The pyramids of Egypt are the most iconic example of ancient Egyptian reverence for their gods and goddesses, showcased by the elaborate and grandeur style of these tombs and the amazing artifacts buried with the dead. Most notably found among these treasures are exquisite pieces of jewelry honoring their deities and meant to catch the attention and favor of the gods, as well as protect the wearer and pronounce their social status. The ancient Egyptians were among the first wearers of jewelry made from precious metals, namely gold, and they created pieces using both local materials and imported precious stones. They came to place a great deal of value on personal adornment, and statement pieces such as necklaces, collars, pendants, cuff bracelets, bangles, earrings and rings were worn by both men and women of all classes. Of course, only the wealthy class could afford the best jewelry made of gold and precious gems and in this way, much like the way it functions today, jewelry became indicative of a person’s power, wealth and status.
While the wide, detailed collar necklace may represent one of the oldest and most iconic pieces of Egyptian jewelry, earrings were also powerful statement pieces worn by both commoners and royalty. Believed to be a product of outside influence from Western Asia, earrings were unknown in classical Egyptian jewelry production and most likely appeared during the 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 BC), the era in which ancient Egypt was at the peak of its power. The 18th Dynasty was the first dynasty of a period known as the New Kingdom, known for famous historical figures such as King Tutankhamen and his pharaoh parents Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
During this period, earrings became a fashionable adornment among men, women and children, with the most popular styles being earplugs (a cylindrical piece of jewelry fit into an ear piercing) and large-gauge hoop earrings.
Evidence of ear lobe stretching in Egypt is also found during this time and tomb paintings depicting men and women wearing earrings have also been dated to the New Kingdom era. Additionally, the British Museum houses a pair of Egyptian gold earrings that date all the way back to the 19th Dynasty (1292-1189 BC).
Some archaeologists argue that earrings were mainly worn by the women of ancient Egypt, while others claim it was predominantly the men who were able to adorn themselves in this way because they controlled the wealth. Still, others argue that it was most common for children to wear earrings as evidenced by their presence in the tombs of children. No matter the case, earrings were a popular style of adornment that reflected the status and wealth of the wearer, ranging from simple stone plugs to gold, dangly, beaded ornate pieces of art.
Although most cultures love jewelry, the ancient Egyptians took their affinity to another level. More than just an aesthetically pleasing accessory, jewelry to them represented the wealth of a person and offered protection not only in this life but in the next life as well. For this reason, a great deal of symbolism can be found in their jewelry, from the motifs to the specific colors and the precious stones utilized in each piece.
Some common motifs include the scarab beetle (representative of rebirth), Ankh (representative of life and used for protection), the Lotus (representative of the sun and creation), the Eye of Horus (used for protection), Uraeus (a sign of power and magic) and the Isis knot (used for protection in the afterlife).
Furthermore, the ancient deities of the time were closely related to these symbols- for instance the Eye of Horus was associated with the sky god Horus and the Lotus was closely associated with the Sun god Atum-Ra. The sacred cat goddess, Bastet, was one of the most popular goddesses of ancient Egypt and she is often depicted as a cunning cat wearing a protective amulet, gold earrings and a gold nose ring.
These gods and goddesses embodied the fundamental elements of life that were so important to the ancient Egyptians, and as such were the perfect subjects for amulets and talismans to protect the wearer and bring them good fortune. These symbols are still found in modern Egyptian jewelry and meant to function in the same way- as stylish and protection-providing adornments for everyday people.
Similarly, the actual materials and jewels used for ancient jewelry corresponded to certain metaphysical properties and definitely alluded to the status of the owner. Only the wealthy and elite could afford gold jewelry and precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, obsidian, garnet, jasper, turquoise and carnelian, as well as colored glass beads which were rare and expensive at the time.
The masses opted for simpler designs made of copper and colored beads made of painted clay, stones and animal bones. Gemstones such as turquoise and lapis had to be imported from Sinai and Afghanistan and thus were often less available and much more expensive than locally sourced materials such as emeralds, pearls and purple amethyst.
Lapis lazuli was a favorite among the most wealthy for its deep blue coloring which to them denoted honor and royalty, whereas turquoise symbolized life and happiness. Emeralds were used for immortality and fertility and carnelian was for protection and stability. This tradition continues today as different gemstones are thought to have specific properties and be used for specific purposes.
The color gold was revered the most by the Egyptians because it was associated with the sun and represented the flesh of the gods. Luckily, they had abundant access to this precious metal with its discovery some five thousand years ago in the nearby Nubian deserts.
This revolutionary breakthrough allowed them to create extremely elaborate designs as well as establish themselves prominently in the trade system of the ancient world. In fact, pieces of high grade ancient Egyptian gold jewelry have been found in Iran, Turkey and Greece! Seeing as gold was the metal of choice for the pharaoh, it’s not surprising that King Tut’s tomb yielded some incredible examples of the finest Egyptian craftsmanship.
Found alongside the king’s magnificent gold diadem or crown, scarab bracelets and ornate necklaces were at least six pairs of earrings, the most impressive being a pair of long, gold cloisonne (enameled) earrings featuring a picture of the king on the backsides and a pair of hybrid birds suspended from the clasps. Additionally, the young king was buried with a pair of carved bead earrings, pen-annular earrings and more simple stud earrings.
This vast treasure can now be found in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and represents the largest collection of gold and precious jewelry in the world! Another well-known member of royalty, Cleopatra, is commonly depicted as wearing massive golden earrings, and part of her museum collection features complex, dangly gold earrings accented with pearls.
In contrast, silver was scarcely used in jewelry production in ancient Egypt since it was not a local resource. It had to be imported from Asia and was considered rare and even more precious than gold for this reason. Although it’s not commonly associated with Egyptian jewelry, there are examples of silver being used in ancient times in the form of bangles and small beads for necklaces. Interestingly, it is associated with Isis, the goddess of the moon, because of its pale color.
Although finding genuine ancient Egyptian jewelry is not only difficult but expensive to acquire, you can now find modern replicas for sale that are beautiful and affordable with varying degrees of quality. Earrings featuring Horus, the falcon god, or Bastet, the cat goddess, are widespread online as well as other Egyptian symbols like the scarab, snake and Ankh. Whether you imagine yourself as Cleopatra with loads of flashy jewelry or prefer more simple, understated designs, you’re sure to love the style and elegance of Egyptian jewelry and all the history that it represents.