Learning Library

Roman Jewellery

The   Roman Empire was unquestionably one  of  the  largest  and  strongest  empires  history  has ever seen. It grew from the ancient city of  Rome, to the Roman Kingdom, to the Roman  Republic and finally, before its collapse, into the  great Roman Empire. The Roman Empire at its  strongest encapsulated much of the globe and  ruled many nations. 

Finding  evidence  of  Roman  jewellery  is  obviously  harder  than  looking  at  a  more recent period such as Victorian, Edwardian, or Georgian, as most of the evidence we have is  archaeological. Archaeologists have had to piece  together traces and fragments of information to  build up a picture of what it was like to live  thousands of years ago.

After  the  start  of  what  is  now  recognised  as  ‘The Roman Empire’, in the year 27BC, there  was little change or innovation in the design and  creation of jewellery. Pre-existing designs and  shapes continued to be used and only small and  insignificant  changes  were  made.  Throughout  the many years of the Empire, different styles and  fashions came and went. Much of the inspiration  for Roman jewellery was borrowed from other cultures and lands. We find that a lot of early Roman jewellery took its inspiration from Greek  and Etruscan jewellery. The ‘Etruscan’ culture  was built up of people that lived in Etruria in  Italy,  a  non-Italian  group  of  people,  whose  culture was primarily based upon the Greeks. 

An  increasingly  popular  piece  of  jewellery  throughout the duration of the Empire was the  ring. In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, rings were  so popular they were often worn on all 8 fingers  and on both thumbs! Unlike today though, the  rings were usually worn in front of the knuckle, and were therefore a lot smaller.

During the Roman Empire, women of the ruling  class were extremely privileged and wore lots of  jewellery. The displaying of their jewellery, as it  still can be today, was often a sign of status and great wealth.

Whilst women wore a great deal of jewellery,  Roman  men  often  wore  a  single  ring,  made  from  either  gold  or  stone.  These  rings  were  called ‘signet’ rings and had a design on them,  personalised  to  the  owner.  As  each  ring  was  unique they were used to stamp a wax seal onto  important documents. Some Romans even had  their own faces engraved onto their rings.

The  Roman  Empire  was  rapidly  expanding,  and  after  300BC,  it  was  aided  further  by  an  increase in gold supplies. It is believed that the  supply reached ten tonnes annually by 100AD;  a level which was not achieved again for over  a thousand years. During this period, gold coins  became a popular choice for making jewellery  and each coin was said to be worth the equivalent  of the combined annual salary of four soldiers.

The Ancient Romans had access to a wide variety  of natural resources and gemstones from across  Europe  and  further  afield.  Sapphire,  Emerald,  Garnet,  Topaz,  Aquamarine,  Cornelian  and  Amber were all introduced into jewellery. Uncut  Diamonds were also occasionally used.

One piece of jewellery that people often associate  with the Romans is the brooch. As well as being  worn for purely decorative reasons, they would  often be used to fasten cloaks. Special brooches  would be designed to celebrate festivals, of which  there would be around 160 a year! The ‘fibula’, a  type of safety pin, was another piece commonly  used to fasten cloaks. As Roman clothing was  commonly  pinned  together  rather  than  sewn,  the fibula was the focus of the garment, and was  therefore often extremely ornate.

Britain  also  played  a  small  part  in  Roman  jewellery  making.  High  quality  Jet,  from  the town  of Whitby,  in Yorkshire,  was  made  into jewellery and then shipped off to Rome.

Back to Learning Library

Garnet was often used in jewellery in the Roman era.