Gemstone Education

Ancient Roman Gemstones

If you enjoyed our article about ancient Egyptian gemstones, you may be curious about gemstones which were valued in other parts of the ancient world.

Ancient Roman Gemstonescarnelian intaglio roman gemstones

The Roman Empire was the seat of power and wealth in the Western world for hundreds of years. Because of their impressive span, they were able to trade with cultures throughout the world, not only in Europe, but also in northern Africa.

This gave them access to numerous gemstones which they could use to craft their jewelry. Because of their wealth, they were able to afford many precious and semi-precious stones, as well as detailed artisan craftwork.

Rings were very popular in Ancient Rome. They were used for a variety of purposes. Some were made for sealing documents, while others were worn simply to denote status. Rings were exchanged for engagement, as they are today. And some people simply wore them for their beauty.

During the first and second centuries, Roman men would typically adorn all their fingers with rings. Rings were worn higher on the fingers than they are today, which is why ancient Roman rings you may see for sale or at a museum may appear small to you. Later in history, it became the vogue for a man to wear only a single ring.

Gemstones used in Roman rings were often carved with beautiful designs depicting gods or important historical figures. The gemstones most commonly used for rings included garnet, amethyst, quartz, and carnelian. Carnelian was among the most popular of all Roman gems.

Archaeologists once discovered a workshop abandoned, apparently in a crisis. The jewelry had stashed 117 engraved carnelian stones inside a jar, but never made it back to recover them. Semiprecious stones like carnelian were ideal for carving, and were also great for authenticating documents because the wax would not adhere to the stone. Various forms of quartz were often used for this purpose as well.

Aside from rings, the most common Roman jewelry item was called a ‘fibula’. If you have watched movies set in ancient Rome, you have probably noticed that the clothing is often fastened using a broach which looks a bit like a large safety pin, often set with gemstones. Both Roman men and women worse fibulae as well as rings.

The gemstones set in Roman rings and other jewelry were often held in place partially by an adhesive, not just the structure of the metal setting. The adhesive was not all that effective, and Romans regularly lost their gemstones while they were bathing in hot springs and bathhouses.

For women, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, toe rings, and hair pins were all available as adornment options as well. Other popular gemstones which were used in these pieces included peridot, emerald, jasper, onyx, lapis lazuli, and pearls, most of which came from the Persian Gulf.

One more popular gemstone in ancient Rome was amber, which in reality is a mineraloid, and not a mineral, formed from tree resin that has hardened over millions of years. The amber which the Romans prized was mined in the Baltic region, and was considered one of the most valuable substances in the Empire. Pliny the Elder once wrote that a small amber sculpture exceeded the worth of a healthy Roman slave.

Archaeologists have found numerous examples of Roman gemstones used in jewelry and sculpture. When you look at the images of their beautiful craftsmanship, you are sure to recognize styles which have persisted throughout history!

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