Intricate intrigue

The craft of jewellery-making in Byzantium

Elena Lagoudi (opens in new window) (National Documentation Center / EKT)

It's hard to think of an empire that had a more resplendent tradition of jewellery than the Byzantine. For centuries, Byzantium reigned supreme and cultivated the arts, architecture and music together with a unique style of jewellery. Utilizing the splendour and wealth of Greece, Egypt and the Middle East, as well as parts of Russia and North Africa, Byzantine craftspeople created a unique style of jewellery.

In this period of prosperity, men, women and children alike wore bracelets, necklaces, body chains, rings and ornate earrings, coats of arms with heavy rings, decorated with symbolic words, or biblical scenes. Jewellery was a way to represent one’s social status in the Byzantine Era. So much so that Emperor Justinian decreed that some precious gems and stones such as emeralds, pearls, and rubies were for the exclusive use of the Emperor in a law called the Justinian code in 529 AD. The plebs were allowed to wear a golden ring but the Emperor presented diplomats, the military, and high-ranking officials with fine jewellery made by imperial craftsmen and personally selected by the Emperor himself.

With an abundance of gold mined from areas near Constantinople, artisans created luxurious gold pieces of jewellery combined with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, amethysts, lapis lazuli and other precious stones obtained from trading with India, Persia and the East.

Byzantines imbued gemstones with symbolic meaning. For example, pearls were believed to have come into existence when a lightning bolt struck an oyster shell. As pearls were rare and hard to acquire as they were imported from India, the Gulf and the Red Sea, their value and perception of power increased to an almost symbolic degree. Gems were indeed more important than gold in Byzantine times, and less effort was put into the craftsmanship of gold if the jewellery design was to include big gemstones. Glyptography (the art of carving gemstones) was also popular, with cameos and intaglios in the form of ring stones and pendants.

Coins were also used to make jewellery, a remnant of which can be found today in some Roma cultures. Seen as portable portraits of the emperor, these coins were often imbued with amuletic properties, such as protection against bad luck, illness and evil.

coin pendant, KNAW-DANS CC BY-NC-SA coin pendant, KNAW-DANS CC BY-NC-SA

Jewellery for Byzantine royals and the elaborate hierarchy of the court were both luxurious and symbolic. Only the best artisans in the court workshop crafted royal jewellery for the Byzantine Imperial family, not sharing the secrets of their techniques with anyone. As with all things Byzantium, the inspiration for the designs and creativity, in general, was thought to be divinely sent.

Byzantine jewellery made strong use of the Christian cross and other early religious symbols - Christian symbolism was the backbone of all aspects of Byzantine art. Some royal jewellery borrowed Roman and pagan iconography to emphasize a ruler's power. Hellenistic heroes or gods often appeared on Byzantine jewellery alongside Christian imagery. A necklace may have featured military trophies, political symbols or imperial insignia.

Byzantine goldsmiths used a variety of techniques to produce motifs on gold: repetitive motifs were embossed on gold with a dye, individual work was chased and fine detail was achieved by engraving with a fine-tipped tool. The Byzantine artisans were masters of highlighting such delicate details in relief with the use of niello (a black mixture used as an inlay on etched metal).

Opus interrasile, a kind of pierced openwork metalwork, which was popular in the Roman Empire, was used more elaborately and creatively by Byzantine artists.

From the 9th century onwards, the technique of cloisonné enamel was imported from the west only to be perfected and widespread, as it achieved polychromatic designs. Throughout the following centuries, Byzantine jewelry-making reached new heights of craftsmanship, achieving a historic pinnacle of ornate and opulent jewellery.

One can get an idea of the full effect of Byzantium’s rich, sumptuously decorated style by observing the mosaic of Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, especially the mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora and her entourage. Iconic and quite baroque, Byzantine glamour was rediscovered in the 20th century by Coco Chanel, who perhaps identified with Theodora who, starting out as an acrobat performer, rose to glory to become the Empress of Byzantium.

This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.