Reimagining ancient jewellery for the modern collector

From a talk given at Goldsmiths’ Fair with jewellery historian Dr Jack Ogden; Director of Kallos Gallery, Beth Morrow; and Goldsmiths’ Fair exhibitor Jean Scott-Moncrieff.

Looking to the past for influence and inspiration is not a new phenomena, but it is one that unfailingly captures imaginations as cultures change their understanding and use of materials, technology and style. The wonderful thing about precious metal, in particular gold, is that it persists – “it’s what makes it a wonderful thing to study” – says jewellery historian Dr Jack Ogden. There is something universal about its appeal and allows unseen avenues into not just personal decoration and ornamentation but also wider meanings about the society in which the piece of jewellery was made – especially when it comes to design.

Some ancient pieces for example might not be obviously decorative such as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – which are unchanged in meaning – but actually they allow us to view how a jeweller would set about making something like this and the skill required to perfectly position and scale elements of the hieroglyph. There are also repeating motifs, patterns and influence – the Romans for example were the greatest of Hellenophiles and some design was cross purposed for use on coinage as well as decorative jewellery.

Surveying the scene of what ancient jewellery stands for today, there are four main categories according to Dr Ogden: Fraudsters and organised crime; people who replicate ancient jewellery with the intent to copy and not deceive; modern enthusiast jewellers who replicate details and techniques; and jewellers who incorporate ancient ideas into their own work. Goldsmiths’ Fair exhibitor Jean Scott-Moncrieff offers a way to access how a modern artisan maker borrows from the ancient world.

Twisted olive leaves by Jean Scott-Moncrieff

It was on a family holiday to Volterra, Italy where Jean first discovered the wonders of Etruscan jewellery making – particularly chains, for which she is now known. “The materials and tools they had were so basic but they created such finely made objects,” she says. “When I started making in the 1980s my pieces were different to what others were doing; there was a lot of wonderful, figurative work but I was just absorbed with these beautiful ancient techniques; I sought out other people who knew how to make these chains and became fascinated with the process.”

“…colour and texture are such important aspects of capturing the essence of ancient jewellery”

Jean says she is influenced by forms of early gold work and emphasises how the colour and texture is such an important aspect of capturing part of this ancient quality. As Jean comments: “polishing is by hand if at all; I roll gold through rolling mills and with watercolour paper to achieve a subtle matt finish.” Dr Ogden points out that some ancient gold has texture because it was hammered between papyrus, so the use of Jean’s watercolour paper circles back to this ancient practice.

“Colour is also so important,” says Jean, “I alloy some of my own gold such as 18 carat ‘green’ gold which is ¾ pure gold and ¼ pure silver – one of the most important things though is that my work is hallmarked so the quantity of each has to be right to meet the standard required.” Ancient makers of course wouldn’t need to meet the stringent quality assurance of the Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office, so the alloys could be a lot more flexible from maker to maker and region to region. But one thing that persists in Jean’s work and resonates in ancient examples is how the simplicity of form belies a complex and time-consuming process – which can easily escape a consumer’s eye.

In few other styles can the skills of the historic artisan be used to make the hand of the modern maker more obvious and more valued – it is a lineage of handmaking skills that runs deeper than may first appear and adds weight to the value of artisan craftspeople as custodians for skills that may have otherwise disappeared. Becoming guardians for the products of these skills and capturing the essence of appealing to consumers who want an explicit connection with ancient styles is something Beth Morrow of Kallos Gallery knows all too well.

A Roman chromium chalcedony intaglio of Venus Victrix set in an antique gold ring (c) Kallos Gallery

Kallos help recontextualise ancient artefacts by providing them with new settings and clearer ornamental purpose. As Beth says: “The jewellery we offer is a more affordable and accessible way to engage with genuine ancient artefacts and the joy of collecting – compared to Greek marble or vases – we all understand and love jewellery just as the ancients did.”

Repurposing ancient jewellery in both technique and direct celebration speaks of a shared appreciation of an aesthetic that only gets better with age. As Jean puts it: “My hope is that my jewellery brings pleasure to the wearer and looks as good in 1,000 years’ time.”

See more from the talks programme here

Dr Jack Ogden is a leading jewellery historian specialising in the study of ancient gold and gemstones, and is considered one of the foremost experts in his field. He is the current President of The Society of Jewellery Historians, and was appointed Visiting Professor of Ancient Jewellery, Material and Technology at the Birmingham School of Jewellery in 2019.

Beth Morrow is a Director at Kallos Gallery, specialising in Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Western Asiatic and European artefacts. The gallery was founded in 2014 by Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza and regularly shows at renowned, international fairs including Masterpiece LondonFrieze Masters and TEFAF.

Jean Scott-Moncrieff is a regular Goldsmiths’ Fair exhibitor whose work is influenced by artefacts from ancient Mediterranean cultures. She uses traditional hand tools and techniques, high carat gold and old cut gemstones, cabochons and beads to create beautiful contemporary jewellery.

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