An Artisan’s Work: Material and Decorative Processes

Limited Technological Development Overtime:

Though the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire spanned over multiple centuries, the material processes used by artisans to make jewelry pieces did not change too drastically over the course of time (Higgins, 11). The foundations of the processes and tools used to create fineries did not greatly develop; the main differences between the jewelry in the Roman Republic and Empire lie within the actual function of the jewelry pieces. Of course, styles, attitudes and preferences changed overtime, just like fashion trends in the modern world.

Metals:

Bronze, gold and silver were the most common metals the Romans used to make jewelry pieces. A large portion of these metals were imported from other regions; gold was supplied to the Romans by the town of Noricum, The Pennine Alps in Italy, Spain, Gaul, Britain, Arabia and Bactria, as well as the Egyptians during the Roman Empire. Most of Rome’s silver was provided by Sardinia, Spain, and Asia Minor. Unfortunately, due to its “perishable nature,” very few silver artifacts remain, though historians believe it was used as frequently as gold in antiquity (Higgins, 10).

Tools: Similar to Modern Day

  • Anvils of metal or stone
  • Hammers “for beating sheet metal and driving punches and tracers of different shapes and sixes”
  • Stamps
  • Cores
  • Molds (“for beating and for casting”
  • Engraving tools and chisels (normally made of stone or iron)
  • Tongs
  • Abrasives
  • Burnishing stones
    IMG_0050
    An example of a “stamp” that would have been used by Ancient Roman craftsman to create metal imprints.
  • Scales
  • Pottery Crucibles (Higgins, 11)

Wire:

Wire was a vital tool for craftsman in Ancient Rome, and it was created by “twisting a block of metal until it was more or less round in a section” and then moving it back and forth between two plates made from stone or bronze (Higgins, 15).

Artisans also hammered blocks of metal to produce a similar output of wire. For decorative purposes, they would twist two or more wires together. Out of these thin metals, craftsman could produce chains or links that could be used for necklaces, earrings, etc. Chains were simply made of “links connected using wire” and there were many different types; the simple chain, the loop in loop, the upset chain (Higgins, 16).

Casting:

Casting was a technique used in the Ancient World that involved the creation of molds to produce different pieces of jewelry. Jewelry was not typically cast from “precious metals,” but historians have found soft stone molds that have survived from Ancient Rome. These molds were used to cast items like rings, earrings, bracelets and fibulae (Higgins 18).

 

Decorative Processes:

All decorative processes, which refers to the acts of turning metals into actual pieces, involves either the addition of the same metal used as a base, the addition a new substance, or the removal of a piece of the metal foundation (Higgins, 19).

~When adding the same metal, different methods were implemented by the Ancient Romans.

  1. The “soldering on of ornaments” (also referred to as colloid hard soldering) is a technique that involves joining two pieces of metal with different melting points together, causing them to bond (Higgins, 20).This is achieve by “running between them a molten metal or alloy (the solder)  where the melting point of one piece is lower than that to which it’s being joined” (Higgins, 31).
  2. Filigree is a process where “wires are soldered in patterns on a [metal] background” or foundation (Higgins, 19).
  3. Granulation is the act of “making patterns with minute grains of gold soldered” to a metal foundation. This technique was heavily used in the early periods of Ancient Rome (Higgins, 20).

~When adding a new substance or metal to the previously existing metal base, the Romans used several different techniques:

  1. Enamel refers to “colored glass that is fused to a metallic base” (Higgins, 24). Bronze was the most common metal that was enameled in Rome, though silver and gold were occasionally practiced. Usually, “strips of metal were bent to form decorative patterns” and then placed onto the foundation of “heated glass.” more popular Brooches were often made using the enamel process (Higgins, 26).
  2. Inlay is a a process where pieces of glass or stones are “cut to shape and cemented in cells.” These cells are produced by soldering strips of metal to the foundation. A variety of materials and inlays were “frequently set in small clusters” to produce a piece of jewelry (Higgins, 27).

~When removing metal to produce different types of imprints, ancient craftsmen used varying methods:

  1. Engraving
  2. Carving
  3. Piercing is a method that involves the creation of  “patterns by cutting out a portion of a gold sheet (or different metal) with a chisel.” This process is referred to by the Latin name of opus interrasile (Higgins, 32).

~Aside from soldering, different metal pieces were joined together b y the processes of folding, welding, and riveting, which is the attachment of wires or ribbons (Higgins, 31).

 

Stones:

When jewelers of the modern world  look back at Ancient Roman pieces, the stones seem unimpressive in comparison to today’s standards. Most gems were “rough and uncut,” and the Romans’ use of metals like gold and silver far more extraordinary (Oliver, 269).

Gems were widely desired by wealthy Romans, and most of the following were native to foreign regions and cost exorbitant amounts of money to import.

  • Diamonds
  • Sapphires
  • Topaz
  • Aquamarine
  • Chrysolite (peridot)
  • Citrine
  • Emerald
  • Garnet
  • Jasper
  • Lapis
  • Pearl
  • Sardonyx
  • Turquoise

~Pearls:

Pearls were a luxury gem, and became available to elite Romans towards the end of the Republic. Because of their rarity and foreignness, they were incredibly high in cost and were a symbol of substantial wealth (Kunst, 137). Pearls were exclusively reserved for matrons, and were closely linked with maternity and fertility; brides were an exception, for it symbolized their “future roles as mother” (Kunst, 138). Childless-empresses also ignored the rule, for they had access to any desired gem regardless of sumptuary laws. The adoration of pearls was so strong in Ancient Rome that women who were not supposed to own them resulted to wearing them “hidden in tiny boxes around their necks” (Kunst, 138).

 

 

Click here to find out why jewelry and ornamentation was so controversial in Ancient Rome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Suggested Readings:

Higgins, Reynold Alleyne. 1980. Greek and Roman Jewellery. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kunst, Christiane. 2005. Ornamenta Uxoria. Badges of Rank or Jewellery of Roman Wives? The Medieval History Journal 8 (1): 127-42.

Oliver, Andrew. 1966. “Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Jewelry”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 24 (9). The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 269–84. doi:10.2307/3258219.