Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Beauty - Glass Beads and Costume Jewelry

Volume II, Number 8 August 1st, 2001

Glass Beads, "Fabulous Fakes" and the Birth of Costume Jewelry

The ancient Egyptians described their native country as "the black land," recognizing it as a font of fertile abundance in contrast to the harsh, unyielding deserts surrounding them. This fertility applied to more than just agriculture. The inventiveness and creativity of ancient Egypt still exerts influence and inspires awe today. The ancient Egyptians were trailblazers in many fields, but particularly in the field of beauty. Pioneers in the arts of adornment, including cosmetics and tattooing, they did not limit themselves to enhancement of only the body's natural charms. The ancient Egyptians were also brilliant innovators in the creation of jewelry.

The ancient Egyptians loved ornamentation. Jewelry was designed, crafted and worn with great care thought and care. In their typical holistic fashion, fine jewelry was valued not only for beauty but also for the magical and spiritual protection it provided for its wearer. Did the concept of purely ornamental adornment exist for the ancients? Did they make that distinction between amulets and jewelry? Many anthropologists believe not.

Minerals and metals were identified with specific deities as well as with specific spiritual and therapeutic values. Thus their words for lapis lazuli and turquoise were synonymous with joy and delight, respectively. Copper and malachite were identified with Hathor, gold connected to the solar deity.

The Egyptians did not confine themselves to a limited selection of materials: a very wide variety of minerals were crafted into jewelry including amethyst, cornelian, jasper, onyx and quartz crystal. Today these stones are classified as semi-precious versus precious gems like diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. How or even whether the Egyptians classified these gems remains unknown: the distinction between precious and semi-precious, for us, has largely to do with scarcity and economic value. Connections between availability and economic value did also exist in ancient Egypt but we cannot assume that modern cultures and ancient Egypt share the same perceptions of what was precious. For instance, during many periods of Egyptian history, silver was valued more highly than gold, due to its relative scarcity. Just as in today's world, silver holds less economic value than gold, perhaps many of what are now considered semi-precious gems may have been perceived as quite rare and valuable in old Egypt. Many were obtained only with great effort and cost: lapis lazuli, which held great spiritual significance for the Egyptians was not obtained locally but imported largely from what is now Afghanistan.

Yet as regards the production of jewelry, the Egyptians seemed to have also been faced with some purely practical concerns: what to do should a desired gemstone be unattainable, unavailable or perhaps unaffordable? In typical ingenuous and innovative fashion, the Egyptians invented the art of the fabulous fake. The ancient artisans became so adept at crafting glass bead versions of precious stones that it can be difficult to distinguish the mimics from authentic emeralds, pearls and tigers-eye.

This innovation depended upon yet another revolutionary legacy from ancient Egypt: the development of glass. Debate ranges among modern scholars as to whether glass was initially manufactured in Egypt or in Mesopotamia (or whether it arose in both nations simultaneously yet independently.) Certainly the roots of glass in Egypt are ancient. Solid glass beads have been found in Egypt dating from 4000 BCE. According to bead experts Chris and Janie Filstrup, very simple beads consisting of a true glass glaze over a clay or stone cane have been discovered in Egypt dating back to 12,000BCE.

From their earliest roots, regardless of location, beads have held a spiritual and magical component. The English word bead, for instance, derives from the Old English bidden, meaning, "to pray." The Egyptian hieroglyph for bead also indicated "luck."

Glass making eventually evolved into a sophisticated art in Egypt, with shapes and hues becoming increasingly intricate. To the basic formula of sand (silica), soda and lime, cobalt was added to create a blue shade, copper for green, tin was used to produce a milky white while the addition of gold created red. The willingness to incorporate gold into a formula to enhance the beauty of glass indicates that glass was not merely considered a substitute for something precious, but was valuable in its own right.

