The Hellenistic era produced some of the most elaborate and intricate jewelry of the Greek world. This article includes a little bit of a background of the culture of this time and how it influenced the fine art of jewelry. It also touches on the sources we have which tell us about how the jewelry was worn.
The Hellenistic Period
It’s widely accepted as beginning with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and fading out with the rise of Augustus in 31 BCE and the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE.
One particular art historian (Jerome Jordan Politt) breaks down the Hellenistic epoch into three subcategories that go deeper than the typical Early, High, and Late classifications. I found this especially appropriate to apply to jewelry because he acknowledges the way the art was tied to social and political changes, thus explaining how jewelry was tied to social and political changes.
BACKGROUND: Alexander the Great was one of the greatest contributors to these social and political changes. After absorbing the Persian Empire, his expanded empire spanned an area as far east as India. This expansion included the golden paradise that was Babylon. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art quite simply put it – “the market for fashionable gold jewelry exploded.”
After the death of Alexander the Great, certain men (known as the Diadochoi) were fighting for control of the Hellenistic world. When they had all died off, the Hellenistic world was split into three kingdoms, which eventually came under the complete control of Rome.
It is important to note that even though Greece may have been under control of the Romans, the prominent culture was still Greek.
323-275 BCE Age of the Diadochoi – 275 – 150 BCE Age of the Hellenistic Kingdoms – 150 – 31 BCE Greco-Roman
With jewelry becoming more accessible and more popular, new styles were created during this era.
The Types of Jewelry
Diadems were very popular during the Hellenistic era. Diadems were elaborate headbands to be worn on special occasions – in part because they were too delicate for frequent wear (Hughes 32). Multiple sources claimed diadems would have been worn by high-ranking or wealthy women; yet, the men on some coins show it would have been men wearing them, too – at least the rulers, anyway.
The wreaths were inspired by the wreaths made of foliage which would have been gifted to victors of the games. A wreath was even more delicate than a diadem and therefore, would have been worn even less frequently, if at all… For example, one was found in the tomb of Philip II, King of Macedonia.
Hairnets would have been worn in addition to many other accessories to enhance the look of the wearer. It’s especially important to note the Hellenistic era marked the first time ever that jewelry deviated from being “magic or devotional” and became something to “enhance the wearer’s personality” (Hughes).
It was the Greeks that gave birth to the modern idea of jewelry as a form of self-expression.
Earrings: Hoop earrings were popular and usually included a bust of an human figure or an animal; rarely did they include the whole body. Drop earrings [not pictured] also have a long history in Hellenistic jewelry. Many goldsmiths put so much talent and skill into jewelry they are said to “rival contemporary large-scale sculpture in artistic quality…Miniature sculptures, often of out standing quality, continued to play an important role in Hellenistic jewelry” (Deppert-Lippitz, 65).
Necklaces [not pictured]: The Heracles knot seen was popular early on and remained so throughout. It was originally believed to have healing powers.
Bracelets: Bracelets used more metal than any other piece of jewelry; therefore, there are few pure gold bracelets. The bracelet with a central medallion featured in the gallery is a design that would become more popular in the Roman period than during this time. The bracelet with the bull’s head terminals is a simplistic design for the period, although the animal’s head terminals was a common design element.
Most of the jewelry that has been featured in the images is mostly made from gold, but one key point to remember about Hellenistic jewelry is that many pieces incorporated new materials which were accessible after Alexander’s conquest of the world. There are is a bracelet in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens [not pictured] that has been designed to include and showcase gold, garnet, amethyst, emerald, chrysoprase, pearl, glass and enamel – all in one. This particular bracelet is made even more extravagant by the fact it has hinges.
The hinges which would have made it very difficult to put on yourself; you would have needed a slave to do it for you – just another sign of wealth.
Rings: The ring featured in the gallery is adorned with a huge garnet and is also hinged, so it may be worn snugly below the thumb bone; it would have required a servant to help put it on and take it off. This ring and the aforementioned bracelet are two impressive pieces typical of the extravagance of the time period.
“In the Hellenistic period, the Greek world was flooded with gold. Greece itself had few sources of gold, and those had been depleted by the late Classical period. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire, which included Egypt, made vast resources of gold available for the first time. The various royal courts of Alexander’s successors, including the Ptolemies in Egypt, comprised a wealthy clientele with a taste for luxury, which, in combination with this new abundance of gold, led to an immense outpouring of gold jewelry” (Getty Villa).
Cagnacci, Guido. Death of Cleopatra. 1657/8. Art History Museum, Vienna. ArtSTOR. 19 Oct 2013.
Deppert-Lippitz, Barbara. Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art. Seattle: U of Washington, 1996.
Greek and Roman Art Collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Web. 18 Oct 2013.
Hellenistic Art Collection. The J. Paul Getty Museum, The Villa Collection, Malibu, CA. Web. 18 Oct 2013.
Hellenistic Period. The Collections. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Web. 17 Oct 2013.
Hemingway, Colette and Seán. “Hellenistic Jewelry.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. Web. 18 Oct 2013.
Hughes, Graham. The Art of Jewelry. New York: Studio Press, 1972.
Politt, Jerome Jordan. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
Pomeroy, Sarah. “The New World of the Hellenistic Period.” A Brief History of Ancient Greece. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
von Piloty, Karl. The Death of Alexander. (Plan only.) 1886. National Museum of Berlin. Web. 19 Oct 2013.