Ancient Egypt influenced much of European culture and style. It particularly impacted the perception of jewellery and moved European appreciation away from just gold and silver to coloured gemstones. Specially interesting is the story of how the opening of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun sparked the development of the art deco movement in jewellery.
Between 1798 and 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte launched a military campaign in Egypt and Syria, ostensibly to protect French trade interests in the area, undermine British access to India and establish scientific enterprise in the region. Despite initial victories, Napoleon and his Armeed’Orient were forced to retreat by the British, who among other things defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.
Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign triggered an interest in ancient Egyptian culture, which later developed into an obsession termed “Egyptomania.” European and American scholars returning home brought back with them many ancient artefacts that were displayed in museums and caused a great stir of interest. What primarily sparked the imagination was the coloured jewellery, which gave birth to European interpretations of the Egyptian style.
Despite being adapted to conform to modern fashion, this jewellery was full of common Egyptian symbols and imitated ancient decoration techniques, to an extent that they looked more “Egyptian” than the originals. Many collectors and adventurers travelled to Egypt and found there a plethora of antiques available for purchase. That is how many scarabs made their way to Europe, as their diminutive size made them easy to transport.
However, at the end of the 18th century, public interest was focused primarily on the Classical Greek and Roman cultures. It was only in the mid-19th century that the Egyptian style began to exert a profound influence on the jewellery industry. In 1859, the funerary coffin of Queen Ah-Hotpe was discovered, which contained some of her gold jewellery. As historians were busy examining the find, jewellers were busy at work.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought Egypt anew into the public consciousness. At that stage, the revival of Egyptian jewellery focused on gold jewels, in accordance with the archaeological finds of the time. There were very few attempts made to replicate the sophisticated ancient techniques and colours. The main focus was on substituting out the familiar motifs of Victorian jewellery. Deer heads and lotuses were replaced with a Sphinx or scarab, alongside the use of granulation, filigree, and metal-wire weaving.
Scarab-inlaid jewellery became particularly popular in Victorian England. Ancient scarabs were used frequently in modern Egyptian-styled jewellery, considerably increasing their value and public interest in them.
The second most common Egyptian amulet, after the scarab, was the wedjat eye – the eye of Horus – that was thought to protect against misfortune. Additional significant symbols and motifs were the holy cobra, considered a symbol of power and protector of the king; the falcon, a symbol of Horus and the ruling king; and the lotus, which represented renewal. These magically-endowed symbols, as well as the deep and brilliant colours were the main features that were borrowed and stunningly incorporated into the dramatic Egyptian-inspired jewellery of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1875, Britain bought Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal. In 1882, the country became a British protectorate, and the Egyptian Exploration Society was established. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, in 1922, by the British archeologist Howard Carter, brought forth a great wave of interest in ancient Egyptian culture. This phenomenon was apparent in many fields such as cinema, fashion, jewellery, and architecture — and it greatly influenced the development of the art deco style.
The decorative motifs found in Tutankhamun’s tomb rocked the design world: a new form of Egyptian-inspired jewellery developed, particularly in Europe. Jewellers did not seek to copy ancient Egyptian techniques or their complicated settings. Rather they interpreted the colour schemes in enamel, and added modern scarabs, made of resilient stones. Gold-plated silver replaced the original rich gold, but the use of lapis-lazuli, turquoise and carnelian was maintained, although in a less ostentatious way than in the originals.
Authenticity became secondary to visibility. The style, drama, and atmosphere that produced the overall effect created by the jewellery was the standard indicator of success. In this case, the actual shape of the object is only slightly, if at all, similar to the original. The effect was achieved by using precise motifs that were reminiscent of and recalled the original.
The Scarab’s Journey From Egypt To Europe
Scarabs were the most common form of amulet in ancient Egypt and were intended for use by both the living and the dead. Scarabs personified hope for renewed growth, but their effectiveness was further enhanced by the addition of inscriptions and symbols etched on their bases, or through the use of certain specific materials. Colours and materials often had symbolic meanings. Certain stones such as carnelian, jasper, or lapis-lazuli were believed to hold magical significance and were commonly used in the amulet industry.
From the dawn of human history, people have created objets d’art for devotional as well as decorative purposes from materials available to them in nature, such as stones and shells. Ancient Egyptians evolved their capabilities very early on (around 3,000 BCE) and produced very intricate jewellery, using gold and rare stones or minerals.
Jewels were important within all aspects of Egyptian culture and among all social groups. They were worn by both men and women. They could function as a sign of status or social position, badges for distinction in military or civil service, as a talisman, as good fortune amulets, or as decorative pieces. Their owners took all these objects with them to the grave, believing they could use them in the afterlife. Mummies were adorned with specially designed funerary jewellery, whose purpose was to provide protection on the symbolic journey into the afterlife
Finger rings were popular forms of ancient Egyptian jewellery. Threading an object, such as a scarab, onto a metal wire and coiling the ends became the most common way of producing finger rings in Egypt. Later on, new techniques were used in the production of these rings, such as setting the scarabs within a cartouche frame.