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​From Currency to Costume: How Gemstones Were Used in the Roman Empire

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The Romans established trade routes and colonies through the ancient world, with an empire extending throughout Europe, into Northern Africa, west into Egypt, and down through the Mediterranean.

These territories were filled with precious metals and stones, making the Romans the first to create valuable jewelry sourced from throughout the world at the time. Because of their access to other cultures and places, they created a unique style with worldly influence and design.

The ancient Romans displayed their wealth ostentatiously and adored jewelry, using it to make fashion statements and advertise social status with precious and semi-precious stones. They reigned for about 2,000 years and took their inspiration from neighbors and the lands they ruled, so it’s a little unfair to give them complete credit—but let’s say the Romans made fashion global.

In some cases, their jewelry was used as currency or—vice versa—currency was worn as jewelry. Women wore a variety of adornments, often very large and colorful, while men almost always used one ring. The pieces were generally gold with precious and semi-precious gems, including diamond, garnet, opal, carnelian, pearl, emerald, turquoise, amber, and amethyst brought in from all over the world.

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Brief Evolution

While we do think of Roman jewelry as being gold, it didn't start that way. In early Rome, gold was used for trading and warfare and was extremely scarce. Its use for adornment and vanity was discouraged. Ornamentation was not of value in this period in Rome.

It was in Imperial Rome we began to see the fashion we now associate with the region and era. The rise of the empire was the first time in Western history that precious jewelry became common. Rome was mostly done with warfare, having established its empire and, thus, considerable wealth, and was influenced by Greek jewelry, which was heavy on gold.

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Style inspiration may come from across the empire and, while gold is decidedly Hellenic, the use of hard gemstones was inspired by Etruscans (who were inspired by Egyptians before them). The Etruscans used sapphire and garnet beads as far back as the eighth century BC in Tuscany and then this moved throughout Italy.

With this influence, Roman jewelers drilled holes directly into gemstones but later began shaping and sizing the gems and attaching them into settings with adhesives, using the modern style we still use today. This was back in 700 B.C., using rudimentary tools instead of the highly detailed computer programs and expensive technical machinery we know now.

By the end of the empire, styles became more sophisticated and the pyramid setting for diamond rings was created.

By the first century, styles had changed from the simple, somewhat functional designs to a taste for luxury and displays of wealth that are noted by archaeologists and historians and might be one of the first periods of Westerners putting vanity over financial stability!

In one story, a man named Charinus wears six rings on each finger and never takes them off because he has no box in which to store them—implying they are rented. This Roman styling has even been called the Bvlgari of its time for its detail and luxury—Bvlgari being the third largest jeweler in the world. Bvlgari is now based in Rome but was originally Greek.

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Materials Used

Interestingly, the gems we consider precious today were not the most popular for use in the Roman Empire. In fact, gems we consider much less valuable and desirable were preferred in this period.

The modern semi-precious, affordable, and widely available carnelian was a favorite of the Roman Empire. Gold and, occasionally, silver were the metals used, and the gems were inlaid into the jewelry.

Persian pearls were combined with Egyptian emeralds and peridots, and other Persian gemstones like jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, and carnelian beads, usually in necklaces and earrings. Interestingly, pearls had an exceptionally high value because they were thought to be the heart of the oyster.

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Amber was a much-loved choice and the “Amber Route” was established to move the gemstone from the Baltic region throughout the entire empire. One expedition during Nero’s reign came back with so much amber that they built a gladiator stage from it.

Romans were a slave-owning culture and brought stolen people back from these trips. Amber was so highly valued that a small carving of it would be priced higher than the slaves.

Gold wasn’t the only setting used. Bronze and iron were often used on lower-end jewelry and, instead of gemstones, Roman glass and bone beads were sometimes used. There was also jet, or fossilized wood, which could be a place setting or used as a bead.

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Signet Rings

The wax seals and rubber stamps we still sometimes use today for formal letters originated from signet rings used in Ancient Rome as far back as the first century A.D. These pieces are the most emblematic of Roman culture and still carry significance today, both for their original function and as jewelry.

Men customarily wore one ring, gold inlaid with a precious stone—usually carnelian—with their insignia embedded into it. Whenever a man needed to sign a formal document, he sealed it with wax, using the carving in his ring as his identifier.

The carving was a family crest or some symbolism of his status in society and was called an intaglio. This is where the term “seal of approval” originates.

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These rings were smaller than what we wear today because they were worn before the knuckle, making it easier to bend the finger at the joint for use as a stamp. Carnelian was usually the gem of choice because semi-precious stones are softer and easier to carve, and hot wax does not adhere to carnelian.

Garnet was also used in signet rings, though wax adheres more to it. Though often similar in color, garnet typically has a more blood red tint than the orange of carnelian, and garnet is more glassy and translucent.

Men were expected to wear a ring, and only one ring, so they became large, ornate pieces with flashy flourishes. Eventually, men could wear other pieces—sometimes other rings, a brooch, or cloak fastener.

