Nile Style: Origins of Egyptian Inspiration in Costume Jewelry
inFebruary 20, 2013 - 3:23pm
Long before I heard the term “Egyptian Revival” and like most other teenaged girls in the 1970s, I owned a colorful, etched glass scarab bracelet. My friends and I sent away to have our names made into hieroglyphics on necklaces and bracelets and were fascinated with Cleopatra. We loved all things Egypt because The Treasures of Tutankhamun, a fabulous display of select items from the Pharaoh’s tomb, was touring six chosen museums in the United States from 1972-1981. Since that time I have learned that an interest in Egyptian art and jewelry is not a new phenomenon. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with American Classic Costume Jewelry author, Jacqueline Rehmann on the subject.
When did the fascination with this ancient culture begin?
Well, as early as the year 30 BC, Rome’s conquering legions returned from Egypt laden with statuary, jewelry, and furniture. Hundreds of years later, Egyptian art forms influenced the design of Napoleon’s furnishings including sphinx-embellished beds and tables with gilt hieroglyphic designs as a result of his Egyptian campaign in 1798. In the 20th century the flames of Egypt mania were fanned by the 1922 discovery of the tomb of King Tut by Howard Carter. Since that discovery, Egyptian art and culture have affected fashion and furniture trends, architecture, literature, and even the silver screen.
I have noticed that often the jewelry that is considered Egyptian Revival depicts Ramses, King Tut, Cleopatra, Queen Nefertiti, the Sphinx or pyramids--persons and objects that we clearly identify as Egyptian. But can you tell us how the ancient Egyptians adorned themselves?
Flowers were always found in Egyptian homes including the lotus flower which was and is a favorite motif in jewelry design. Guests were often presented with bouquets and garlands placed around their shoulders. They also adorned their bodies with jewelry, perfumes, and a variety of hairstyles using wigs. Women wore straight linen slips. Often the straps were beaded to match a parure of collar, bracelets, and anklets which completed the outfit. They wore collars and pectorals, large heavily jeweled necklaces which were worn by both women and men.
What materials were available to be used in creating the jewelry?
Garlands were sometimes made of a colored glazed pottery called faience. It was invented by the Egyptians and was a mixture of powdered quartz, copper, salt, and water which was heated until it formed a hard blue-green form with a shiny surface. This was a time-consuming and labor intensive process. Because of all the work that went into it, faience was considered quite a luxury. Collars that covered the shoulders and chest were created with glass beads, precious stones and gold. The pectoral was a large flat breastplate made of gold or copper, decorated with symbols and inlaid with semiprecious stones or glass. Metals were set with semiprecious stones chosen for their colors. The most popular were carnelian, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. Other local stones included jasper, garnet, green feldspar, amethyst, rock crystal, obsidian, calcite, and chalcedony. By the time of the New Kingdom (B.C. 1550-1070) colored glass, made to imitate semiprecious stones, was commercially produced in large facilities that were under royal control.
I certainly never realized that there would have been a mass produced component to the jewelry. I am getting a different picture of the sophistication of the culture. It sounds like the jewelry was spectacular! Was it simply for decoration?
It was certainly used for decoration but jewelry also served a spiritual purpose. Pectorals were considered good luck charms and were worn to protect their owner. The shapes and forms, including animals, hieroglyphs, images of gods, and special symbols, were believed to exert strong magical forces, including the ability to thwart evil. Collars had symbols of the gods carved into their large metal clasps or into the beads of the collar itself.
Both the living and the dead were supplied with jewelry, but archeological evidence suggests that the funerary pieces were very different from the beautiful beaded or gold collars that were worn every day by the living. Funerary collars representing a falcon, winged cobra, vulture, or a combination vulture and cobra were common and were believed to provide protection when placed on mummies.
Amulets were small charms which were placed throughout the layers of mummy wrappings to provide protection in the afterlife. Literally hundreds of amulets could be found in the wrappings of a single mummy. The most popular amulet was the scarab beetle, considered a symbol of new life. Another popular amulet was the udjat or wedjat eye in which one would view a human eye and eyebrow. The eye was traditionally associated with the god Horus and symbolized good health.
Today we have the “Crown Jewels” and then costume pieces that the rest of us can afford to wear! What were the differences between what was worn by royalty and commoners in ancient Egypt?
Jewelry was an indication of status. Ruling pharaohs, kings, and queens wore special ornaments depicting the crook and flail, symbols of the rule of the king. The crook was similar to a tool used by shepherds, a long staff with a hook at the end. The flail was a wooden rod with three straps hanging from one end, each strap bearing decorative pendants. Another ornament carried or worn by many pharaohs was the ankh, a symbol of life that looked like a cross with a loop for its upper vertical arm. While the ruling class had special ornaments, people of all ages and classes and both men and women wore necklaces, bracelets, anklets, headdresses, belts, earrings, and rings.
I had the awesome privilege of viewing The Treasures of Tutankhamun during its 1970s tour. The artistry and exceptional craftsmanship displayed in the pieces were truly awe inspiring. It’s no wonder that so many jewelry companies copied the patterns and colors. We appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions and look forward to continuing our discussion in Part II: Modern Egyptian Inspired Costume Jewelry.
Cindy Brown of Cinsababe’s on Ruby Lane
Jacqueline Rehmann has loved costume jewelry since she was a child and has been collecting for over 40 years. She is the author of two books on jewelry including Classic American Costume Jewelry Volumes I and II. She has also published numerous articles in a variety of antiques publications, as well as the former VFCJ journal and Costume Jewelry Collectors International (CJCI). She is also a member of CJCI.