To fully understand the significance of Egyptian necklaces it’s important to know why they were worn by ancient Egyptians, how they were created, what color palette they encompassed, and what they accessorized. From 3000 BCE to 300 BCE, “the time of the pharaohs” jewelry progressed from the most basic-seashells, stones, and bones-to the most elaborate gemstones and precious metals.
Highly symbolic and indicative of wealth and status they often represented religious and philosophical beliefs. Gold, one of the most prominent antique metals, was admired for its brilliant color-yellow-the symbol of the sun, eternity and the skin of the preeminent God, “Atom-Ra”. Mined in the Nubian and Eastern deserts there was enough to make it a plentiful and reliable resource. After the Middle Kingdom (2025-1700 BC) gold was obtained from Lower Nubia. It was first discovered circa 600 BC.
Other metal used were copper which was discovered circa 4200 BC, silver-circa 4300 BC, lead-circa 3500 BC, tin-circa 1750 BC, iron-circa 1500 BC and mercury-circa-750 BC. The Egyptians perfected the art of jewelry making, especially goldsmithing, in the era of the New Kingdom. Death masks and diadems were also made out of gold as well as gold leaf that could be applied with gesso.
Worn with simple linen garments called “kalasiris” their jewelry provided an elegant contrast to its unadorned neckline. Along with the “kalasiris” pharaohs wore special clothes for ceremonies, such as a crown called a “nemes” with a small cobra (uraeus) attached. It symbolized Wadjet, the Egyptian goddess, and let the pharaoh’s enemies know that he was always ready to strike if necessary.
A faux beard was sometimes worn by men and women, a flail and crook were also carried to indicate to his people that he provides food for them and protects his flock. Even Cleopatra wore the “kalasiris” at home in Egypt, which she enhanced with green and blue eye makeup and emerald jewelry. Since self-adornment was so important to the Egyptians, they decorated their bodies with rings, hoop earrings, bracelets, armbands, arm ornaments and anklets as well.
One of the most popular pieces excavated was a “scarab ring with a rotating face” from 1794 and 1684 BC that has a hieroglyphic saying on one side and a beetle on the other. Previously owned by “Butler of Nefer-her: Hebi”, signet rings were also popular with priestly personnel. A rotating bezel was a popular feature for these rings, and if hieroglyphics were added to one side, it was used as a stamp for important documents.
The palette of Egyptian jewelry consisted of red (desher), green (wadj), blue (irtyu or khesbedj), white (hedj or shesep), black (kem), and yellow (khenot or kenit), and the popular motifs were scarabs, flora-poppies, grapes, lotus flowers, jasmine, daisies, palm leaves and various Gods and Goddesses.
The gemstones had meaning too, with emeralds signifying immortality and fertility; malachite-healing; garnet-fire, anger-life and victory; carnelian- protection and stability; turquoise-happiness; obsidian-death and amethyst-royalty. Glass, (polychrome) a versatile and malleable material, was used for jewelry too, especially for cloisonné pieces and imitation stones.
Similar to today’s costume jewelry it added to the elegance of the pieces. Among the other materials used, the jewelers favored electrum, feldspar and steatite.
Gold Egyptian Necklace
While the necklace traditionally means “an ornamental chain or string of beads or jewels” that’s worn around the neck, the Egyptians elevated the gold necklace by adding pectoral pendants and amulets for protection. Representing animals, human beings and symbols, the amulets were especially prominent on those traveling to the afterlife. To create them, craftsmen within a workshop, would concoct the small beads, drill a hole in each, then thread them on papyrus string.
Commonly extending over the wearer’s collarbone to their bosom, they could be made using lapis lazuli, turquoise and malachite. When King Tutankhamen’s tomb was excavated a “falcon-shaped” pectoral pendant made out of gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian and glass was discovered on his mummified body. The bird, a standard Egyptian symbol, and mixture of stones exemplified King Tut’s social rank and class.
Special necklaces such as those with the “Eye of Horus” (wadjet, wedjat or udjat) were protective and shielded the wearer from malice, illness, and bad luck. A heart scarab, an amulet used to protect the heart when it left the body after death, was equally beneficial.
Silver Egyptian Necklace
Despite their preferences for gold, Egyptians did wear silver (hedj) partly because lunar deities Nefertem, Thoth and Isis, were worshipped for their connection to the moon and its powers. Scarce and intensely prized for its rarity, silver was used during the Middle Kingdom, its ratio to gold was 2:1. Initially when silver was used in Egypt it was actually a mixture of silver and gold, thereby a paler shade of gold.
An exception is a set of silver bangles, decorated with colorful stones and found in Hetepheres I’s tomb, and two beaded necklaces, found on Wah’s body in Thebes. Possibly imported from Mesopotamia, Cypress, Crete, Palestine and Syria. it was also battered flat for mirrored effects and blackened with Sulphur.
Compared to gold jewelry, silver jewelry was significantly lighter, was often referred to as “white gold”, and enhanced with carnelian, lapis lazuli and turquoise. Silver wasn’t the only material that was imported, because lapis lazuli actually came from Afghanistan.
Egyptian Collar Necklace
Elaborate collar necklaces, known as Usekh, Wasekh, and Shebyu, were worn by deities, pharaohs, illustrious families, clerics and other wealthy citizens to display their prominent status. Extending from the neckline (clavicle) to the bosom, they were commonly made out of gold and copper, then enhanced with expensive gems.
Among the most iconic pieces of Egyptian jewelry, they were usually worn for formal gatherings and as a stand-alone accoutrement. The thing that really distinguished the collars was their design. For instance, the Wasekh included a ring of cylinders and tubes and the Shebyu was created primarily out of gold. Two of the most beautiful collars ever discovered were the red and blue stone inlaid collar in King Tut’s tomb and Queen Ahhotpe’s Wesekh collar.
Laden with animals, abstract shapes and flora it was heavily Aegean. Due to the mind-boggling expense of making the collars they remained an adornment out of reach by the general public. Besides their beauty, they also had cultural and religious significance.
More complex, upon comparison, the simpler stringed necklaces were more attainable because they were less time consuming to produce, less expensive and more readily available to the masses. As popular, as the pottery and other funerary materials included upon burial, these necklaces were bestowed upon the deceased.
Egyptian Ankh Necklace
The Ankh, a sometimes contentious, but thoroughly fascinating symbol was believed to be the first cross, discovered by the Africans. It was also thought to be a fetish object with magical powers. When analyzed, the loop at the top represent the Sun at dawn and the vertical line, the pathway to the sun. Symbolically it represents life, reincarnation and eternity.
To prove they had power over life and death the Gods and Goddesses Anubis, Osiris, Ra, Isis, Ptah, Sobek, Tefnut, and Hathor carried them. Attached as an amulet, along with the “Eye of Horus”, to pared down necklaces of colorful beads and gold it was both exquisite and powerful.