The braggadocio got to men, too, eventually, and they became flashier, wearing the rings on all ten fingers. Later, as ring-wearing fell out of practice for men, wax seals continued to be important for sealing documents and making official signatures, and people began using handheld stamps.

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Styles

Men typically wore very simple styles with less flashy gems and less shine but, as the fashion went on and wealth of the empire grew, that changed. The larger it was, the more important the person was—often a senator or other bureaucrat. Plebeians, or common people, could only wear iron unless they were awarded gold rings for bravery or state service.

Roman women always had a choice of what adornments to wear, choosing among earrings, rings for fingers and toes, necklaces, hair pins, and brooches. Usually, archaeologists easily can tell the difference in male and female jewelry because of its function and design—ladies’ pieces were very detailed and attention-grabbing, while men’s pieces were more conservative and reserved.

This wasn’t always the case, with men’s styles eventually having become flashier. Women in lower status positions coveted jewelry, too, but chose less intricacy and design. These societal changes came about because of relaxed rules with a new ruler—Justinian I was much more lenient about jewelry than Augustus.

The hoop and drop or chandelier earrings that are still so popular originated with Etruscans and were spread by the Romans. The coiling snake bracelet that is still worn today was inspired by Egyptians (who wore it on their upper arm) but became popular for Romans because it symbolized immortality.

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Brooches are no longer a very popular item, but they have been recently enough that we all know what they are—these decorative pins weren’t decorative in the time of the Romans. Because Romans draped material instead of tailoring to fit each body, the loose fabric was kept in place with intricate brooches, often with fine gem placements or carving into soft semi-precious stone.

And then there was the jewelry of young boys. From birth, boys wore bulla—amulets to protect from the evil eye and formed in the shape of a phallic symbol.

Brooches, like signet rings, became somewhat of a collector’s item in ancient Rome, being made in different shapes and sizes. New brooches were made for every festival, and there were well over one hundred festivals in a year!

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Jewelry as Currency

Jewelry was a status symbol in Ancient Rome, so gems were often traded for other items of value. As mentioned, gems were sometimes placed at a higher value than even human life, and a semi-precious stone might have been traded for one.

Coins were also often made into currency. This was sometimes to flash the amount of money one had. Other times it was because a woman wanted jewelry and had to use the resources available because the family could not afford the settings. Coin rings were popular, carrying the portrait of the ruling Emperor.

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Though Romans were usually the purchasers of gems and precious metals, they produced at least one valued by other cultures. Often, they traded Indian pearls for red coral from the Mediterranean. In India and China, red coral was used for adornment and medicinal purposes.

Jewelry is often found in ancient Roman temples as well, indicating it was offered as currency to their gods in spiritual practices.

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Jewelry as Social Status

Rings often signified a marriage, such as is common now or, for men, it could also indicate he had served in battle or service to the state. The insignia rings would often signify which powerful family he belonged to.

While we speak much of gold and silver, lower class women wore jewelry, too, and couldn't afford such fine metals. Their pieces were often made of bronze or other cheap metals, and mass production using molds began in order to keep the cost low. The creative use of color was preferred over metalwork, and colored glass was sometimes used instead of gems, introducing the world to costume jewelry.

For lower class women, less rare jewels such as opal beads and garnet beads were often strung with glass beads, so their jewels still had some value and were as flashy as the rest of society’s adornments.

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Roman Jewelry and Gender

Men wore less jewelry than women, but it wasn't just fashion; there was a social and economic significance to this. Women pierced their ears and, so, wore earrings daily, and then wore necklaces, bracelets, and rings with them, among other items.

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Jewelry was considered to be a woman's wealth and was independent of her husband’s property. She could sell, barter, buy, or bequeath the jewels and keep the profits herself. Therefore, it was a currency for women not used by men, thus giving her some independence.

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Conclusion

Roman gemstone use and jewelry have a fascinating history. Jewelry fashions brought in a variety of styles from different cultures along its trade routes and within its colonies, and focused less on metalwork and more on color.

Coins were used to create jewelry, in some instances, but it could also be used as currency— trading coral for pearls, barters, offerings to deities, and, in most cases, as investments for women who did not own other property.

The Roman influence on current jewelry stylings is clear and, in fact, it's interesting to note that we still use gemstones as currency and investment, and often the same ones—though definitions of precious and semi-precious stones have flip-flopped. In most cases, the gems the Romans used as investments are the now semi-precious rocks that are wiser to hold onto for value increase in modern times.

It was also the first display of costume jewelry, as it became a social symbol in a culture consumed by wealth. In this manner, we are still wearing Roman influence today. Also, the popular signet ring and personalized stamps for legal authentication evolved from Roman customs in jewelry.

Gemstones that are now considered most valuable, such as diamonds and emeralds, were not preferred over carnelian and garnet and other semi-precious stones. This was because now-precious gems are harder than semi-precious gems, and the softer jewels were drilled for fitting onto metal jewelry pieces, shaped with rudimentary tools to place into settings, or directly carved into.

Roman gem use and styling evolved in a short period, almost as much as it has evolved in the entire time since the empire fell. The Romans created, in the end, a classic and timeless fashion we still covet today.

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