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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.
Garnet was often used in jewellery in the Roman era.
GIA qualified Gemmologists
Members of the British Jewellery Association
Members of the Coloured Gemstone Assocation