Who isn’t fascinated by ancient Egypt? Thousands of years before the Roman empire, Middle Ages or modern Europe, before ancient Greece was in its infancy, this dazzling culture reigned, complete with dynastic pharaonic government, exquisite art and artifacts, advanced astronomy, literature and religion. The remnants are tantalizing. They give us a window on an extraordinary culture, enigmatic and enticing. What is the riddle of the Sphinx? Who were these fantastic creatures, part human and part animal? What was the purpose of the pyramids and how were they built?
When Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in the early twentieth century its awe-inspiring solid gold and funerary masks, jewelry and paraphernalia gave rise to a wave of “Egyptian fever” reflected in styles of the day including collections from top European jewelry houses such as Cartier. The ancient influence remains strong today as seen in the popularity of “Cleopatra” necklaces, scarab and gold snake bracelets, cartouche and ankh pendants.
Key elements of ancient Egyptian jewelry are particularly “on-trend” today. Cleopatra style necklaces mirror the wave of popularity of bold, colorful collar statement necklaces. Hot trends such as jewelry with personal significance - meaningful charms, mother and anniversary rings, birthday stones, jewelry with personalized written messages - are predated in Egypt several millennia ago. Egyptian jewelry was not just fashion. It was symbolic. Pieces were worn as talismans or amulets - to ward off evil or bring luck, as today we might wear a horseshoe ring or religious medallion. The use of jewelry as charms is ancient and universal.
Cartouche pendants engraved with names mirror our use of ID bracelets, engraved necklaces and rings. Cartouche jewelry itself is even a current trend. Ancient glyph jewelry had messages engraved, just as today jewelry with written messages is resurgent. Scarab bracelets are a perennial favorite, particularly fitting because scarabs were a symbol of immortality. Some of the main features of jewelry for the ancient Egyptian include:
• Rich, exquisite materials - From pure gold mined in Nubia to the south, rich lapis lazuli, turquoise imported from Syria across the Red Sea, to a cornucopia of gems, the Egyptians had it all - carnelian, jasper, amethyst, garnet, feldspar. Emerald was a reported favorite of Cleopatra. Though silver was scarce, a blend of silver and gold with other trace metals called electrum was popular. Colored glass and heavenly blue faience were mainstays.
• Master craftsmen - Ancient metalsmiths fabricated pure 24 karat gold. They were early masters of granulation and cloisonné. Large hinged pectoral necklaces had elaborate multiple links to help them lie smoothly and were balanced by ornate counterbalance clasps to distribute weight.
• Unisex style - Both men and women were decked out! They wore large earrings, collars, pectoral necklaces, bracelets and rings. Regalia included crowns and the symbolic crook and flail in pure gold and lapis. And it didn’t end with death. Pharaohs were surrounded with their jewelry to be taken with them in the afterlife. Protective tokens such as deity figurines and ankhs were ubiquitous, discovered wrapped in layers in the shrouds of mummies.
• Color galore - Magnificent color was everywhere. The striking signature juxtaposition of pure gold with lapis, turquoise and carnelian dominated, but all colors flourished. Color was symbolic. Blue signified the heavens, green, fertility. Red symbolized the protective power of the blood of Isis.
• Eternal themes - The scarab or dung beetle symbolized immortality. Just as it pushed before it a ball containing the seed of regeneration, the solar orb was seen to journey daily through the heavens, “dying” in the underworld at night and magically being reborn every day. The solar disk or aten itself was a favorite theme, especially dominant during the reign of Akhenaten and beautiful Nefertiti during the Amarna period. The ankh symbolized life, rays emanating from the solar disk. Deities were everywhere. The uraeus or female cobra was an emblem of protection and featured on regal headdresses. Themes from nature, especially the lotus, abounded.
What’s old is new. Jewelry that’s timeless is right in style. Just as the popular song “Walk Like an Egyptian” sparked a frenzy of music and dance, so the rich, exotic trends of the past continue to fascinate and inspire jewelry today.