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History of Jewellery Europe and the Middle East

  • By Julia Littlewood
  • Published 02/16/2012

Following from my previous article titled ‘Your Guide to the Impact and Origins of Jewellery’, this guide will continue looking at how jewellery developed by exploring its history thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.


The craft of jewellery-making was well established in ancient Mosopotamia as long as 4,000 years ago. Both men and women wore extensive amounts of adornments in that era, including amulets, ankle bracelets, heavy multi-strand necklaces and cylinder seals.

Archaeologists have discovered significant jewellery artifacts from those times, with the most important findings caming from the Royal Cemetery of Ur where hundreds of burials dating from 2,900–2,300 BC were discovered. In particular, many of the tombs found contained a wealth of jewellery creations made from gold, silver and semi-precious stones.

Historians and jewellery fans have also benefitted from the discovery of extensive and meticulously maintained records relating to the trade and manufacture of jewellery at Mesopotamian archaeological sites.

Jewellers of that time and place created works both for people to wear and for adorning statues and idols. They used a wide variety of sophisticated techniques in their craft, such as cloisonné, engraving, fine granulation, and filigree.

Jewellery in Mesopotamia was generally made from thin metal leaves that were set with brightly-coloured stones such as agate, lapis, carnelian and jasper. The design shapes they favoured included cones, spirals and bunches of grapes.


While early Greeks used beads shaped as shells and animals, by 1600 BC they began using gold and gems in their jewellery creations. By 300 BC, Greek craftsmen had mastered making coloured jewellery and were also using amethysts pearl and emeralds in their pieces. Although much of the jewellery in ancient Greece came to be made from gold and silver with ivory and gemstones, bronze and clay copies were also made. Even though their jewellery designs were initially often relatively simple when compare to other cultures, as time progressed their creations grew in complexity.

Culturally, jewellery in Greece was rarely worn – it was mainly used for public appearances or on special occasions. Primarily worn by wealthy women to denote their social standing, jewellery was also a popular gift.

In addition to social status and religion, the Greeks believed that certain jewellery items could give the wearer protection against negative thoughts from others (called the “Evil Eye”) or endowe them with supernatural powers.

The largest production of jewellery in ancient Greece came from its Northern regions and Macedon. Jewellers would work with both cast pieces as well as those that were hammered out of sheet metal. The two halves were then joined together, and wax plus molten metal was then placed in the centre.

Different techniques were then used to create motifs on the jewellery, such as using a stamp or engraving. After this, gems were often added to the hollows or glass poured into specially designed cavities on the surface.

Greek craftsmen took much of their design inspiration from foreign regions, such as Asia when Alexander the Great conquered part of it. European influences can also be seen in their earlier creations and although the Greeks resisted influences from the Romans when they initially occupied the country, by 27 BC Greek designs showed a heavily Roman style. Regardless of wars and politics however, indigenous Greek designs always thrived.


The most common jewellery artefact of early Rome was the brooch, which was used to secure clothing. Because Rome grew to take over much of Europe as well as other countries during its hey day, the Romans benefitted from having a diverse range of materials for their jewellery. As early as 2,000 years ago, Romans were importing Sri Lankan sapphires and Indian diamonds.

The aggressive Roman expansion and occupation changed jewellery designs across much of Europe – while previously each country has uniquely diverse jewellery (especially the Celts), they were increasingly influenced by Roman craftsmanship.

The early Italians tended to manufacture jewellery in crude gold, used to create such items as clasps, necklaces, earrings and bracelets. They also favoured large pendants that could be filled with perfume.

And as with other cultures of the times such as the Greeks, Romans beleived that jewellery could ward off the “Evil Eye”. In terms of gender differences in wearing jewellery, while women wore a huge range of fashionable adornments, Roman men were expected to wear at least one ring. Many men tended to wear only a finger ring, while others wore a ring on each finger. What was popular for both males and females however was wearing a ring with an engraved gem that was used with wax to seal documents. This practice continued into medieval times, it was popular amongst kings and noblemen.


Jewellery designs in ancient times were heavily influenced by the prevailing powers of the era. While the clash of different societies produced new influences which changed traditional creations, most cultures have nevertheless maintained a uniquely style that can be recognised even by the average person of today.

About the Author: Julia Littlewood is a stylist and jewellery designer.



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