Ancient jewellery styles are in vogue but, says Antiquities specialist Hannah Fox Solomon, original pieces that can be thousands of years old are surprisingly affordable
- Know how often you want to wear it
When it comes to purchasing jewellery — and particularly ancient jewellery — collectors need to consider carefully exactly what they want from it. ‘You might be looking for an amazing piece to wear at a cocktail party once a year, or something different that you could wear every day,’ says Hannah Fox Solomon. ‘If you want to wear an ancient ring all the time, we would recommend buying a ring with an ancient stone and replacing it in a modern gold setting. You’ll be able to wear it on a daily basis and the gem won’t get damaged.’
Your lifestyle is also a key consideration. ‘If you wear the ring every day, you need to consider how active you are and how much you use your hands for work, because the gold is close to pure and is therefore quite soft.’
- Don’t fear being priced out
When one hears the term ‘ancient jewelry’, it is understandable that many automatically associate it with astronomically high prices. But that’s not the case with the objects ….
‘Bead necklaces are pretty much all below $3,000 — certainly below $5,000,’ Solomon explains. ‘They’re ancient and yet they look very modern, and provide a really interesting alternative to going to a mainstream commercial jeweler and buying a strand of contemporary beads…..Bead necklaces can be a fun and accessible way to start your collection — if they suit your taste.’
- Ancient can feel very contemporary
[For example ] a pair of Byzantine gold crescentic earrings from the 9th century A.D. Their openwork gold lunate shape is as contemporary as they come and would make the perfect finish to a festive holiday outfit.
- Consider material
In ancient Mediterranean, Near Eastern and Egyptian cultures, gold and silver were as much a symbol of luxury and status as they are today, and highly valued. That has meant, however, that some of the most important and valuable ancient pieces have been melted down for their materials over the centuries.
‘Ancient gold jewellery tends to be of comparatively high-carat: close to 24 carat, and roughly 93 per cent pure or better, which gives it a warm golden hue and texture not typically found in modern jewellery,’ our specialist explains.
Gold is also very soft, which means that an ancient stone in an ancient gold setting cannot be resized. Collectors who want to wear a centuries-old gemstone ought to consider a stone set in modern gold fixtures as an alternative.
… earrings can all be worn, but we advise in many cases to add a modern gold post or ear wire,’ Solomon says. While some can be worn as is, others have lost the ancient elements that can be attached to the ear. Regardless, it is wise to have a jeweller add a modern element because of the brittle nature of gold, and to reduce stress on the timeworn components.
- Pay attention to symbols
[There are many intaglios on the market ] featuring various gods, portraits and animals. Much as it is today, religious iconography was a popular motif in ancient jewellery.
- Respect the age of the pieces
Given the delicate nature of ancient gold, collectors should handle gold jewellery gently, particularly when wearing it. Bead necklaces are quite a bit more stable, Solomon says, although the composition of such pieces may be less certain if they have been re-strung in more recent times. ‘We know from wall and vase paintings from antiquity about some of the fashions, but it is impossible to be sure exactly how all bead necklaces were originally worn.’
- Beware of fakes
Collectors should adopt a healthy skepticism when it comes to bead necklaces, gold bracelets and other ancient jewelry. ‘More ancient pieces have survived from antiquity than you might expect,’ explains Solomon. ‘But there are fakes that have either been created to purposefully deceive, or else fashioned as revival jewelry meant to imitate ancient pieces in style.’
The specialist recently attended a lecture on diamonds, which are not common on the ancient jewellery market although they did exist in Roman times. ‘Ancient diamonds were not cut as they are in contemporary jewellery,’ Solomon explains. ‘Instead, they were used in their raw form and set in gold.’
Diamonds were, however, prominently exploited for their durability and used to carve images into other stones. ‘When you see carved gems set into rings, as there are in our sale, the very thin lines may have been created with the use of diamonds,’ Solomon says.
In late Byzantine times, after the 10th century, the cutting and polishing of diamonds began in a way that is more familiar to today. ‘If I saw a cut diamond in a Roman ring, I would know that it was not ancient,’ Solomon says.
Materials, such as lapis lazuli, which is endemic to Afghanistan, can also play a role in authenticating works purporting to be from certain regions and specific time periods, although Solomon advises caution. ‘The ancient world was so fluid that cultures interspersed,’ she notes. ‘So it’s not impossible that you could find lapis in England, for example, because of the trade patterns.’