The term “ancient” can include everything from Egypt to Etruscan and Phoenician to Greece, literally thousands of years of history. Here we are concerned primarily with Hellenistic and Imperial Rome. The Hellenistic age extends from c. 325 B.C. until the inauguration of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.; and Imperial Rome thereafter until the reign of Constantine from c. 306-327 and the Sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric.
Both gold (from extensive new mining operations) and precious stones (from new trade routes) were plentiful during the Hellenist Age, and jewelry was highly prized as conveying social status. Multicolored gemstones were in frequent use, chalcedonies, cornelians, and above all garnets (from India). Seed pearls, emeralds, and amethysts also are found by the first and second centuries B.C. While Hellenistic jewelry much imitated Greek prototypes, some forms originate during this era, and they include the Heracles knot that remained popular through Roman times and the hinged ring.
At first, Roman rings of the Imperial period were relatively simple, but by the first century the taste for luxury and displays of wealth was much noted by Roman writers. Martial and other critics of Roman society parodied the newly rich (see Spier 2012, p. 12). One of his epigrams ridicules the dandy Charinus, who wears six rings on each finger and never takes them off because he does not have a gem case (implying that he does not own them they are rented). In Petronius’s Satyricon, Fortunata the wife of a former slave is mocked for wearing at least “six and half pounds on her” during a banquet. These accounts speak to the wide availability of jewelry during this era. Among the new forms, the new pierced openwork in gold (opus interrasile) is worth noting. By the later Roman Empire, especially the third through fifth centuries, Roman jewelry becomes more sophisticated: among the forms that date from this time are double- and triple- bezel rings, as well as the pyramid setting.
A certain amount of information survives concerning the making of jewelry in antiquity. Jewelry is almost always described by weight and if there are stones the weight without the stones is given. These weights are closely related to those of coinage, so customers may have supplied coins to itinerant or shop-based craftsmen. There were certainly guilds in Roman times. We also suspect that children worked as jewelers and engravers; there is a tombstone of a 19 year old gem engraver known. Archeological finds reveal that shops surrounding the marketplace belonged to retail traders dealing with the local market; there are transfer and rental agreements for jewelry shows (see Ogden 1982, p. 177). The shop of one jeweler was only 5 feet by 4 feet in size, much like artisan’s workshops throughout the medieval era. Certainly itinerant goldsmiths must also have existed.
A Funerary Relief of the bust of Aththaia from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts bears a Greek inscription “Aththaia, daughter of Malchos, Happy One, Farewell.” Dating c. 150-200 A.D. this sculpture is one of a large corpus of stone statuary from Palmyra in modern-day Syria that date from the first through the third centuries and are scattered in museums throughout the world. Most of the reliefs show the figures, both men and women, wearing elaborate costumes and adorned with extensive jewelry.
Aththaia is dressed in a full tunic with a cloak-like garment that covers her head as a veil. She wears an engraved diadem, strings of pearls in her hair, and elaborate pendant earrings that extend from pierced earlobes. She is also adorned with two necklaces, two bracelets, a large circular brooch, and three rings. It is the rings that interest us here. The little finger of her left hand displays two gemstone rings, likely set with oval stones such as carnelians (whether they are further embellished with engraving is not possible to tell). The fourth finger of her right hand sports a larger ring that appears to be a key-type ring with a projecting bezel. Sources from Antiquity through the Middle Ages record the practice of wearing marriage or love rings on the fourth finger, because a “certain vein … has its origin in the heart and runs from there to the finger next to the little finger of the left hand” (Macrobius, Saturnalia, VII.13.8). There is reason to believe that key-type rings signified the status of married women – hence the practice of wearing them on this finger as suggested by the relief.
Further reading on Palmyra Funerary Reliefs, see
Andrew M. Smith II, Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation, Oxford University Press, 2013; and D. MacKay, “The Jewellery of Palmyra and its Significance,” in Iraq, XI, no. 2 (1949), pp. 160-187.