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  : : Roman Gem Stone Jewelry

Ancient Roman Gem Stone Jewelry

Colosseum Rome / Italy
Colosseum Rome / Italy

The Roman Empire was vast and full of different materials and resources making it possible to produce beautiful intricate jewelry. Established trade routes and contact with many different cultures throughout Europe, Egypt, North  Africa and the Mediterranean enabled Romans to incorporate these styles, designs and gemstones with their own jewelry and their own designs.

Their immense wealth enabled the Romans to produce highly ostentatious jewelry incorporating the precious and semi-precious stones obtained from the different areas of their Empire. This meant large, colorful jewelry using precious emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires and the whole range of semi-precious gemstones including Garnets, Jet, Topaz, Pearls and Amber.

Orange Carnelian Ring
Orange Carnelian Ring
This ring depicts the Goddess Victoria, the Goddess of Victory dated 100BC – 150AD

Roman men would usually wear just a single ring, however this was not the case in the early first and second centuries when rings were often worn on all ten fingers although predominantly in front of the knuckle, not behind it as in modern usage. Hence many Roman rings seem small for modern fingers. The gem stones used were usually Cabochons of Garnet, purple Amethyst Quartz or orange Carnelians. The historical evidence and archaeology shows that Carnelian, an orange color form of quartz, was one of the most favored gemstones for the Romans.

The Snettisham Hoard
The Snettisham Hoard

A great example from history of the popularity of orange Carnelian gem stones in mens rings was found in Snettisham, Norfolk, England during building work in 1985.
Dating from the second century AD and known as "The Snettisham Jeweller’s hoard" it consisted of hundreds of finished rings and unmounted carnelian gemstones found inside a narrow-necked roman pot, hidden by a Roman jeweler in a moment of crisis, probably meaning to come back later and recover it but for what ever reason, never did.

The Snettisham gemstones
The Snettisham gem stones

Scrap silver, ingots, a few pieces of scrap gold, and a quartz burnishing tool all indicate that this was a real jewelers work shop, albeit a 2000 year old business!
Interestingly, a bracelet made by the jeweller had to be bent to fit inside the jar, and had subsequently broken.

There are 117 engraved Carnelian gems, awaiting setting in suitable rings. Some had already been mounted when the jeweler had to hide his stash.

Roman rings worn by soldiers and civilians and lost whilst bathing in the warm springs at Bath, England were discovered recently.
The Romans had a number of different adhesives they used, some of the most common being resin and bitumen. However one characteristic that they all had in common is that sooner or later, they tended to fail. It seems that even the great Roman generals, Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius (Mark Anthony) and Maximus, occasionally threw out the baby with the bath water.

The Roman Stones of Bath / UK
The Roman Stones of Bath / UK

The Roman stones lost from the rings of soldiers and civilians whilst bathing in the warm springs in Bath, England.

Mark  Antony was very fond of gem stones and often gave them to Cleopatra. On one such famous occasion he tried to purchase a large and beautiful Opal from a Roman Senator called Marcus Nonius to woo Cleopatra. Marcus was either in the dog house and
in serious trouble with Cleopatra or perhaps it was to celebrate a special occasion, because he offered a vast fortune for the Opal.  However, such was the beauty of the Opal that Nonius refused and he was given an ultimatum by the furious Mark Anthony, either he sell the ring or he GETS OUT OF TOWN Rome. Nonius chose to leave Rome and keep the Opal.

Roman Ring
Roman Ring

Romans wore rings for many different reasons. Betrothal, status, decoration, even for sealing and authenticating documents with their individual identification engraved on the gem stone signet ring. Hence the phrase "seal of approval".
The Signet ring would hold a gem stone, usually a semi-precious stone as these were softer and enabled intricate carvings. Carnelian was an excellent choice of stone because hot wax, used for making an imprint of the seal,  does not stick to Carnelian. These carved gem stone rings were called "intaglio" meaning to carve, cut or incise. Preferred stones were quartz such as Chalcedony or Onyx.

Apart from rings, fibula, were common jewelry throughout Roman history. A fibula was a decorated clothing accessory resembling a large safety pin that was used as a clothing fastener. The fibula was often embellished with a Garnet intaglio (also called a cameo) of a female bust or a winged Victory emblem.

Emerald and Pearl Necklace from the ruins of Pompeii
Emerald and Pearl Necklace from the ruins of Pompeii

Pearls from the Persian Gulf were a popular gemstone used in ancient Roman jewelry, which were combined with Emerald and Peridot from Egypt, and Carnelian, Jasper, Lapis lazuli and Onyx from Persia.

Pearls from the Persian Gulf were favoured by ladies to be worn as necklaces and earrings.

Roman earring with Pearls and Emeralds
Roman earring

Pearls and Emeralds in a Roman Gold earring found in Jerusalem dated 200AD. (photo left)

Whereas Roman men would restrict their jewelry to a single ring and a fibula, Roman women had a choice of jewelry and wore earrings, necklaces, finger and toe rings, brooches and hair pins. A lot of the ladies jewelry found by archeologists is intricate and beautiful.

Roman Gold earrings

Roman Gold earrings with Red Garnet Gem stones found intact in Cologne dated 150AD

Amber was another favorite gemstone of the Romans who established the "Amber Route" to transport the gems from Gdansk, which had become the center of amber production, to Roman cities throughout the Empire. During Emperor Nero’s reign an expedition to the Baltic brought back so much Amber that an entire gladiator stage was built from it. The Romans  valued amber even more than the fair-haired Baltic slaves, who harvested it and were also brought back to Rome!
Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and philosopher said at the time, 23-79AD, that the price of a small single piece of Amber sculpture was worth more than a healthy slave.

The Roman Empire 753BC-476AD showed us how to use precious and semi-precious gems to make beautiful jewelry, but they were not the only ancient civilization to do this. The Greeks and Egyptians also used natural gems to make wonderful jewelry.


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  • First Published: August-31-2011
  • Last Updated: August-20-2012
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