Gemstones of Ancient Egypt

National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. has a newly opened Queens of Egypt Tour. Of course, there was also a jewelry component to the show. Ancient Egyptians took their adornments seriously—chiefly as protective talismans and displays of social status. And the seven ancient queens profiled in the exhibit (including Nefertiti, Nefertari, Hatshepsut, and Cleopatra) ruled Egypt in incredible jewels.


Yellow gold reigned in ancient Egypt because mines between the Nile and the Red Sea yielded the largest quantities of precious metals. Silver was exotic and rare—it had to be imported from outside the Mediterranean—and therefore far more prized. I am sure most of us are surprised at this statement as gold reigns today.

Ancient Egypt’s goldsmiths pioneered several techniques still in use today, including granulation, filigree, and cloisonné work. And they loved gems—from the locally available (amethyst, carnelian) to the imported (lapis lazuli, turquoise).

But those who couldn’t afford precious jewels could wear beautiful bling made from humble materials including glass, shells, and earthenware pottery, and yet these designs are breathtaking as well.

If you couldn’t afford the semi-precious stones you wore glass, shells, and earthenware pottery, which still made for beautiful jewelry.

There is only room for a few examples of the jewelry worn in ancient Egypt.

MICROMOSAIC EXHIBITION AT VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

So many of the best jewelry designers are also great collectors of jewelry themselves. Fans of Elizabeth Locke, best known for her marvelous Etruscan and neoclassical intaglio and gemstone pendants, link bracelets, and cocktail rings in rich, high-karat gold, almost certainly know her to be an avid collector of decorative art and antiques. (Her Federal-style home in Virginia has been photographed by everyone from Architectural Digest and Garden & Gun to Veranda magazines.) Her own jewelry designs are well known and very popular with jewelry collectors.

blue bead and duck micromosaic

Locke’s particular passion is one-of-a-kind antiquities, with an emphasis on 19th-century micromosaics from Italy. Now, a new exhibit focused on Locke’s personal collection of these unique objects is set to open at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts  (VMFA) in Richmond, Va., at the end of this month. This is an exhibit worth seeing for anyone who is a collector of fine jewelry.

butterfly mosaic

According to the museum, micromosaics have their origin in the ancient world, when artisans from Iraq first applied decorative blocks of clay as architectural details on stately buildings. Centuries of technical innovation resulted in further refinements and the establishment of the Vatican Mosaic Studio, where mosaicists began replicating Renaissance paintings in durable enameled glass tiles.

Running stag with citrine pendant

By the late 18th century, highly intricate small-scale works were being produced. Unlike large-scale mosaics, which could take a decade to create, micromosaics could be marketed to locals and tourists as gifts and souvenirs of the Grand Tour.

White dove and pearl and diamond pendant

Pictures courtesy National Geographic Museum and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Articles Courtesy JCK Magazine