In the centuries after Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman empire, moved the imperial capital to Byzantium in 330 A.D., what historians call the Byzantine Empire flourished. The empire’s great wealth and huge breadth created a high demand for luxurious artworks, and provided rich sources of both raw materials and artistic influences to draw on.
Jewelry was especially coveted throughout the empire. In 526 A.D., the emperor Justinian addressed the subject of jewelry and rank in his famous Justinian Code of laws—a measure of the importance of such adornments in this society. Gemstones were reserved for the highest echelon, with sapphires, called hyakinthoi (hyacinths), an especial sign of luxury.
Byzantine jewelry makers built on the techniques of ancient Greek and Roman artisans as they created ever more dazzling pieces. With the opus interrasile technique, goldsmiths pierced thin, elaborately patterned sheets of gold, creating mesmerizing interplays of light and shadow. Delicate, finely wrought chains connected pendants and drops, for a truly dramatic effect.
Multicolored, or polychrome, jewelry was very popular in the Byzantine world, attested to by representations of aristocratic patrons and the gorgeous pieces that survive from the era. The luminous small crosses worked in pearls and gems that hang from an exquisite necklace in The Met collection display both the faith and wealth of the owner.
This fall, The Met Store has looked to the extraordinary achievements of Byzantium for much its new jewelry. Our Byzantine Bead and Circle Collection pays tribute to the innovative designs of ancient artisans. Using gold, semiprecious stones, and cutting-edge production, our Byzantine Gems Collection reinterprets the luxurious aesthetic of this intriguing world.