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Jewelry History

  • Scarab jewelry origins

    From Ancient Egypt to the 1950s: Scarab Jewelry

    This month marks the centennial of the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th century – the tomb of King Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. After six years of research and excavation, British archeologist Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, his patron, found three chambers filled with the young king’s mummy and the gilt, jewel-inlaid treasures he was believed to need in the afterlife. The pendant pictured above is one of them.

    The news captured the imagination of the Western world and launched a new wave of Egyptomania – fascination with all things related to ancient Egypt. Less than two months after announcing the find, the New York Times published “They Watch Egypt for Fashion News”. According to the article, “Pierre C. Cartier [French jeweler and founder of Cartier’s in New York] said that the discoveries in the tomb would bring in some sweeping changes in fashions in jewelry to meet the demands of the public for things Egyptian”.

    And that’s just what happened. To help the jewelry trade meet this demand, Isabelle M. Archer, fashion columnist for The Jewelers’ Circular, published these drawings as part of her March 21, 1923 article on Egyptian themes. As you can see, lotus blossoms, hieroglyphics, sphinxes, pharaohs and scarabs, the focus of this post, are included.

    Egyptian themes for jewelry“Units from Egyptian Paintings Adaptable to Modern Jewelry Designs”

    In addition to these motifs, the article discussed popular Egyptian colors and their corresponding gemstones: black and white (onyx and white coral, or jet and ivory), soft yellow (smoked amber), red (carnelian), two greens (jade and malachite), and two blues (lapis lazuli and turquoise). She added that amethysts, feldspar and agate were also employed by Egyptian jewelers.

    Although these designs and materials were used in jewelry making before Carter’s discovery, the ensuing resurgence of Egyptomania ensured their assimilation into the Art Deco style.

    Scarab Jewelry in Ancient Egypt

    The scarab (or scarabaeus sacer) “was a potent symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation … Three-dimensional representations of scarabs, typically pierced for stringing and incorporated into rings, necklaces, pectorals [chest ornaments], and bracelets, were a mainstay of Egyptian jewelry in the second and first millennia BCE …” (Gänsicke and Markowitz , 110). Scarabs were made from carved soapstone, semi-precious gemstones, or molded Egyptian faience (a type of blue-glazed ceramic that imitated turquoise).

    An outstanding example is the gold pendant from the tomb of Tutankhamun (shown in the color photo above). Some sources call it a Pectoral in the Form of a Winged Scarab. It features a carved lapis lazuli scarab in the center, surrounded by lapis, carnelian, turquoise and other colorful stones.

    Scarab Jewelry in the 20th Century

    Instead of creating scarabs using the methods of ancient Egyptians, costume jewelry makers in the 20th century relied on colorful molded glass. Here are two examples in the TruFaux Jewels boutique. Both have stones in an array of colors, which make these jewels extremely versatile to wear.

    This brooch by Walter Lampl features claw-set glass scarab flowers supported by sterling silver branches and leaves. The colors replicate the gemstones favored by the ancient Egyptians. Real and faux chrysoprase, tiger’s eye, carnelian, amethyst, and clear quartz were also popular in the 1920s.

    The close-up view on the right reveals the details achieved in the molded glass. I see a bit of playfulness in this design. The maker’s mark on this piece dates it to 1925-1930, the height of the Art Deco style.

    Scarab bracelets, which were all the rage in the 1920s-1930s, continued in popularity at least through the 1960s, based on my research of jewelry ads. They were produced by makers of both fine and costume jewelry. This piece by W. E. Richards features molded glass scarab stones set in open-back, sterling silver mounts. In addition to the faux tiger’s eye, chrysoprase, carnelian, and lapis, variegated agates are included.

    Once again, in the close-up on the right, you can see the details in the textured glass stones. My research on this maker’s marks indicates that this piece was probably made in the 1950s. The company could have been influenced by Hollywood’s release of no less than seven Egyptian-themed films that decade, including The Egyptian (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), and The Ten Commandments (1956).

    The First Wave of Egyptomania

    Europe’s love affair with everything Egyptian began in the late-18th century, following Napoleon’s military expedition. It included scientists and scholars who recorded what they saw. The resulting publications inspired designers in all fields. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1867, following 10 years of construction, and successful archeological expeditions continued to fuel the craze across the Western world and into the early 20th century. As a result, stylized Egyptian motifs appear in architecture, the decorative arts, fashion, jewelry, the fine arts, film and photography.

    Exhibitions Celebrating the Centennial

    Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience is a travelling exhibition co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society. It is described as a “multi-gallery, multi-sensory exhibition [that] whisks guests on a time-traveling adventure to Ancient Egypt … [and]  unlocks the 3,300 year old story of King Tut – his rule as a child pharaoh, his family, the discovery of his tomb and the mysteries surrounding his early death, and his journey to the afterlife”. Check the website for the scheduled cities.

    Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, invites you to “discover the story of the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb through the eyes of the archaeologists on the ground”. This exhibition is open now and runs through February 5, 2023.

    Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum, which will “unite all of King Tut’s priceless artefacts under one roof”, is expected to open in time for Egypt’s celebration of the centennial. The linked article mentions the centennial celebration in other museums around the world.

    Printed Sources Cited:

    Archer, Isabelle M. “Suggestions Gathered Through Museum and Library for the Adapting of the Egyptian Theme to Modern Jewels”. The Jewelers’ Circular, March 21, 1923, pages 67, 69, 71.

    Gänsicke, Susanne and Yvonne J. Markowitz. Looking at Jewelry: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019.

    “They Watch Egypt for Fashion News,” New York Times, February 18, 1923, p.3.


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    Jewelry in the Movies: Harry Winston, ‘Notorious’

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    ‘Downton Abbey’ Style Finale

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    ‘Downton Abbey’ Style Encore

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