Jewelry in Ancient Egypt

Gold funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, 14th century B.C.

The fascinating ancient Egyptian civilization has left a mark with its culture in several fields, including jewelry. Many of the techniques which are used nowadays are attributable to the fascinating people of the Nile. A civilization which has always considered jewelry as a powerful amulet, to be worn in life as in burial, on the journey to the afterlife.

Jewels were extremely important, and they were worn by men and women of any social origin, including children. The reasons are attributable to aesthetics and especially to the value of protection: in fact, it was believed that jewels were powerful amulets capable of defending man from risks such as calamities, diseases and ferocious animals. This is why they were often worn at the height of vital organs or vulnerable points. For example, the cyprid shell, with its “toothed” lips, was perceived by the ancient Egyptians as a vigilant eye to protect man against hex. For this reason, women used to wear jewels with cyprids at the height of genitals, in order to protect themselves from infertility and miscarriage. Another powerful symbol of protection was the eye of “Oudjat”, also known as the eye of Horus, the god of the sky. Countless representations of the eye, as well as the beetle, have come down to us. Their common diffusion suggests that they were perceived as two of the most powerful symbols.

Amuleto in oro, occhio di Oudjat, IV sec. a.C.
Golden amulet, eye of Oudjat, 4th century. B.C.

Also the head was adorned and protected by several ornaments. Headbands, for example, made of flower chaplets and put around the forehead, were very common among the sailors and worn as protection during battles on papyrus boats. The most precious were made of gold. Among the most famous there are the headband of Seneb-tisi of Lisht and that of Princess Khunumet of Dahshur, which in addition to gold had splendid embedded blue stones. Headbands with the representation of a vulture were real royal tiaras made of gold foil and executed with the fretwork technique. Heads were also embellished by decorative wigs in which some hair were enriched by tubular beads or in the shape of hieroglyphs. It was also customary to adorn children’s hair with a small fish in gold or turquoise, probably as a protection from drowning. Among children were very popular also precious clips to keep their hair in order, as shown by the findings in the tomb of Ramesse III. Earrings, bracelets for wrist and arm, rigid and openable anklets, sumptuous breastplates and necklaces were worn by kings, queens and pharaohs, but also by cats, the animals which had the greatest respect, since they were considered sacred.

Gold, which was used with a high degree of purity, between 17 and 22 carats, was undoubtedly the most precious material. It had a great symbolic value too: it was believed that this metal was so bright because the gods projected the light on it. The power of gold was combined with the symbology of precious stones such garnets, lapis lazulis, turquoises, carnelians, aquamarines and emeralds. Each stone was chosen because of the colour symbolism to which were attributed particular magical characteristics. Among these, the emerald, particularly appreciated by Cleopatra, had great fame due to its intense green colour, which was attributed to rebirth, fertility and youth.

Academics tell about the great esteem that goldsmiths of the time received, as a consequence of the great value of jewelry for the ancient Egyptians. Jewelry artisans were men of culture who received their education as scribes to further specialize in decorative arts. They worked in the pharaoh’s workshops and had great respect and protection. The profession of the jeweler was prestigious and it was reserved to a select few, because it was linked to art and to gold. For this reason, it was jealously handed down from father to son.

Just like nowadays, there also seemed to be various specialized professionals at the time. Among the most important there were the “neshdy” or precious stone carver, the “nuby” that was the goldsmith, and the “baba”, which was the specialist in terracotta and coloured quartz pastes. The “baba” was a professional similar to “iru weshnet”, who was employed in the creation of beads, which were made of rock crystal, shells, bones, porcelain and, later on, of glass. Another important figure was the “sestro”, employed in the creation of necklaces and collars.

Collana in oro, corniola, vetro, XV sec. a.C.
Necklace in gold, carnelian, glass, 15th century B.C.

Today we know the extremely rich culture of the ancient Egyptians also thanks to the goldsmith artisans who lived afterward and who, over time, have analyzed jewels bringing to light very ancient techniques, materials and tools which were used at the time. History is a great teacher: we should in fact learn from this civilization, which had great respect for the people who pursued and spread beauty, that is the artists and artisans.