The Met is home to thousands of examples of jewelry from around the world. The earliest examples date back as far as 4,000 B.C., and the collection features works made throughout the centuries up to pieces produced just a few years ago.
Dating back to ancient Egypt, gold was a commodity controlled primarily by the king, but common Egyptians also owned gold jewelry featuring a range of wide range of prized stones as accents. The same goes for many cultures showcased within our collection—the finest and most ornate jewelry belonged to emperors, kings, and queens, but more simple versions were owned by individuals across the social strata, usually worn to symbolize marriage or wealth as well as for spiritual, magical, or religious purposes.
Similarly, jewelry holds a special place in the Museum’s collection of paintings, where portraits give evidence of the types of individuals who owned these exquisite objects. Others show us the individuals who made these objects, or who sold them. Through paintings, we can even uncover the complex mythologies behind jewelry through the ages.
Coral beads or small coral branches, for example, have been prized by numerous cultures due to their purported mystical properties, such as the ability to cure madness, bestow wisdom, or even prolong life. The early Christians believed that wearing coral was a sure way to protect children from harm.
Continue reading to discover the stories behind a few of our newest fine-jewelry introductions.
Jewelry as a status symbol: Bronzino Gold Ring
During the Renaissance, it was stylish for both men and women to wear a number of rings on each finger, including the thumb. Simple gold settings held a range of stones, including rubies, emeralds, diamonds, garnets, and topaz. Historically, rings rose to popularity because metal could be easily carved with engravings, like a family crest or royal heraldry, that could be used as a seal when pressed into clay or wax to establish ownership or authenticate legal documents. Over time, engravings would be carved into stones which were set in gold bezels on rings or other jewelry.
Our Bronzino Gold Ring was inspired by this 1530s Portrait of a Young Man. The subject of the painting is shown dressed in high fashion, and wearing one such pinky ring, which presumably features a ruby or garnet stone.
Jewelry for devotion: Virgin and Child Cameo Pendant Necklace
Cameo carving began in ancient Greece around the 4th century B.C. At this time, cameos were popularly carved from sardoyx, sourced in India—a result of expanded trade with the East during the rule of Alexander the Great. Cameos served many purposes, and in some cases were used as gifts to the gods or worn to display devotion to a specific god or goddess. By the 1st century B.C., cameos and other carved-stone jewelry became fashionable in Rome, and were famously collected by Julius Caesar. Many of these ancient examples were preserved in collections of nobility, royalty, and the church. Despite their non-religious iconography, some were even incorporated into religious shrines and other devotional objects.
In the medieval period, iconography depicted on cameos was almost exclusively religious. This example, thought to have been produced in a Burgundian court workshop, shows exceptional attention to detail and would have been part of a paternoster or rosary.
By the Renaissance, interest in ancient Greco-Roman art stimulated the interest of contemporary artists to create new cameo carvings, though antique designs were most highly prized by collectors. Renaissance designs so closely mirrored Greek and Roman designs that it is sometimes difficult, even for art historians, to distinguish them.
Modern interpretations: Scarpelli Mosaici
These pins, designed by Scarpelli Mosaici in Tuscany, draw inspiration from the Museum’s Barberini Cabinet. Designed between 1606–23, this ornate piece features the Barberini family coat of arms and scenes from Aesop’s Fables, in addition to papal and courtly symbols lavishly applied using the pietre dure technique, the inlay of colored stones to create images. The patron, named pope in 1623, hoped to be viewed as a patron of the arts and the cabinet reflects this; it features a revised family crest that reflects the time Barberini time spent in Paris as a young man.
Our pins are handmade using the same pietre dure technique, passed down through generations of artisans since the Italian Renaissance, and they feature hand-carved stones and a 24k gold overlay bezel.
Continue scrolling to discover more fine jewelry, available now at The Met Fifth Avenue.