For centuries, Ancient Egypt has held the fascination of the public and continues to inspire artists and designers alike. With the discoveries of Egyptian tombs, and the treasures within, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the exotically opulent lives of the Pharaohs were beyond anyone’s imagination. Of all the precious objects unearthed in the tombs, the lavish jewels were perhaps the most fascinating for their extravagance and never-before-seen symbolism.
Egypt first caught Europe’s attention when Napoleon Bonaparte launched his Egyptian campaign in 1798, aiming to decisively weaken England’s colonial position in the region. Despite the campaign’s catastrophic defeat for France, the effort was successful in its scientific endeavors – the first topography of Egypt. The gates to this ancient civilization were finally opened, and, under Napoloen’s command, Egyptian décor infiltrated the decorative arts, first in the design of furniture and the art of bronze and porcelain.
Ancient Egyptian fever was further spurred following the translation of the hieroglyphic band on the Rosetta Stone by Jean-François Champollion from 1822 to 1824. When the now iconic obelisk, requested by Louis XVIII, was erected in 1831 in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, the wave of Egyptian influence on decorative arts and, in particular, jewelry could be seen everywhere. Most notably, French and English jewelry during the mid- to late 19th century almost routinely incorporated exotic Egyptian motifs alongside romantic themes of the Middle Ages.
Adding to the Egyptian fashion furor was the building of the Suez Canal by Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps. The jewelers Mellerio, Boucheron and Baugrand, inspired by the pioneering achievement, created Egyptian jewels in homage to their countryman’s efforts in North Africa. Four years after the Suez Canal opened in 1867, the first performance of Verdi’s Aida at the inauguration of the Cairo opera house sparked even more interest in Egyptian-inspired fashions, particularly following the eight years the opera toured Milan, New York, London and Paris.
By the late 19th century, Europe’s finest jewelers, including Giuliano, Castellani, Fontenay and Cartier, were beginning to experiment with the various Egyptian symbols and motifs in their jewelry. Scarabs, pharaohs, sphinxes, snakes and lotus blossoms proliferated in embossed gold jewels, with smatterings of turquoise, cabochon garnets, carnelian and lapis lazuli. Hieroglyphs were also frequently used in jewelry designs in the 1870s and 80s.
As Art Nouveau became ever more popular at the turn of the century, Egyptian symbols and motifs still lingered in the ornate nature-inspired designs. Carved hardstone scarabs were flanked with plique-a-jour wings in vibrant rays of color, striking interpretations of Egyptian Revival merged with the organic Art Nouveau style. Meanwhile, lotus blossoms and papyrus were more than mere embellishments, their curved forms were often integral parts of a jewel’s design; and motifs of the Egyptian goddess Isis perfectly conformed with female form-friendly jewels of the Art Nouveau period.
When archaeologist Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, the Egyptian craze reached soaring heights. The wholly intact tomb revealed a complete glimpse into the opulent afterlives anticipated of the Egyptian pharoahs, as well as the immense wealth of the Egyptian empire. With even more examples to draw inspiration from, European decorative arts and jewelry were prolifically designed in the Egyptian Revival style. Soon, silhouettes of sphinxes, obelisks and pyramids would come to define an entire culture.
The Roaring Twenties and the period’s Art Deco jewelry embraced the vivid contrasting colors, motifs, and symbols more daringly than ever before. Whether the jewels were complete, faithful reproductions or real artifacts preciously decorated in similar style, the Egyptian Revival jewelry during the Art Deco era is the most lavish and magnificent.
Carved coral starkly set against black onyx and cool blue lapis lazuli would become one of the favorite color schemes of Art Deco Egyptian Revival jewels, often sprinkled with diamonds and other calibré-cut gemstones. From brooches and bracelets to clocks and cigarette cases, no precious object was outside of Egyptomania’s grasp.
The famous French jewelry maisons Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels were praised for their Egyptian-inspired jewelry. Arguably, Cartier championed the motif best of all, astutely collecting Ancient Egyptian artifacts for decades which he often incorporated into brilliantly designed pieces. The year of the Cairo exhibition in 1929 saw the climax of this highly creative phase, with the style still enjoying a certain vogue up to the outbreak of World War II.
With Ronald Kawitzky of DK Bressler‘s current exhibition of Egyptian Revival jewelry, ‘From Here to Antiquity,’ at S.J. Shrubsole in New York, a collection of 100 pieces that spans nearly 200 years, the emblematic Egyptian style is remembered and revered for its historic importance and everlasting influence in jewelry design, from the times of Ancient Egypt’s Nile to now.
The following pieces from DK Bressler’s exhibition are also available for purchase on 1stdibs.
From the exhibition:
“During the 1880s and 90’s, the Roman mosaic was adapted to include Egyptian imagery on brooches and suites, set in classic style gold mounts. According to Vivienne Becker in Antique and Twentieth Century Jewellery, “The idea of mosaics was seen as a way of capturing the color and richness of original jewels.” The mosaics had uneven surfaces, usually with white backgrounds, while the images were depicted in red, royal blue and turquoise. Often, a pharaoh’s head would adorn the center of a pendant or bracelet.
On the pendant, the pharaoh is flanked on either side by sphinxes, the mythical creatures with the body of a lion and a human head. The wings are adaptations from the Greek interpretation of the sphinx. On the bracelet, a pharaoh’s head graces the center flanked by non-Egyptian images of urns with flowers. Gold rope twist frames the pharaoh’s head, emphasizing his importance.”
From the exhibition catalog:
“Coral was popular in the mid nineteenth century and, then, in the 1920s. Coral is the skeleton of a marine animal, the coral polyp (Corallicum), a jelly-like mass that attaches itself to rocks where a hard skeleton-like deposit is formed on the outer part of the animal’s body. The rose-pink color was the most desired coral and could be carved into shapes and figures such as the pharaoh, scarab and stele on this necklace. A pair of pendant earrings, each with a pharaoh’s head, accompanies the necklace.”
Cover photo credit for the bottom scarab brooch, which is currently on loan from Siegelson to Inventing the Modern World at the Mint Museum with the accompanying bracelet:
The Cole Porter Scarab: An Art Deco Egyptian Faience, Black Enamel, Sapphire, and Diamond Belt Buckle Brooch by Cartier, Paris, 1926