Greek Jewelry Part 3: Earrings

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The almost complete absence of specimens of jewelry from the mainland of Greece is due to those acts of pillage which continually took place at localities well known as cemeteries. Only in tombs concealed by their environment, or lost to sight in semi-barbarous countries, have sufficient ornaments been found for us to form an estimate of the perfection which this branch of the industrial arts then attained.

The chief sources of these discoveries have been the Crimea, the Greek islands, the west coast of Asia Minor, and Southern Italy—known in ancient times as Magna Graecia. Of these districts by far the most important was that on the northern shore of the Black Sea, called formerly the Tauric Chersonese and now the Crimea, where in close proximity to the warlike Scythian tribes a Greek colony had settled as early as the sixth century before our era.

Excavations made also in the adjacent peninsula of Taman have revealed numerous articles of gold, all belonging to the latter half of the fourth century. The wealth of gold on. the shores of the Black Sea, which is the basis of the early Greek legends of the Golden Fleece, had attracted merchant adventurers at an early date.

And the Greek goldsmiths who settled there forwarded their productions both to their mother-country and to the neighboring lands of the barbarians. Excavations undertaken by the Russian Government near Kertch, the ancient Panti-kapaion, gave rise to an important discovery in 1831, when the opening of the celebrated tumulus Koul-Oba revealed a magnificent display of Greek jewelry.

These treasures, and others which the enterprise of the Russian Government has brought to light, are preserved at St. Petersburg in the Museum of the Hermitage.

Italy, less systematically ravaged than Greece, has proved exceedingly rich in finds of antique jewelry. Except for a few scattered fragments from Greece proper and the other sources mentioned above, public and private cabinets, outside Russia, are made up almost exclusively of the results of excavations in the burial-places of Magna Graecia.

In no ornament did the Greek jeweler exhibit his-fertility of invention to a greater degree than in the variety and beauty of the forms given to earrings. They divide naturally into two classes.

The first, the earlier, are ring-shaped, of two halves formed in a mold and united together. They terminate at one end with a human head—like that of a Msenad in a specimen in the British Museum—or more usually with the head of a lion, bull, or some other animal.

To the second class belong those attached to the ear by a hook masked by a rosette or disc. From this hang one or more pendants of a variety of designs. In rare instances these consist of beads hung to little chains; but the logical sense of the ancients preferred for the purpose things that might be imagined as floating, such as a little figure of Eros, or a tiny Victory bearing a wreath. The place on the ring where the pendant is attached is almost invariably made prominent by a saucer-shaped rosette, a mask, or similar object ornamented with fine threads of gold. Opaque enamel, of white, blue, or green, is sometimes found applied thinly to the surface of the metal.

Many earrings are of the most complicated design. When the ear-pendant was confined to a ring with a crescent-shaped lower part, this ornament would produce no effect except when the wearer was seen in profile.

In order to make the ornament visible from the front, the idea suggested itself to hang the crescent ring on to a smaller one.

Wonderfully well executed are some of the later Greek earrings in which small figures are attached directly to the hook which is inserted into the ear. Among these are figures of Eros playing a musical instrument or holding a jug as if pouring a libation.

By the amplification of the appendages we find the simpler earrings assume such an immense increase in dimension as to make it impossible that they were attached to the lobe of the ear. It may be assumed that they were fastened to the diadem or front-let, or to a plaited tress of hair, and hung over the ear, or more to the front over the temples. Naturally this species of ornament, owing to its weight and the many separate pieces of which it was made, would prevent the wearer from making any rapid movements, but was adapted to a slow and dignified pace in walking. It would also have the additional motive of increasing the commanding appearance of the individual. A splendid pair of head appendages of this character discovered at Kertch are now at St. Petersburg.

They are composed of two large medallions representing the head of Athene, whose helmet is adorned with sphinxes and gryphons. From these are suspended several rows of amphora-shaped ornaments covered with fine filigree decoration.

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Continued in Part 4

Greek Jewelry Part 2

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The jewelry of ancient Greece, which requires more detailed consideration, is that worn from the close of the fifth century onward. The jewelry of the Greeks at this epoch was, like all their other works of art, of surpassing excellence.

Gold was wrought with a skill which showed how well the artist appreciated the beauty of its color and its distinctive qualities of ductility and malleability. The Greek craftsman was ever careful to keep the material in strict subordination to the workmanship, and not to allow its intrinsic worth so to dominate his productions as to obscure his artistic intention.

The Greek goldsmiths excelled in the processes of repouss, chasing, engraving, and of intaglio cutting on metal, and brought to great perfection the art of soldering small objects on to thin surfaces and joining together the thinnest metal plates.

Granulated work, in which they were rivaled by the Etruscans alone, the Greeks practiced with success, but preferred filigree ornamentation, that is the use of fine threads of gold twisted upon the surface with very delicate effect.

Precious stones were very rarely used in the finest work, though on many of the post-Alexandrine jewels, stones such as garnets were frequently employed. Color was obtained by a sparing use of enamel.

The value of Greek jewelry lies in the use of gold and the artistic development of this single material. The minuteness of jewelry did not lead the Greeks to despise it as a field of labor. Whatever designs they borrowed from others the Greeks made their own and reproduced in a form peculiar to themselves.

In other respects they went straight to nature, choosing simple motives of fruit, flowers, and foliage, united with a careful imitation of animal forms and of the human body. The objects we have to consider fall into two classes, according as they are either substantial articles for use or ornament in daily life, or mere flimsy imitations of them made only to be buried with the dead.

As in the case of other nations of antiquity, the demands of Greek piety were satisfied if the dead were adorned with jewels made cheaply of leaves of stamped or bracteate gold. This course was followed mainly for the purpose of lessening expense; but it served also to obviate the chance of tombs being rifled by tomb-robbers or tymborychoi, who practiced a profession which was common in ancient times and offered large and certain profits.

Jewels simply and entirely funereal occupy a prominent position in every public and private collection of Greek jewelry. The rarity of jewels for actual use may be further explained by the fact that articles of that kind would only be associated with the grave of a person of wealth and distinction, and that the more important graves were the first prey of robbers.

Continued in Part 3

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