Hellenistic Jewelry

See works of art
  • Pair of gold earrings with an Egyptian Atef crown set with stones and glass
    1995.539.11a,b
  • Gold ring
    10.132.1
  • Set of jewelry
    06.1217.1-.13
  • The Ganymede Jewelry
    37.11.8-.17
  • Gold armband with Herakles knot
    1999.209
  • Gold openwork hairnet with medallion
    1987.220
  • Pair of gold armbands
    56.11.5-.6
  • Gold and glass bracelet with central medallion
    2001.230
  • Gold and cabochon garnet ring
    2005.278
  • Gold, garnet, and agate necklace and earrings
    1994.230.4-.6

Works of Art (11)

Essay

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in 331 B.C., his domain extended from Greece to Asia Minor, Egypt, the Near East, and India. This unprecedented contact with distant cultures not only spread Greek styles across the known world, but also exposed Greek art and artists to new and exotic influences. Significant innovations in Greek jewelry can be traced even earlier to the time of Philip II of Macedonia (r. 359–336 B.C.), father of Alexander the Great. An increasingly affluent society demanded luxurious objects, especially gold jewelry. With technical virtuosity, Greek artists executed sumptuously ornate designs, such as the beechnut pendant, the acanthus leaf, and the Herakles knot (1999.209).

After Alexander conquered the Persian empire and seized its fantastically rich treasures in Babylon, vast quantities of gold passed into circulation. The market for fashionable gold jewelry exploded. Even after the reign of Alexander, his successors for centuries supported flourishing industries of artists and craftsmen, the most important of whom were associated with the Hellenistic royal courts.

A wide variety of jewelry types were produced in the Hellenistic period-earrings, necklaces, pendants, pins, bracelets, armbands, thigh bands, finger rings, wreaths, diadems, and other elaborate hair ornaments (1987.220). Bracelets were often worn in pairs according to Persian fashion (56.11.5-.6). And jewelry was frequently produced in matched sets (1994.230.4-.6). Many pieces were inlaid with pearls and dazzling gems or semiprecious stones-emeralds, garnets, carnelians, banded agates, sardonyx, chalcedony, and rock crystal. Artists also incorporated colorful enamel inlays that dramatically contrasted with their intricate gold settings (2001.230). Elaborate subsidiary ornamentation drew plant and animal motifs, or the relation between adornment and the goddess, Aphrodite, and her son, Eros. Airborne winged figures, such as Eros, Nike, and the eagle of Zeus carrying Ganymede up to Mount Olympus, were popular designs for earrings (37.11.8-.17).

In Hellenistic times, jewelry often passed from generation to generation as family heirlooms. And occasionally, it was dedicated at sanctuaries as an offering to the gods. There are records of headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, rings, brooches, and pins in temple and treasury inventories, as, for example, at Delos. Hoards of Hellenistic jewelry that were buried for safekeeping in antiquity have also come to light. Some of the best-preserved examples, however, come from tombs where jewelry was usually placed on the body of the deceased. Some of these pieces were made specifically for interment; most, however, were worn during life. In the early Hellenistic period, wealthy Macedonians buried their dead with elaborate gold jewelry. However, by late Hellenistic times, rich burial goods were less common. This modification most likely signals a decrease in disposable wealth and, perhaps, a change in burial customs.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

Seán Hemingway
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 2007

Citation

Hemingway, Colette and Seán Hemingway. “Hellenistic Jewelry.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hjew/hd_hjew.htm (April 2007)

Further Reading

Hoffmann, Herbert, and Patricia F. Davidson. Greek Gold: Jewelry from the Age of Alexander. Exhibition catalogue. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1965.

Trakosopoulou, Eleni. "Jewelry in Macedonia." In Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism, edited by Dimitrios Pandermalis, pp. 115–37. New York: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, 2004.

Williams, Dyfri, and Jack Ogden. Greek Gold: Jewelry of the Classical World. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.

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