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Fashion: Jewelry

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Introduction to Jewelry


As you may well know, the ancient Egyptians cherished their supply of gold, which is evident when one looks in any book about ancient Egyptian fashion, in particular concerning their jewelry. On the other hand, there is gold’s cousin: silver. Let me ask you this: have you ever seen a depiction of and ancient Egyptian wearing anything made of silver? If you answered negatively, you should be on to something. Of course, that “something” is that the ancients rarely used silver. For one thing, silver was not found in Egypt; thus, it had to be imported from elsewhere, namely from Asia. Glass was also an item that was imported. Yet another means of acquiring it was by way of natural volcanic glass. Only when glass was imported or acquired naturally did they employ it into their jewelry. The ancients also used the following to decorate their jewelry: semiprecious and precious stones, including lapis lazuli, turquoise, feldspar, and carnelian. With these stones, they worked them into collars, pectorals, earrings, bracelets, armbands, and hair/head ornaments.


In addition to stones, the most commonly employed elements for jewelry were decorative motifs. Decorative motifs could be derived from either the natural world—animal or plant life—or from religious symbolism. They were also employed in temples and tomb chambers, on furniture and functional objects, and in clothing or decorative accessories of clothing.


Because of their strong belief in magic, the ancient Egyptians believed that if they represented certain symbols of certain religious figures into jewelry, then the positive qualities of the deity would be transferred to the wearer. A prime example is that which can be seen atop the headdress of Pharaoh: either the image of Sobek—the same goddess—or Nekbet—the vulture goddess, or both. With the image of Sobek, Pharaoh was seen as the ruler over Lower Egypt; with the image of Nekbet, Pharaoh was seen and the ruler over Upper Egypt; with both atop the crown of Pharaoh, he was seen as the ruler over both the lands, symbolizing the unification of the two lands.



Armlets, Bracelets, and Anklets



As with beaded collars, armlets, bracelets, and anklets—the latter in the group were only worn by women—were mostly fashioned from gold and inlaid with polished stones or glazed over. They could have intricate designs, bear the royal seal of the wearer, be of a solid material or elaborately designed, or incorporate beads.


Although all were worn, it was only into the New Kingdom that they were worn all at once.



Belts and Decorated Aprons


Just as collars were very important decorative pieces for clothing, belts and decorated aprons were as well. Over plain white linen, such bejeweled items provided color, perhaps the only color to the garment over which they were worn. Such jewelry was made from leather, fashioned of beads or appliqué, or incorporated with woven designs.






As evident in art from the Old Kingdom and beyond—as far beyond as the New Kingdom—wide jeweled collars served as the main piece of jewelry in a royal person’s ensemble. These collars could get as big as the entire size of the chest. However, such a collar was never without a counterweight or a counterpoise in the back, served to balance the heavy weight in the front.


Incorporated into most collars were beads made of carnelian, turquoise, lapis lazuli, feldspar, and other others. These beads were then fashioned in alternative colors or intricate designs and strung through with a wire. Gold and silver (yes, silver) were also fashioned into collars.



Diadems or Fillets



Diadems or fillets were shaped and worn in the same way as a sweatband of modern times. Although, instead of being made of cloth, the ancients fashioned diadems and fillets out of gold or other metals. As with wigs, diadems could be simple or intricate in design. Most examples of such hair ornaments incorporated flowers or lotus blossoms and were fashioned out of semiprecious stones—turquoise, lapis lazuli, and the like. Prince Sithathoreunet’s diadem is fashioned just so, but also has detachable golden feathers that hang on either side of the diadem.





Originally worn by women—they were worn by men as well as by children; the later age-group, especially young boys, wore them just until adulthood, whereupon they were abandoned—earrings were a fashion of the later eras of dynastic Egypt—namely, the New Kingdom; an accessory that was supposedly an influence of the Hyksos. During the 18th Dynasty, earrings were broad ornamental disks whereas those of the 20th Dynasty were larger rings and were disk-shaped as well.


Moderns such as Egyptologist know for a fact that ear-piercing was practiced not only because of tomb and temple paintings, but also because of some sculpted figures, such as the funerary mask and coffinettes of Tutankhamun, which are depicted with both ears with holes in them, indicative of piercing.


In many tomb and temple paintings, pharaohs are depicted as awarding officers, officials, soldiers, and other persons of import, with rings, earrings, and/or collars of gold as a means of the pharaoh showing his or her gratitude in the good deeds they performed.



Neck Ornaments


Three of the most popularly worn neck ornaments were pectoral, stringed amulets and plaques with amulets mounted into them.


A pectoral was a necklace made out of stone, faience, gold or otherwise. Normally, they were glazed over with a blue or bluish-green color and most often incorporated the Eye of Horus—a symbol of protection—and usually bore the name of the wearer. In addition, and in the case of Princess Meret—daughter of Senusret III of the 12th Dynasty—some pectorals illustrated a scene of power—be it of Pharaoh in that situation or otherwise.


Pectorals were very popular and were worn by most of the royals during all eras of dynastic Egypt; they also appealed to all classes during the New Kingdom.


Many ancients—both the living and the dead—throughout all eras of dynastic Egypt also wore amulets, in hopes of warding off evil; depending on what evil you were warding off determined what amulet you wore. Amulets—either stringed or mounted into a plaque—were usually made of metal, wood, faience, terracotta, or stone.






Most rings that royal Egyptians wore bore their name in a sealed cartouche. These rings were thus called seal rings or simply seals, whose band was typically made out of gold wire, around which was the seal, made of feldspar, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and the like.  The usage of such rings was to sign or stamp the name of the king on legal documents.


Some seal rings contained two names combined:  it could be the Horus and Birth Name of the pharaoh—Nebkheperre Tutankhamun, for example—or one could be the pharaoh’s and the other his wife’s, both entwined within two cartouches.  An example of the latter appears in the Berlin museum in the form of a seal ring made of blue glass that contains both the name of Ankhesenamun and Ay.  This probably indicates that, after the death of Tutankhamun, Ankhesenamun’s first husband, the queen married Tutankhamun’s successor Ay, who was Tutankhamun’s advisor when he lived as king.


The Eye of Horus was also a popular insignia incorporated onto rings, which would cause protection over the wearer.


Bunson, Margaret. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York: Gramercy Books,

Oakes, Lorna and Lucia Gahlin. Ancient Egypt: an illustrated reference to the myths,
     religions, pyramids and temples of the land of the pharaohs
. New York: Hermes
     House Anness Publishing Inc, 2002.

Reeves, Nicholas. Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet. New York: Thames & Hudson,
     2001, 2005.

Tortora, Phyllis and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western
. 3rd ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1998.

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Latest Update: December 17, 2007 at 10:10 am

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