Ancient Egyptian Jewelry and Jewelry Making

Our June lecture was presented by Dr. Carol Andrews, Curator of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum. Members of both the Bead Society and the Costume Society joined us for this talk, so we had one of the largest turnouts of the year.

Dr. Andrews noted that all classes of society, regardless of sex, wore jewelry in ancient Egypt. Even sacred animals were decked out in jewelry. Examples of jewelry have been found in pre-dynastic graves, including a fine example of a diadem found in a late predynastic grave. Such an example is prototypical of later forms of elite jewelry, comprised of precious metals and semi-precious stones. Dr. Andrews was emphatic in pointing out that there were no precious stones used in predynastic and dynastic jewelry despite contacts with countries like India which had them in abundance for trade.

The classic period of jewelry making was the Middle Kingdom where graceful design and excellent craftsmanship have bequeathed to museums pieces the equal of jewelry made anywhere or any time on the planet. She showed a slide of the openwork diadem of Khnumet discovered by De Morgan in her tomb at Dahshur (12th Dynasty). This diadem is composed of naturalistic forms and floral patterns in gold and carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli.

The favorite stones of the ancient Egyptians for jewelry making had symbolic meaning as well. The dark blue lapis lazuli favored by the Egyptians was imported by trade with faraway Afghanistan. Its color represents night, as seen in the painted ceilings from the Valley of the Kings (Rameses IX was her example). This hard stone was favored for the creation of seal rings with a swivel bezel mechanism. Such rings often took the form of scarab beetles. They were used for adding security to items as diverse as papyrus and wine jars with Nile mud seals. The blue green turquoise was equated with the Nile waters. It was mined from earliest times in the Sinai. Turquoise elements were found on mummified arm from the tomb of Djer (1st Dynasty) at Abydos. When turquoise was too costly or unavailable, faience or glass the color of turquoise was employed. As an aside, she noted that a piece of jewelry (a faience scarab on a tubular gold chain) created for funeral use had a curved gold rear bead for the comfort of the mummy! A girdle from a male burial employed bone spacers between the more expensive stones. Dark green stones were usually green jasper from the Eastern Desert and represented new life and vegetation. Blood (orangey red) was depicted using orange carnelian. Red jasper was also employed (found in the Eastern Desert and Nubia) in the production of amulets (poppy seed shaped vessels of red jasper formed part of a necklace which Dr. Andrews pointed out as an example of this stone. Curiously, amethyst with its purple hue was favored only in the Middle Kingdom. Gold represented the sun and the skin of the gods (their bones were made of silver). It was mined in the Eastern Desert and Nubia. It was used in the manufacture of all types of jewelry, for amulets and solid signet seal rings (the bezels do not swivel). Silver was the color of the moon, and was much rarer than gold in Egypt. Most gold mined in Egypt has a certain amount of silver with it so natural electrum occurs, but electrum was also mixed for use in jewelry as well.

From the early mastabas the Old Kingdom, dwarves are shown working in the workshops. Their conspicuousness offered a kind of security against theft. In the tomb of Mereruka at Sakkara they are shown making necklaces and other items in the royal workshops under the control of Mereruka who was vizier to King Teti. Dr. Andrews showed us an anklet with a claw depicted in a tomb and an actual example found with a burial. The claw had been thought to belong to a lion or a leopard but she demonstrated with the gold example that its cloisonne carnelian feathers indicate it is the talon of a bird of prey. Glass and paste imitations of semi-precious stones were used without prejudice in ancient Egyptian jewelry. The symbolic color was as important as the materials themselves. Jewelry makers employed a number of different techniques for making gold jewelry including casting using the lost wax process, beating gold into sheets, filigree, and cloisonne work. Surprisingly, the use of enameling, a logical step from cloisonne work, was not employed until Greco-Roman times. Dr. Andrews showed some rather elaborate chains, but gold wire was cut from strips of sheet gold and hammered rather than drawn. Beads were drilled with an artisan being able to do several at one time. Beads were roughly shaped and then drilled before being carved so that labor was not wasted on beads ruined in the boring process.

Ancient jewelry styles appear in funerary and religious contexts long after they ceased to be manufactured. The Ptolemaic kings and the Roman emperors wear traditional styles and colors of Egyptian jewelry on temple reliefs although they were no longer being produced in workshops which now favored Graeco-Roman styles.

We'd like to thank Dr. Andrews for a most enlightening slide lecture which demonstrated more subtleties of design and technique than can be described in this transcription. If a picture says a thousand words, then volumes were spoken. This is one lecture you should not have missed.

- Al Berens

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