Knowledge Centre > Jewellery History > Design Periods > Egyptian

Egyptian 3500 BC - 100 AD

Based along the Nile River, and spanning over 3000 years, ancient Egypt was one of the greatest and most powerful civilisations to have existed.

During this time there were many dynastic eras, including the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, which were periods of strength within Egypt. These were interspersed with the intermediate eras, where nothing much of note occurred.

For the ancient Egyptians, jewellery was an important part of their culture, with even the lowest classes wearing pieces made from copper, beads and imitation gemstones. Necklaces and collars were worn by the wealthiest of Egyptians and the upper classes. These were often given as gifts from the Pharaoh to his loyal subjects. The richest and most decorative jewellery was worn by women with royal associations.

All jewellery, regardless of its quality, or the status of its owner, was decorative, whilst also having amuletic properties. Burial sites of poorer people have unearthed pieces such as simple necklaces, showing that self-adornment and shielding from mishap occurred in all layers of society. Indeed, jewellery was even created specifically for the dead, and burial purposes.

Emeralds were found in Egypt somewhere after the 8th century BC and were also used in Etruscan and Roman jewellery. Other popular gemstones included turquoise, amethyst, and lapis lazuli, and colours all had specific meanings.


Old Kingdom: 2630 BC - 2181 BC

This began with the third dynasty of pharaohs, and for the first part of this era, the Pharaohs had absolute power. There was much political stability, and successful military campaigns increased economic prosperity.

The Great Pyramid at Giza was built for Khufu (or Cheops, in Greek), who ruled from 2589 BC to 2566 BC. The pyramid was later named by classical historians as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It has been estimated that it took 100,000 men, 20 years to build!

However, the fifth and sixth dynasties saw a considerable downturn in the fortunes of the pharaohs. This was both economic, due to the huge expenses related to pyramid building, and also with regards to their absolute power, as the nobility and priesthood that grew up around the sun god Ra became more influential.

After the death of the sixth dynasty’s King Pepy II, who ruled for 94 years, the Old Kingdom era ended in chaos.


Jewellery of the Old Kingdom

Jewellery in the Old Kingdom was crafted from electrum and silver, which was prized more highly than gold due to its rarity.

Turquoise was valued highly, and mining did occur, but many mines were depleted, and despite its known popularity in ancient Egypt, at this point, turquoise was a rare occurrence. Prized for its colour, which represented fertility and vegetation, rebirth, and the sun, this turquoise colour was often seen in imitation in the form of glazes, especially the new ‘Egyptian Blue’ pigment, that mimicked this colour well.

With regards to items and styles, anklets, bracelets, bangles, and diadems were all worn, as was the broad beaded collar, known as a wesekh, which would remain popular until the end of the classical Egyptian period. Gold amulets became larger and more abundant.

Middle Kingdom: 2055 – 1786 BC

Egypt flourished during this era, following previous upheaval.

An aggressive foreign policy led to colonisation of Nubia, which had a rich supply of materials, including gold, ebony, and ivory.

Diplomatic and trade relations were built with other areas, such as Syria and Palestine, and pyramid building began again in earnest.

The Middle Kingdom reached its peak under Amenemhet III (1842-1797 B.C.) and its decline began under Amenenhet IV (1798-1790 B.C.). This decline continued under his sister and regent, Queen Sobekneferu (1789-1786 B.C.), who was the first confirmed female ruler of Egypt and the last ruler of the 12th dynasty.


Jewellery of the Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom saw the height of gold working in ancient Egypt. These techniques included repousse, granulation, chasing, and various types of enamelling.

The use of silver also increased.

Around 2000 BC is when finger rings started to emerge. These often featured stone, or faience scarab beetles, with the reverse carved with a seal. These were attached with wire, and would swivel, allowing for the seal to be used.

The scarab beetle was a particularly popular motif in ancient Egyptian jewellery as they believed it symbolised eternal life. Other favourite motifs included was the Eye of Horus, reef knots, and serpents but the use of cobras and vultures was reserved solely for the Pharaoh.

With regards to the symbolism of colour in ancient Egypt, red stood for blood, thus showing life and energy, green was for new growth and resurrection, and blue was for the sky.

Indeed, a favourite Egyptian colour scheme was red, light blue-green, and dark blue; with these hues generally represented by carnelian, turquoise, and lapis lazuli, respectively. This combination was particularly popular for cloisonné inlay jewellery of the Middle Kingdom.

The occurrence of turquoise increased greatly during the Middle Kingdom, presumably in tandem with renewed exploitation of the mines at Serabit el-Khadim.

Purple amethyst was also popular during the Middle Kingdom, while glass was used in some 18th dynasty royal and elite jewellery, such as King Tutankhamun’s inlaid mummy mask.

