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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Hellenistic Jewelry

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 Macedon (r. 360/359–336 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 semi-precious 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.