The Byzantine Necklace - Legacy of an Empire

Byzantium hugely influenced orthodoxy and design, both elements being reflected in architecture, artistic style in painting and the decorative arts; in particular jewellery.

Carla Pohli, ArtRatio President

Carla Pohli, ArtRatio President

What comes to mind when you think about Byzantium?

Known for its Orthodox Christianity, I had mistakenly assumed some austerity based on my own experiences with christianity in the north.

This assumption was immediately challenged by first-hand experiences on the Aegean Island of Tinos. 

My mind takes me up the walking street from Tinos Port and finding myself immersed in a world of religious icons, crosses, objects and jewellery. I take in the opulence and acknowledge that the Byzantine aesthetic is very much alive today.

What started as a transit point and ancient Greek colony grew to become the longest-lasting mediaeval power, Byzantium.

During the height of its reign, the Byzantine empire had one of the most powerful economies in the world, thanks to infrastructure and its critically important location.

Sitting smack in the middle of a range of cultures, the Byzantine Empire’s capital city of Constantinople had access and licence to a slew of influences, resulting in style – art, fashion and jewellery – uniquely Byzantine.

The Empire continued 1000 years after the Roman Empire fell, providing an extensive and consistent cultural period during which they developed, honed and perfected their cultural aesthetic.

Though Byzantium initially was ruled by Roman law and political institutions, Greek culture was widespread, and Greek was the main and official language for most of its history. Don’t be misled by the name Byzantine, coined much much later by 16th-century historians and taken from the capital city’s first name before it changed to Constantinople.

While Rome conquered Greece, it can be said that Greek culture conquered Rome. 

The Greeks and Romans get credit for much of history’s important cultural shifts, influencing the sciences and the arts, and making technological advancements that allowed their art, fashion and jewellery to become especially ornate.

The Romans however, had nothing on the Byzantines when it came to jewellery; their opulent styles served merely as a launchpad for what the Byzantine accomplished with the decorative arts.

Byzantine Coins

City of Wealth and Prosperity – Gold flowed like wine

The Byzantine Empire made much of its wealth from its gold mines and from its geographical position being ideal for trade between East and West.

Although it developed its own artistic forms, Byzantium utilised many aspects of the cultures that influenced it, like the heavy use of gold, pearls, and precious stones; coins as part of jewellery; cloisonné enamel; inset coloured pastes; and stone inlay.

Jewellery evolved, merging Egyptian jewels with intricate, gold detailed motifs of Ancient Greece, embossed then chased and enhanced with Milo (alloy) for better visibility.

Gold, plus rubies, sapphires and emeralds, were traded from India; amethyst, garnet, pearls and lapis from Persia and Asia. Byzantines polished and drilled these gems, making cabochons – polished and shaped, rather than cut and faceted – very popular.

Anything but Modest – Byzantine jewellery

Byzantine jewellery had a huge influence on the manufacturing of personal decoration in the rest of the Mediaeval world. During the Byzantine period, jewellery was both used to adorn for beautification, and acted as a diplomatic tool.

It was also used to commemorate special occasions, like weddings. Successful traders, military officers, and high officials in the administration would all have been in the position to afford luxurious jewellery.

The Justinian Code

In 529 AD, Emperor Justinian created a new set of laws in order to keep jewellery exclusive – the Justinian Code – regulating the wearing and usage of jewellery.

He decreed that sapphires, emeralds, and pearls were reserved solely for the emperor’s use, but demonstrating the widespread use and popularity of jewellery every free man was entitled to wear a gold ring.

He alone decided who wore the finest jewels by presenting favoured servants with gifts from the imperial workshops. Items that have been identified as made in the imperial workshops have later been found throughout the empire.

The Byzantines considered certain materials particularly precious, sometimes associating them with symbolic myths. The value and the perception of the power of pearls, for example, increased due to the fact that finding them involved dangerous expeditions.

Imported from the coast of India, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea, they were both rare and difficult to acquire. They believed that pearls were created when a lightning bolt struck an oyster shell, with pieces of lightning thought to remain in the pearl and serve as the source of its luminosity.

Other than jewellery, Byzantines used pearls wherever they wanted to imitate the appearance of light, like on the cover of a book or as part of a mosaic.

The cross became a common symbol in Byzantine daily life.

The emperor’s crown featured a cross to symbolise Christ’s sovereign power, and jewellery, in particular necklaces, were adorned with the Byzantine cross. It was also common to use coins as jewellery, making them like portable portraits of the emperor.

They often measured time in terms of how long a ruler had been in power, and wearing his image showed confidence in the empire’s wealth and stability. They went as far as believing that these miniatures could provide some kind of protection to the wearer. One outstanding example of this sits in the Byzantine collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ; a plain, hollow neck ring with a large central medallion surrounded by fourteen coins, depicting Byzantine emperors.

Men favoured these coin shaped pieces, similar to military medals of today. Byzantine noble ladies preferred large gem-set necklaces. When we see Byzantine art works in museum settings, divorced from their original contexts of use, it is easy to forget that these objects once participated actively in Byzantine life.

Earrings, bracelets, belts and necklaces were meant to be seen in motion, changing as they refracted light, concealed and revealed through movements as their wearers went about their every day and ritual practices.

Clothing and jewellery was not simply utilitarian. Rather it was wearable art meant to communicate complex messages about identity, social standing, religious beliefs, and concerns about physical and spiritual well-being.

What is the Byzantine Necklace?

The Byzantine Chain:

Byzantine King Chain Set

Surprisingly, it is not the most ostentatious, bejewelled pieces that carry mainstream association with Byzantine jewellery today. It is the Byzantine chain.

An extremely complex piece demanding a high degree of craftsmanship, it is often likened to a rope or to chainmail. Dense and heavy, the links are always processed together with goldsmiths using a complex process where pairs of links are turned, hooked, fixed and spread until the coherent piece is created.

Partly due to the cumbersome process, high-quality materials are usually used to give the necklace appropriate value. The chain is soft to the touch. It has a unique and complex craftsmanship, in gold or silver, without the distraction of gems.

Now, going by several other interesting names, such as the Birdcage, the Idiot’s Trap, Fool’s Dilemma, and the King’s Braid – the origins of which baffle me (apart from King’s Braid), the Byzantine Chain has stood the test of time.

Byzantine Trivia

  • The founding of the Byzantine Empire split the Roman Empire into the Western and Eastern Empires
  • The Empire had 26m people, or 12% of the global population at its height
  • In Western Europe the Byzantine gold coin was called the bezant, derived from the word Byzantium Solidus (“solid coin”): The basic unit of the Byzantine monetary system, equaling 1/72 of one Roman pound of gold. Its weight (4.5 grams) and purity (24 karats) remained fixed up until the eleventh century
  • The Byzantines were responsible for merging the flavours of the east and the west. They were the first to use saffron in cooking and the first to flavour lamb with rosemary
  • They introduced the table fork to Europe
  • The colour Byzantine is a rich tone of medium purple with a magenta hue. Purple was especially revered in the Byzantine Empire, with rulers wearing purple robes and signing in purple ink. Children were described as being “born in the purple.” The first recorded use of byzantine as a colour name in English was in 1924
  • St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) can be traced back to the Byzantines: St. Nicholas called the empire home, and was born in the ancient town of Myra near modern day Demre, Turkey
  • The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire

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