Many ancient Egyptians were buried with their finest jewelry, leaving for the historians and the looters — as well as trendsetters through the centuries — pieces that have an otherworldly charm all their own.
“Egyptian jewelry is so moving to study because a lot of it had to do with a safe transport along the treacherous journey to the afterlife,” said Beth Carver Wees, a curator emerita who specializes in jewelry and silver at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “And maybe because of that, Egyptian Revival jewelry is a constant. The mystique has a great appeal.”
That appeal has flourished in different periods throughout history and has encompassed every type of jewelry and a broad variety of materials, reflecting the spiritual and mythical charms of Egyptian culture.
There have been earrings that honored Isis, the goddess of life and magic, with her colorful wings spread wide; the menat, a beaded necklace representing divine protection, worn only by pharaohs for their burials; rings and bracelets adorned with hieroglyphics; and earrings made with an early version of enameling. Many were made with tourmaline, the semiprecious gem that ancient Egyptians believed came from the center of the earth and could glide over rainbows.
“Ancient Egyptians had minimal tools but created sophisticated and detailed jewelry, and it was based on symbols that each had meaning and depth,” said Islam Khalil, a Cairo-based jewelry designer who has worked for years with his father, the jeweler Mohammed Khalil. “Each symbol is like a piece of art. They were the first people to adapt abstract art and translate it into jewelry.”
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When Napoleon stormed the country in the late 18th century, Egyptomania captured the imagination of the French and charmed England and Ireland during the Regency era of the early 19th century, particularly in architecture, the decorative arts and jewelry.
“The world has always been fascinated with Egyptian jewelry because it’s more colorful and detailed, and therefore completely different from Western jewelry, which can be very simplistic,” said Dina Maghawry, a jewelry maker in Cairo. “We are full of contradictions. The country is full of color. This is reflected in everything we do, from crafts to jewelry.”
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought a resurgence of Egyptian style. Suddenly, motifs that included sphinxes, pyramids, papyrus leaves, falcons and scarabs were everywhere, accented with lapis lazuli, obsidian and turquoise, which Egyptians believed would protect the wearer from negative energy.
A new kind of jewelry set often showcased such semiprecious gems. “The rise of the parure, a matched set of exotic jewelry, became popular across Europe around the 1830s at evening soirees,” Ms. Wees said. “And they weren’t expensive, per se. It often was more about amethyst than diamonds.”
Perhaps the most pervasive period of Egyptian influence in art, fashion and jewelry came about in the 1920s, when the rise of Art Deco coincided with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, 100 years ago this autumn. Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, and Tiffany & Company, among others, produced jewelry to match the mania. Movie stars and other celebrities joined the trend, including Cole Porter’s wife, Linda, who had a belt buckle made by Cartier that looked like something straight out of Tut’s tomb: a lapis blue scarab set between faience turquoise wings and surrounded with sapphires and diamonds.
Costume jewelers such as Whiting & Davis and Lisner cashed in on the Tut phenomenon, creating quite a stir in the non-luxury market that continued for decades.
Then, in the early 1960s, Joseff of Hollywood provided dozens of pieces of costume jewelry for Elizabeth Taylor’s turn as “Cleopatra.” Since the filming, some of the jewelry (including a serpent belt accented with a green gem, custom made for the actress) was tucked away at the Joseff workroom, in a warehouse near Los Angeles.
Certainly the popularity of Egyptian motifs has recurred through history, perhaps part of reaching back — way back — to the past for a bit of time-travel wanderlust.
“I’m sure people have studied why we have revivals of certain styles of jewelry and fashion, but I suspect it’s about longing for the glory days of history,” Ms. Wees said. “Who knows, the current state of the world could make us long for past cultures and all of their wonderful jewelry.”