Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry
Exquisite Objects from the Cradle of Civilization
National Jewelry Institute at The Forbes Galleries
By Brian Scott Lipton
Necklace from Mesopotamia
Susa, 3600 to 310 B.C.E.
Musée du Louvre
Since the beginning of civilization, men and women have adorned their bodies with rings, necklaces, brooches, earrings, hair ornaments and other objects of beauty and cultural significance, whether to make a statement about economic status, ward off evil spirits or simply make themselves appear more desirable.
Over 130 breathtaking examples of such jewelry, objects and accessories will be on view in Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Objects from the Cradle of Civilization, the latest exhibition from the National Jewelry Institute (NJI), to be presented in partnership with The Forbes Galleries from September 26 to December 31, 2008. This unique and profound exhibit showcases stunning creations from such long-ago civilizations as Mesopotamia, the Levant, Byzantium and Persia. The pieces are culled from the collections of some of the world’s greatest museums, including the Louvre in Paris, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and have been authenticated by the world’s leading archeologists and scholars.
Baubles, Bangles and Beads
Byzantine Necklace with Cross Pendant
Byzantium, 6th to 7th century C.E.
Gold, Oriental pearls, emerald, sapphire, garnet, spinel, amethyst, colored glass
Ancient jewelry Is unquestionably its own art form, one that has great bearing on what we wear today. Nonetheless, it is very different from many of the pieces we now consider to be the height of elegance. Unlike many of the modern-day masterpieces that we treasure, jewelry from the earliest centuries is not adorned with precious stones such as diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Indeed, the earliest ornaments from Mesopotamia were made instead from such semiprecious stones as carnelian, rock crystal and lapis lazuli, along with such organic materials as amber, bitumen, shells and obsidian, all of which were readily available in the Near Eastern section of the world.
For example, the Mesopotamian city of Uruk — where the wheel was reportedly invented — produced a necklace of rock crystal beads styled in four single chains that shows an almost regular scaling of the décolleté and an extraordinary gift for symmetry. The people of Uruk also wore decorative cylindrical seals, made primarily from shell, metal or stone, around the neck. Some contained the wearer’s image as a form of identification, while others bore pictures of daily life and mythological subjects. In Mesopotamia, small amulets — often in the shape of a tortoise or frog — were often carried on their own or integrated into collars as symbols of fertility.
Not surprisingly, gold was among the materials most commonly used by all of the ancient civilizations. But unlike today, in ancient times there was no such thing as an alloy — namely 14-karat or 18-karat gold (which is actually mixed with other metals) — so the gold used thousands of years ago was as close to pure (or 24-karat gold) as possible.
In Ur, the great Mesopotamian civilization, royalty was often buried with hundreds of gold pieces, many created using techniques still practiced today, including granulation, filigree and engraving. The tradition of burying the dead with jewelry and precious objects — most commonly associated with the ancient Egyptians, who believed that the dead could use those things in their next life or deliver them to the gods in exchange for mercy on their souls — continues to this day in many cultures and religions.
Islamic Hair Ornaments
Iran, 12th to 13th century C.E.
Gold, bronze core, and originally, colored cloth
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Turquoise, copper and silver began to come into fashion around the same time as the rise of Ur, though they were used primarily by the people of the Levant, an area that consisted of what is now Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Eventually, the Levantines began to trade with the Egyptians, resulting in scarab rings coming into favor in both civilizations, and the increased utilization of faience, a process whereby jewelry was made to look like it used precious stones. The Levantines also had a great fondness for carnelian. The pomegranate shape appeared often in the jewelry of the time, in part because the fruit was significant in the Jewish religion, where the pomegranate’s 613 seeds were said to represent the 613 commandments of the Torah.
The Phoenicians were another important ancient civilization—one that ultimately had an enormous worldwide influence on jewelry, most notably discovering the secret of making pure glass and then later tinting it with purple dye made from mollusk shells. The Phoenicians also favored animal motifs, which can be found in many of the jewelry objects made in the colonies they established in northern Africa, the Adriatic region and southern Europe. The Phoenicians, as well as the Levantines, also excelled in the carving of ivory, some of which was used as inlays for furniture.
Jewelry Fit for Royalty
The Persians took the making of jewelry and decorative art to a new level, and it was common for members of the royal court to adorn themselves with multiple pieces of jewelry.The earliest of the Persian dynasties, the Achaemenid, often used the lion—a symbol of the king—in its bracelets and rings, along with such animals as calves, rabbits and rams. Later on, the Parthian dynasty used semiprecious stones such as garnets and turquoise. Artisans of this period favored the iconography of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, in jewelry and vessels.
Around the same period, the Byzantine era began.The Byzantine royalty likewise showed off their wealth by wearing gold, pearls and emeralds—all of which commoners were forbidden by law to wear or even use for tableware.
Byzantium is also especially known for its Christian imagery, notably elaborate crosses, which could be found in rings, pendants and pectorals. Medallions, pendants in the shape of leaves or circles and other gold jewelry are also associated with this notable period in history.
The Gold Standard
Byzantium, late 6th to early 7th century C.E.
Islam, one of the world’s major religions, did not have its origins until much later than these other periods, as the prophet Mohammed was not born until the 6th century. Little of the jewelry from its beginnings has survived, since jewelry was not buried with the dead. However, in the 11th century, Islamic jewelry began to come into its own, and one can see the influence of earlier periods, such as the Byzantine era, in some of its most significant pieces.As in the ancient cultures, gold is the predominant metal used, and filigree and granulation techniques, as well as repoussé (used to create relief) were very common. On the other hand, figurative jewelry representing the human form does not exist in Islamic cultures, though themes of nature, as well as geometry and calligraphy, are highly prevalent.
Without question, there is much to admire in the artisanship, innovation and craftsmanship of the world’s early jewelers, who lacked so many of the tools and resources we take for granted today. More important, there is so much to learn from these remarkable works of art — not just about the cultures from which they originated, but also about the culture we live in now.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the generous support of our corporate partners:
CHRISTIAN DIOR COUTURE
AXA ART INSURANCE
Many thanks to the INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL for their generous support: The Aboutaam Family; Jean-Christophe Bédos, President & CEO of Boucheron; John K. Castle; Phyllis and William Mack; Alan G. Quasha and Ilona Nemeth; Jonathan P. Rosen; and Dr.Axel Stawski. Many thanks to AXA Art Insurance, Boucheron, Cartier, Christian Dior, De Beers andVan Cleef & Arpels for their support of this program.
Photography courtesy of: Bruce M.White for Trustees of Princeton University; Christian Larrieu, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY; Franck Raux, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY; Ingrid Geske, Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY; Jeffrey Suckow; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Peter Lanyi for the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Objects from the Cradle of Civilization can be viewed at The Forbes Galleries, located at 62 Fifth Avenue at 12th Street, New York, NY, from September 26, 2008 through December 31, 2008.
The Galleries are open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., free of charge.
The National Jewelry Institute (NJI) was formed in 2002 as a not-for-profit institute whose mission is to preserve, research and exhibit fine jewelry from all over the world.The National Jewelry Institute has held exhibitions in New York, London and Paris and regularly holds exhibitions at The Forbes Galleries.
For additional information about the exhibition or The Forbes Galleries, please call 212-206-5548 or visit www.forbesgalleries.com.