Times & Places

Greek Gold

During the Bronze Age, Mycenaean Greek artists, as part of a larger craft world in the Eastern Mediterranean, produced splendid gold ornaments, which were often buried with the dead in tombs. By the 7th century B.C.E., the Greeks were once again in contact with Egyptian and Near Eastern craft workers. Many exquisite ornaments come from this time. Greek styles were refined and delicate, especially in the Classical art of the 5th and 4th centuries. Jewelry design emphasized purity of material and the chaste use of imagery drawn from nature or mythology.

In the wealthy Greek cities of Southern Italy, an area known as Magna Graecia, native skills at metalworking were combined with Greek classical taste to produce necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and diadems of brilliant simplicity. Often the figural decoration echoed large scale sculpture. Such jewelry had an amuletic as well as decorative significance, bringing protection or good luck to the wearer. Deities like Athena or Dionysos and apotropaic images like the Medusa head embodied protective power. Wreaths and diadems, which were worn during life as symbols of victory and status, were also buried with the dead. While women wore necklaces, bracelets, hair or garment ornaments, and earrings, some types of ornaments, including wreaths, diadems, seal rings, and amulets, might be worn by men, too.

In the mid 4th century B.C.E., Alexander the Great's conquests in the Near East and Egypt and the establishment of Greek-ruled states in these areas after his death, led to a rich, cosmopolitan civilization now called Hellenistic. The Greek language and culture of the ruling classes translated Hellenism to a wide audience. Art, once the creation of artist-craftsmen in small Greek city-states, now became the aesthetic coinage of an international society. Gold jewelry, always a luxury production, was one of the most distinctive arts of the Hellenistic world. Increased trade contacts, which ranged from India to Central Africa, meant a larger supply of raw gold, as well as gemstones, pearls, and semi-precious stones. Glass paste was frequently used. Hellenistic Greek jewelry is marked by bravura sculptural form and coloristic ornamentation.

The close connection between monumental sculpture and gold ornaments can be seen in several works in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art, such as the Aphrodite pin (1991.75.91). The black and white portrait ring with a female head emphasizes Hellenistic interest in the individual (1991.75.70). When Rome conquered the Hellenistic kingdoms, Roman imperial workshops continued to employ this lavish, sculptural style of jewelry, especially in cities of the Greek East like Alexandria or Antioch.

Adapted from

  • DMA unpublished material, Label copy.