Although fine glass would be created elsewhere (the glassblowers of ancient Hebron were considered brilliant innovators, for instance), the glass beads of Egypt were consistently perceived as the finest of the ancient world. Small, easy to transport yet valuable, they became favored cargo of far-ranging Phoenician traders; glass beads were exported all over the ancient world. Egyptian glass beads have been discovered as far afield as China.

The Egyptians did not find the same uses for glass that we do today. Glass was not used for windows or doors. Mirrors were made from polished copper. Cups, perfume "bottles" and unguent pots were most typically carved from alabaster or other stone. Glass was almost exclusively used for ornamentation of the body. Among the finest existing specimens of the Egyptian glassmakers' art are treasures found in King Tutankhamun's tomb. The famed vulture collar, for instance, laid upon the mummies' chest, was inlaid with hundreds of pieces of colored glass. (The Egyptians were also masters of cloisonn, fine inlay work.) Tutankhamun's "necklace of the sun" was created from glass beads intermingled with those formed from gold and cornelian.

The question debated by modern scholars is whether this glass jewelry was worth as much or more than that carved from genuine gemstones or whether what we witness is in fact the birth of costume jewelry: lovely and stylish, yet reasonably priced. Were mummies bedecked with glass to foil grave robbers or because the glass jewels held their own unique value and significance?

One school suggests that frustration with tomb raiders stimulated the art of glass imitation jewelry. By creating glass imitations, comparably worthless reproductions of precious gemstones, theft would be discouraged and the deceased left to rest in peace. Perhaps just as the shabti could transform into a worker in the next world, so a glass reproduction could ultimately assume the financial values and magical/therapeutic properties of the authentic material?

The opposing school suggests otherwise, their belief being that ancient Egyptians considered glass to be in the same league as precious gems and metals, that the process of creating glass stimulated special and priceless magical powers. This too is distinctly possible. Faience (an ancient form of glazed ceramic, often confused with or considered an ancestor to glass) also makes up a high percentage of grave jewelry/amulets.

The process of creating faience was perceived as inherently stimulating power to the material, in particular a kind of super-fertility power, thus making it a favored material for the creation of amulets.

Certainly great care was taken with the glass jewelry. It is painstakingly handcrafted: a tremendous amount of workmanship and effort went into the creation of Tutankhamun's necklace and collar, for instance. There is nothing careless, haphazard or remotely disrespectful about the glass pieces. The craftsmanship is as detailed and patient as that given to any work of gold. Furthermore, while Tutankhamun's vulture necklace is encrusted with red and blue glass on one side, the body of the necklace is solid gold. Even considering that substituting glass for gemstones might have decreased economic value, the piece still remains a priceless and beautiful luxury.

Many of the glass-bedecked relics in Tutankhamun's tomb bear reference to Nekhbet, the ancient vulture goddess. Did a connection exist between the material and the goddess in the manner that bloodstone was associated with Isis? Bloodstone was a favored material for amulets beseeching Isis' favor; is there a similar association between glass and Nekhbet's protective powers? Not enough information or jewelry is available as yet for a definitive answer.

Beyond its beauty and its potential protective properties, an air of elegance seems to enshroud the production of glass in ancient Egypt. Unlike metal smiths, whose creations were desired even as the artisans were perceived as dirty, sweaty and smelly, there even seems to be something stylish about the glassmakers' profession. Circa 1480 BCE, Pharaoh Tutmosis III labored in a glass factory (presumably by choice) and is credited with inventing a new hue of blue glass.

From our vantage today, its very difficult to consider the relative value of glass to gems. Centuries of associations and prejudices influence modern perceptions. Today, we crave and respect "the real thing." A common theme of old Hollywood movies is the disappointment when the seemingly priceless gem is discovered to be but "paste," a worthless imitation? A great imitation ultimately remains an imitation, a forgery. Did the Egyptians share this perception or did they perceive each material as distinct, valuable in its own right for its own specific properties?