It is worth noting that as some gemstones, such as lapis lazuli and turquoise were largely imported, these are seen less frequently in jewellery created during times of political instability, including the intermediate eras.


New Kingdom: 1576 – 1085 BC

This era saw a reunited Egypt, and the establishment of the world’s first great empire. Along with great kings, the New Kingdom saw many powerful royal women come to the fore, including Queen Hatshepsut.

The 19th and 20th dynasties were known as the Ramesside period (after a succession of kings named Ramses), and this saw the restoration of the weakened Egyptian empire, following the rule of controversial king Amenhotep IV, who had previously disbanded the priesthood, forced exclusive worship of another sun god – Aton, and moved the capital from Thebes to Akhenaton (later known as Amarna). An impressive amount of building, including great temples and cities also occurred during the Ramesside era, and according to biblical chronology, the exodus of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt possibly occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1304-1237 B.C.).

All of the New Kingdom rulers, apart from Amenhotep IV, were buried in deep, rock-cut tombs (not pyramids) in the Valley of the Kings, a burial site on the west bank of the Nile opposite Thebes. Most of them were raided and destroyed, with one main exception: the tomb of Tutankhamun.

One of the greatest finds of Egyptian jewellery was discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. Amongst the many objects buried were pieces of jewellery and accessories that the Pharaoh would have worn and used during his lifetime. From ceremonial shields to decorative pectoral pieces, with the majority crafted in gold, Tutankhamun’s tomb was a veritable treasure trove.

Another rare survival, was the mortuary temple of the last great king of the 20th dynasty, Ramses III (c. 1187-1156 B.C.). Also relatively well preserved, his temple indicated the prosperity of Egypt during his reign. Unfortunately, the kings who followed Ramses III were less successful, leading to Egypt losing its provinces in Palestine and Syria, and suffering from foreign invasions. Its wealth was being steadily depleted.


Jewellery of the New Kingdom

These pieces largely resemble jewellery from the Middle Kingdom, with a few new innovations.

Coloured glass was produced in far larger quantities than before, becoming a common substitute for coloured stone beads and inlay.

This era also saw the introduction of the earring and earplug, circa 1600 BC. These were first worn by women but within 200 years, men were wearing then as well. Earrings often took the form of ribbed bands, or hoops of gold soldered together, and earplugs were crafted from glass and faience, some of which required an enlarged hole in the lobe.


Late Period to the conquest of Alexander the Great: c. 664-332 BC

The Saite dynasty ruled a reunified Egypt for less than two centuries when, in 525 BC, Egypt became part of the Persian Empire, following the Battle of Pelusium. Thereafter, Persian rulers ruled the country largely under the same terms as native Egyptian kings, for example, Darius supported Egypt’s religious cults and undertook the building and restoration of its temples. However, the tyrannical rule of Xerxes (486-465 BC) sparked increased uprisings under him and his successors. In 404 BC, one of these rebellions was successful, transitioning to one last period of Egyptian independence under native rulers (dynasties 28-30).

After a brief return to Persian rule, lasting only a decade, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian armies, thus conquering Egypt.


Jewellery of the Late Period to the conquest of Alexander the Great: c. 664-332 BC

We start to see various Hellenistic influences in jewellery as this time.

 Ptolemaic Kingdom: 305-30BC

After the death of Alexander the Great, Egypt was ruled by a line of Macedonian kings, starting with Alexander’s general Ptolemy and continuing with his descendants.

The last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt was Cleopatra VII, who famously surrendered Egypt to the armies of Octavian (later Augustus) in 31 BC.

This was followed by six centuries of Roman rule, during which Christianity became the official religion. The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in the seventh century AD, and the introduction of Islam meant that last outward aspects of ancient Egyptian culture were lost.

Jewellery of the Ptolemaic Kingdom

There were continued Hellenistic influences, and jewellery was lavish and showcased similar motifs. It was in this era that Cleopatra reigned, and she had a vast collection of jewels, although few survived. She is known to have adorned herself with pearls and emeralds.

Egyptian Revival

The ancient Egyptian style is so unique that it comes as no surprise that in the many millennia after these pieces were first created, an Egyptian revival movement began. These pieces can be seen dating back to the 19th century, but it was only after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb that this aesthetic saw a global boom. Jewellery houses such as Cartier led the way with an assortment of jewels and accessories that brought Egyptian colours and motifs to a new audience. In particular the use of the winged scarab is perhaps the most recognisable image to come out of this revival.

An Extraordinary Discovery in the Valley of the Kings

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Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

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Updated 24/07/2024 at 5:00PM

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