Ancient Jewelry Finds a Modern Fan Base
Ancient Jewelry Finds a Modern Fan Base
Original, wearable pieces from the distant past, featuring unique finishes and techniques, offer inspiration for collectors and designers alike.
By Annabel Davidson
LONDON — At Symbolic & Chase, a dealership on Old Bond Street in London that specializes in jewelry and objects from antiquity to today, a bangle from the late Bronze Age recently was offered for sale at $38,000.
In a gleaming shade of warm yellow so identifiable as the high gold content of ancient jewelry, the bracelet was tapered smoothly inside and out. Compared with the often mass-produced, uniformly finished pieces in the windows of contemporary mega-brands on that same street, it was singular in its warm patina — and distinguished by the fact that it had been owned and worn by someone more than 3,000 years ago.
It also reflected, at least in part, why there is an active market for ancient jewelry today.
“Ancient jewelry is the very definition of a unique piece,” said Madeleine Perridge, director of Kallos Gallery in London. “A lot of people who collect art of any sort are looking for that unique aspect, that sense of connecting you to the past, linking you very strongly to the people who may have originally worn it.”
And, “people can actually buy these pieces and wear them,” she said. “People assume anything this old is going to be fragile, but often they’ve been undisturbed entirely since they were buried with their owners, then carefully cleaned and conserved once discovered.”
Prices can be accessible, too, at least for those whose purchases include fine or high jewelry ranges.
On the gallery’s website, for example, there is a simple Roman ring (first to second century A.D.) in gold with a cabochon garnet, listed for 1,800 pounds ($2,500). A ring in similar materials from a major contemporary brand would retail for nearly 40 percent more, even though it had been produced by the thousands.
Francesca Hickin, head of the Bonhams antiquities department, echoed the idea that the market for ancient jewelry is lively.
“We had an extraordinary Egyptian necklace last year that was wearable — it had been restrung — but the components were circa 1550 to 1350 B.C.,” she said. “Clients often reset ancient Roman intaglios as rings so they can wear them, or buy ancient gemstones to have made into modern earrings.
“If the gold is modern, prices start at £800, but if the gold is ancient and intact, it starts at £2,000.”
Claudio Corsi, a specialist in antiquities at Christie’s in London, said there also had been a resurgence of interest in ancient carved gems. “People don’t just collect them, they wear them,” he said. “There is a very human element to some of the carved gemstones that people are drawn to.”
Subjects, he said, vary from emperors to Aphrodite peering at her own bottom in a mirror. “Small intaglios are not uncommon, and can start at £300,” he said. “We do get necklaces and bracelets in gold that have survived, but it is quite unusual. Whenever you see a lot of Hellenistic gold, it’s usually fake. Rare pieces have survived, though.”
In some cases, contemporary jewelers have combined ancient pieces with their own creations.
For example, Loren Nicole Teetelli is a jeweler based in Los Angeles who began her career as an archaeologist studying pre-Columbian cultures, then worked as a conservator of ancient items at both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Apart from a few courses in ancient metalsmithing, she is self-taught and now creates pieces steeped in the styles and techniques of ancient civilizations under the brand name Loren Nicole.
Her most recent collection, Viking Trove, was inspired by the notion of finding a treasure trove and some of its 50 pieces include ancient elements. Viking Age bronze bangles were given inner layers of 22-karat yellow gold, while a Viking Age glass bead was strung with gold wire to become a charm.
She also is inspired by the past, like her Horus Will Be King cuff, in 22-karat yellow gold, based on the Egyptian myth of the gods Horus and Set. Using the metalwork techniques of chasing and repoussé, Ms. Teetelli depicted the two men, who had taken the shape of hippos, locked in battle, work that she said took more than 100 hours, over six months, to complete.
“Chasing and repoussé is something I’ve been studying for three years and I still feel like a novice,” she said. “With chasing you also need to understand how to make tools, because you make the tools you need for the project.”
Andrea Cagnetti, the contemporary Italian goldsmith who goes by the name Akelo, uses ancient goldsmith techniques like granulation, said to be perfected by the Etruscans between the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. His work does not copy ancient examples, but rather pays homage to ancient techniques, and it appears in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri.
“I create very few pieces a year,” he said. “For some, it can take months.” Despite dedicating as much time as he can afford to teaching others, Mr. Cagnetti works entirely alone.
“I work alone without collaborators, because if my technique can also be learned by others, the creative touch can only be mine,” he said. “It is what makes my works unique.”
Collectors, however, sometimes see something special in the originals.
Derek Content has collected ancient jewelry since boyhood. “I bought my first engraved gem at age 7, and never stopped,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in the Hampstead area of London. “I’m now 76 years old and have no plan on quitting.”
For Mr. Content, who has written 11 books on ancient jewelry and engraved gems, the genre feels very personal. “Unlike ancient coins, which were struck in multiples, ancient jewels were made one by one,” he said. “Cameos are basically tiny, portable sculptures, and no two are the same.”
“For me, it’s the quality of the carving, the style, the quality of the image,” he said, noting that there are a lot of mediocre Roman carved stones that sell for $3,000 to $4,000, but that “the signed pieces of decent quality go for $50,000 to $60,000.”
Another renowned collector is Kazumi Arikawa, owner of the Albion Art Institute, with locations in Tokyo and Paris. His holdings include an important pair of Hellenistic earrings from the fourth century B.C., detailed right down to tiny prancing horses. Scholars have agreed that the earrings, executed using granulation and filigree, would have belonged to a woman of high wealth and status.
“This pair of Hellenistic earrings is special,” Mr. Arikawa wrote in an email from Tokyo. “I am stunned at how ancient artisans achieve such perfection. The items show what a high aesthetic sense the wearer must have had. I cannot contain my astonishment at the refinement that must have pervaded their lives.”
But Mr. Arikawa sees more in ancient and antique jewelry than accomplished craftsmanship. “It reveals the aesthetic height of ancient royalties and aristocracies,” he wrote. “Contemporary jewelry relies too much on being ornamental. One can say it is commercial. The aim of the ancient craftsman was wholly to decorate the wearer, providing the sublimity that rulers required.”
And today, it seems, the modern wearer may experience that sublimity, too.
Click here to read the article on The New York Times website.