Today costume jewelry is often perceived as what one wears when one can't afford the real thing. Its increasing respectability in the 20th century was perceived as a great social leveler; stylish ornamentation wasn't reserved solely for the haute-monde, although snobbishness about authenticity never disappeared.

Yet in a striking parallel to the grave-robber foiling scenario, costume jewelry has also served as a safety-promoter. I recall a period of time, some years ago, when crime was fairly rampant in New York City. Even the wealthiest women wore stylish, yet clearly economically valueless costume jewelry to avoid attention, reserving the precious gems for special- and guarded- occasions.

Artistic innovations in glass continued in Egypt up until the end of its political independence. By 1200 BCE Egyptian glassmakers were creating beads intricately patterned with geometric, human and especially floral designs. These flower beads reached their height of perfection in Ptolemaic Alexandria but would then pass out of fashion under Roman rule. Although exportation of glass beads continued for a while, glass jewelry became associated with the poor.

It would take another thousand years before glass would once again command respect and desire, when the art was revived in Venice. Millefiori, literally thousand flower beads, are still associated virtually exclusively with Venice today, although in terms of technique and style they are clear descendants of the ancient Egyptian flower beads. Venetian glass workers would eventually be confined, forced to ply their trade under lock and key on the guarded island of Murano, ostensibly to guarantee fire safety for the city of Venice but really to safeguard the secrets of glass, which the Egyptians discovered and perfected so long ago. (Revealing trade secrets in Murano was punishable by death.) Because the identification with Venice is so strong, the Egyptian roots of millefiori are largely overlooked. Happily, this is not so with other examples of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship. Revivals of cloisonn and powdered glass, based upon techniques pioneered in ancient Egypt, occurred in Europe during a period when fascination with ancient Egypt was at its height. Not only were the techniques recalled, they were often specifically used to create jewelry and objets d'art in what was then popularly perceived to be the "Egyptian style."

Fittingly, the Egyptian connection was made especially explicit with the newfound popularity of beadwork. No longer associated with the poor and rustic, beaded clothing, shoes and jewelry were suddenly chic, stylish and upscale in the 19th century. In the 1890's, a popular style of Western necklace paid tribute to the last pharaoh: the "Cleopatra" consisted of a row of turquoise from which hung a fringe of agate, coral and other semi-precious beads.

A history of beads, beginning in ancient Egypt can be found in Beadazzled: The Story of Beads by Chris and Janie Filstrup, New York: Frederick Warne, 1982

Photographs of ancient Egyptian treasures as well as (mostly European) modern interpretations can be found in Charles Freeman's The Legacy of Ancient Egypt Oxford: Andromeda 1997

Detailed descriptions and vivid photographs of Tutankhamun's glass masterpieces can be found in Treasures of Tutankhamun New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976

Types of Travel to Egypt by Jimmy Dun
Neil Bush Family Visits El Gouna by Hazel Heyer
Party Time in Ancient Egypt by Ilene Springer
Camel Trekking in the Sinai by Joyce Carta
Nuweiba by Jimmy Dunn
Egyptian Hajj Painting by Sonny Stengle
Where Have All the Pharaohs Gone by Anita Stratos
Marvelous Melokiyah by Mary Kay Radnich
Exploring Isis by Catherine C. Harris
Never Mind, Just Crossing the Moon by Arnvid Aakre
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews Various Editors
Hotel Reviews By Jimmy Dunn & Juergen Stryjak
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
The Month in Review By John Applegate
Egyptian Exhibitions By Staff
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Nightlife Various Editors
Egypt On Screen By Carolyn Patricia Scott
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around Various Editors
Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek

Prior Issues
July 1st, 2001
June 1st, 2001

May 1st, 2001
April 1st, 2001
March 1st, 2001

February 1st, 2001
January 1st, 2001

December 1st, 2000
October 1st, 2000
September 1st, 2000
August 1st, 2000

July 1st, 2000

June 1st, 2000

Master Index