… does it catch my eye?
What is it about the ancient Egyptian combination of semi precious stones and gold that appeals to us so much? Every civilisation has used semi precious stones and gold, but there’s just something about lapis and turquoise and coral and carnelian and pearls and gold all combined that makes a perfectly winning formula. Even if you don’t wear those colours generally, it’s still a tempting combination, and we have clients with completely disparate tastes in jewellery all who love our ‘Egyptian’ collection. Interesting.
Egyptian jewellery goes back to prehistoric times and they were the innovators of so many of the techniques that have been used ever since, but their tools were so crude that it’s amazing they could produce what they did. Tools were made of bone and wood and rounded stones for repoussé and chasing, and furnaces were kept hot with blow pipes and lung power – it was a long time before bellows would be used to create and maintain sufficient heat. They became masters of bead making from all sorts of materials including faience (FAY-ance) which is a very light pottery which they then glazed. But gold has always been their metal and that’s because gold was mined in large quantities in Egypt so supply was plentiful. Even though there was silver in Egypt it was thought to be ‘white gold’ because it had so much gold in it that it wasn’t its own entity, as such. This meant that silver was bought from traders and was equally, and sometimes more, precious than gold and was the special reserve of the queens, of course.
The design of Egyptian jewellery is fascinating. We’re all familiar with the two dimensional art that the Egyptians favoured – flat bodies, sideways facing – and their jewellery was the same; two dimensional with the emphasis being on their consistantly favourite colours – red, turquoise and dark blue. The pieces most often made were bracelets and necklaces – including those huge collars of multiple strands of beads and amulets – belts and fillets (also called circlets or diadems) and in the early period there was no body piercing so no earrings or nose rings. It wasn’t until much later when the Egyptians started to be influenced by the Greeks and the Romans that rings began to be made.
The ancient Egyptians took their jewellery very seriously and it was worn by both men and women all the time, not just for smart occasions. Stones all had magical properties – lapis for wisdom, turquoise for protection, carnelian for energy, pearls for purity – and jewellers took great care to combine the right stones for maximum mystical effect. It was also worn as protection from ‘hostile forces’ both physical like scorpions and crocodiles, or in the less visible shape of disease and disaster. It was worn for personal adornment, and also as an indicator of wealth, rank and prestige. In fact the Egyptians took their jewellery so seriously that they were even buried with it to ensure that all its magical properties carried on in the after life, and none of this leaving it in the will for future generations to enjoy because it was also a person’s most valuable personal property so was necessary for wealth and wellbeing in the next life. But burying your wealth with you was, inevitably, a temptation too strong for many, and tomb raiding was common. The jewellery buried with one dynasty was often stolen from the pharaohs’ tombs and remade for the next line of kings. Grave robbing is an ancient profession, but in this case it could be considered the origin of phoenixing!
A little known factoid…. the ancient Egyptians were masterful stone forgers; they could make perfectly believable emeralds, tiger’s eye, turquoise… whatever you fancied, they could manufacture one for you; they embedded clear crystal in red cement to make carnelian, they dyed other stones to replace the often too expensive lapis, and they it was who discovered how to make glass beads of every imaginable colour, and they produced millions of them from all sorts of materials, not just glass. (The beads in this ring are real turquoise and coral… just saying!)
It’s common knowledge that Polly’s greatest influences in her work are the goldsmiths’ of the ancient world and one of her most favourite and unusual commissions was an Egyptian piece. At Goldsmiths’ Fair a very nice gentleman arrived at our stand with a scrubby plastic bag full of, among other things, fayence beads. He said both his grandfathers had been Egyptologists and had collected all the beads in their time in Egypt. Could Polly make a wonderful necklace from them for his daughter, please? Well! what a challenge! And so she set to work with a fairly small budget for the required additional gold – you can’t have Egyptian jewellery without any gold – and a handful of beads that she had and she knew would work perfectly with the piece. The result, as you can see, is quite stunning, and the gent was understandably pleased and impressed. Thank you, Egypt.
And as for a magpie, well… Egyptian jewellery is perfect; no matter whether the gems are real or not, when their incredible colours are nestled in 22ct gold it really is just what every magpie must have.