The ancient Greeks excelled in intellectual and artistic practises, and the creation of jewellery was no exception. Greek jewellery was produced not only in Greece as we know it today, but also throughout Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and Greek city settlements in areas such as Sicily and southern Italy. Despite this, the jewellery designs and styles found throughout these parts are surprisingly similar, with a few local exceptions.
Today we recognise three important eras of ancient Greece; the Archaic period, the Classical period and the Hellenistic period.
Archaic Period – 800-480 BC.
This age was characterised by the development of the city-state, and government. These societal changes took ancient Greece out of its ‘dark ages.’ The economy was based on agriculture, not trade, and thus land was the most important source of wealth.
Ruled mostly by wealthy aristocrats who had overthrown hereditary kings, they monopolized power, land, and even claimed to be descended from the gods. Conflict between the nobles and the rest of the people, who were effectively enslaved under their rule, and held no political power, ushered in an exodus of emigration of men from the their home states, to less populated areas, where there was more land available. This was also a result of an increase in population.
Colonies sprung up around Greece and the Aegean Sea, and by the end of the 7th century BC, there were more than 1,500 colonial city-states. These were self-governing, and self-sufficient, and people held little ties to the state they were originally from.
The effect of this on art and literature was huge, with Greek culture spread across vast areas, from the Mediterranean, to Asia Minor, and from North Africa to the coast of the Black Sea.
The Archaic era ended with the Persian Wars between 490 and 480BC.
Jewellery of the Archaic Period
Whilst little jewellery has survived from the Archaic era, we do know that one of the major influences were the Phoenicians, who in turn took their inspiration from the Mycenaeans.
There were many gold mines in Thrace and Macedonia from the Bronze Age onwards. The mines on Thasos were opened in circa 8th century BC by the Phoenicians, and were exhausted after the 5th century BC. The most important mines were on the island of saphnos, which were later flooded.
There was an increase in wealth seen in Greek islands, with most high quality jewellery being produced in the colonies, and moving away from Athens. This could have been due to a shortage of gold on the mainland.
The final 100 years of the Archaic era saw a decline in jewellery, with the few pieces that have been discovered coming from Greek colonies in Italy, rather than the mainland. Indeed, we rely on other forms of art, such as pottery and mosaics, which suggests that jewellery varied in this time.
Following the Persian wars between 490 and 480-479 BC, gold became more plentiful again.
Classical Period – 480-323 BC.
After the Persian Wars ended in Greece’s favour, Athens rose as the foremost city, with consolidated wealth and power. This was largely achieved by Athenian nobleman Cleisthenes, who overthrew the last of the autocratic tyrants, and established an early form of democracy. This remains one of Ancient Greece’s most longstanding contributions to world history.
In the 450’s General Pericles was responsible for several notable events, including investing in the city’s reform, following the destruction caused as a result of the Persian Wars. He oversaw the building of the Parthenon, and the introduction of the Greek Tragedy. Other noteworthy figures from this era include Sophocles, Hippokrates, and Euripides.
Despite these unprecedented cultural and political achievements, there was much conflict, with Athens losing its political primacy at the end of the Peloponnesian War, which ended in a Spartan victory. However, cultural life did continue.
It was during the second half of the century that the disorder within the former Athenian Empire meant that the conquest by Kings Philip II of Macedonia, and his son, Alexander, was made possible.
The classical period ended with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.
Jewellery of the Classical Period
In the Classical period jewellery showed magnificent goldwork. Lots of our knowledge of Greek jewellery from this era comes from burial mounds and wealthy graves, as people were often buried with jewellery. Wreaths crafted out of gold in the form of foliage came out of this time, emulating the olive wreaths worn by victors of the ancient Olympic games. These wreaths were often worn at religious ceremonies and parties, and were worn by both men and women.
Earrings were very popular and their designs were increasingly elaborate, often featuring human figures and animal heads. These included lions, bulls, goats and dolphins, amongst others, and animal head earrings quickly became the most popular form of ornamentation for the ear. Other key styles included pendant earrings, often taking the form of an inverted pyramid suspended from a disc.
Necklaces were increasingly complex, featuring acorns and human heads, and bracelets were created in a spiral form. We also see much enamel work and filigree techniques to create decorative patterns, which closely followed the ornamentation in architecture and painting. However, the use of granulation and inlay of glass or stones were rarely seen. Despite this, towards the end of the Classical era we see the beginning of engraved gemstones set in rings, where previously, sculptural forms of gold were predominant.
Significant innovations in Greek jewellery can be traced to the time of Philip II of Macedon father of Alexander the Great. An increasingly affluent society demanded luxurious objects, especially gold jewellery, and gold was more plentiful following the Persian Wars.
Hellenistic Period: 323 BC - 31 BC.
Following Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided up by his generals, becoming three powerful dynasties: the Seleucids of Syria and Persia, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Antigonids of Greece and Macedonia.
These dynasties were not politically united, but had many similarities. Each was ruled by kings, there was an emphasis on the accumulation of wealth, and there was much international trade.
For example, ivory, gold, ebony, pearls were imported from India; furs and iron from the Far East; wine from Syria and Chios; papyrus, linen and glass from Alexandria; olive oil from Athens; dates and prunes from Babylon and Damaskos, and silver from Spain.
People also moved freely, allowing for the spread and exchanging of cultures and ideas.
The Hellenistic era was a particularly prosperous and progressive period in Ancient Greece, and is often characterised by cultural and technological advancements.
Despite this, many felt uneasy about this ‘opening up’ of their world, as previously, Greek city-states had been more focused inwards, and citizens had been more intimately involved in the workings of their cities. This led to many philosophers, including Epicurus and Diogenes the Cynic, purporting ideals against commercialism, and with an emphasis on the individual, and one’s own happiness.
This focus on individuality led to art in this era moving towards sculpture and paintings that showed people, rather than idealising types.
Whilst the Hellenistic world gradually fell to the Romans, it was in 31 BC that it ended for good, with the Battle at Actium, where Octavian defeated Mark Antony’s Ptolomaic fleet. Octavian then tookthe name ‘Augustus’ and became the first Roman Emperor.
Jewellery of the Hellenistic period
Alexander the Great’s conquests in the East meant that vast new territories were gained, bringing with them mineral wealth in the form of gold and gemstones. The increased availability of gold meant that jewellers grew more accomplished and experimental with their techniques.
Jewellery was extravagant in this era, as rulers wanted to show their wealth and status.
Designs inspired by nature, including zoomorphic and naturalistic forms were particularly popular during this period, as were the reef knot, adopted from the Egyptians, and the crescent moon from Western Asia.
Hooped earrings and new forms of necklaces which consisted of chains with animal head finials were increasingly popular. Cameos were also introduced and inlays of stone and glass created a colourful appearance that was typical of jewellery in the Hellenistic period.
Whilst there is no direct evidence that the ancient Greeks wore rings specifically related to a betrothal or marriage ceremony, there do exist a number of rings which symbolise matters of the heart such as the Hercules Knot (reef knot), which may have been worn as a talisman or lucky charm, reminding the owner of the giver’s affection for them.
After being at the height of its power for many centuries, the Greek civilisation declined in 146 BC when it fell to the Romans. However, its artistic practices, including the creation of jewellery, continued to hold much influence in other civilisations.