. In fact, the Egyptian preference was towards the use of colors that they believed were linked to nature and revealed the true essence of a person.
Great significance was also placed on these ornaments as they were believed to have magical qualities of warding off evil in this life and the afterlife. Wearing jewelry signified that the gods were pleased with the wearer and that he or she had the blessings of the Egyptian deities. Also, the dead were entombed with their jewelry, as it was believed that this would ensure success in the afterlife.
Jewelry adorned all ancient Egyptians to some degree, regardless of class or gender. Being highly valued, it indicated wealth and status. The Pharaoh distinguished himself from his subjects by wearing special gold crowns and diadems, all emblazoned with the royal cobra (Uraeus), which signified power and magic in ancient Egypt.
Various symbols in ancient Egyptian jewelry represented protection for the wearer. Common symbols included the following:
Ankh - In Hieroglyphics, this symbol represents eternal life. It appears on jewelry as a protective sign.
Scarab beetle - This creature symbolizes rebirth and fertility. Scarab beetles roll balls of dung and lay their eggs within these balls. Ancient Egyptians thought this behavior resembled the movement of the sun from east to west, leading to an association of the beetle to the sun god Ra.
Eye of Horus - Horus was the national deity of Egypt. Wearing this symbol offered protection and good health.
Lotus - Egyptians believed that the world was covered with water and darkness, until the lotus bloomed, and revealed the sun god, the creator of life. The lotus was valued as a symbol of creation, rebirth, and fertility.
Jewelry Materials: Metals and Gemstones
The discovery of gold gave rise to Egypt’s jewelry production. As gold is malleable, it was the perfect material for the creation of jewelry designs. Ornaments were likely fabricated by casting and hammering. As time went by, more elaborate pieces were created by incorporating materials found in and outside Egypt.
Gold became the status symbol in Egypt’s predynastic period. It was more expensive and was used by royalty and the nobility. Gold mines enabled them to accumulate vast quantities from Nubia, which was an Egyptian colony for centuries. Copper, which also came from Nubia as well as Cyprus and Sinai, was a stronger, more durable metal choice for jewelry. Due to its affordability, copper was used by most people.
Stones native to Egypt such as amethyst, jasper, emeralds, pearls, garnet, obsidian, and rock crystal were frequently utilized. Turquoise and lapis lazuli, also in high demand, were imported from the Sinai and present-day Afghanistan, respectfully. Gemstones were incredibly valuable and often used only by those of higher status. Unfortunately, much of the methods for cutting and polishing these precious and semi-precious gemstones are no longer known. Faience and colored glass were often used for embellishing jewelry pieces. Egypt’s lower class predominantly wore jewelry made from shells, stones, animal teeth, bones, and clay.
Egyptian jewelry emerged as a highly desirable trade item in the ancient world. Consequently, large quantities of these masterpieces have been discovered in regions such as the Middle East, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean. These intricate jewelry designs provide insight into the mastery of mining, metalsmithing, and design creativity during that time period, which revolutionized jewelry making practices for many years to come.
Moroney, Morgan. “Egyptian Jewelry: A Window into Ancient Culture.” American Research Center in Egypt, 2015, www.arce.org/resource/egyptian-jewelry-window-ancient-culture.
Wegner, Jennifer Houser. “Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Glencairn’s Egyptian Collection.” Glencairn Museum, 30 Jan. 2018, glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/