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Reviving the Etruscan Jewelers' Art
for "Focus on Design" - The Jewelry Ring
by Cheri Van Hoover

Great jewelry styles refuse to die. They are revived over and over again, each time with a slightly different twist which places them firmly in their new era while retaining the characteristics of their ancient heritage. One of the most persistent and widely copied of the great ancient styles is that of the Etruscans.

Little is known about the Etruscan civilization, which dominated the north of what is now Italy from about 700 B.C.E. until about 300 B.C.E. It is known that they had a language not related to that of the Italic tribes. Etruscan kings ruled in Rome and other Italian city states and had extensive trade routes by land and sea. Their arts flourished, most notably the outstanding goldsmithing which featured elaborate granulation and filigree. Unfortunately, little survives of their history, as the Romans and the Christians who followed them both appear to have waged deliberate campaigns to destroy Etruscan literature and eradicate Etruscan artworks. (1)

Many believe that the Etruscan goldsmiths learned the basic technique of granulation from the Phoenicians, but all agree that the Etruscans took this technique to new heights of excellence and delicacy through extreme miniaturization. Granulation refers to the side by side application of tiny beads of gold. Twisted, or "corded" gold wirework was also applied to jewels in the Etruscan style.(2) To this day, modern jewelers have been unable to duplicate the skill and precision of these ancient craftsmen.

Etruscan "Bulla" Pendant Necklace - National Geographic Magazine, Jan. 2005

Etruscan Disk Earring circa 7th-6th centuries B.C.E. - The Jewelry Design Source Book

Online tours of museums can provide some beautiful examples. These outstanding earrings are at the Vatican Museums website. The Etruscan Archeological Museum of Chianciano Terme features this magnificent pair of earrings.

Not all modern jewelry historians are entirely enamored of the Etruscan approach to decoration. Some have called its precision "fiddly" and have criticized its "fear of open spaces."(3) But even these detractors admit that the minuscule and highly detailed ornamentation of these ancient masters took the art of goldsmithing to previously unimagined heights.

Despite its magnificence, Etruscan jewelry was largely forgotten until the early 1800s when hoards of Etruscan jewelry were discovered in tombs on the outskirts of Rome. These discoveries of the 1830s, as well as treasures from other ancient civilizations being unearthed at that time, sparked an enthusiasm for "archeological style" jewelry.(4) This craze for revivalism peaked during the 1860s to 1870s, though many fine examples continued to be made for as long as 40 years after that. (2)

The Roman jewelry firm founded by Fortunato Pio Castellani was a leader in the field of Etruscan revivalism. Fortunato, his sons Alessandro and Augusto, and his grandson Alfredo operated one of the leading jewelry firms in Europe until the early 20th century. They specialized in granulation, which they took to higher levels than had been achieved since the Etruscan era but never mastered with the same degree of perfection shown by the ancient masters.(2) In addition to the fine granulation work, they also created intricate micromosaic scenes of creatures, geometric patterns, words, and landscapes which also had not been seen since ancient times.(5) The minuscule glass tesserae (or tiles) of these 19th century pieces were much smaller and finer than most of those seen in today's Italian mosaic jewelry. It is difficult to date the pieces produced by the Castellanis over their 90 year history, as they utilized their early designs over and over again.(5)

Castellani Gold Micromosaic Bracelet - The Magazine of Antiques, Dec. 2004

"Judgment of Paris" Gold, Ruby, and Baroque Pearl Pendant attributed to Castellani - The Jewelry Design Source Book

Although the Castellanis set the standard for fine 19th century archeological style jewelry, there were many others producing excellent examples in high karat gold and others working with lower karat gold and base metal. The industrialization of this era brought low cost replicas of the fine jewelry worn by wealthy women into the wardrobes of the less affluent, as well.

Micromosaic Brooch circa 1860 - Tolkien & Wilkinson, A Collector's Guide to Costume Jewelry

Etruscan Revival Coral Cameo Brooch circa 1880s - Milky Way Jewels

Etruscan Revival Micromosaic Souvenir Brooch circa 1880s - Milky Way Jewels

Gold Plated Crossover Bracelet circa 1880s - Milky Way Jewels

15K Hallmarked Etruscan Revival Brooch - Sentimental piece with compartment for a lock of hair or picture of loved one (Courtesy of Linn Alber of Linn's Collection at Rainbows' End)

18K Gold and Sapphire Etruscan Revival Bracelet (Courtesy of Linn Alber of Linn's Collection at Rainbows' End)

Etruscan Revival Gold Ring (Courtesy of Linn Alber of Linn's Collection at Rainbows' End)

Victorian Etruscan Revival Turquoise Ring (Courtesy of Linn Alber of Linn's Collection at Rainbows' End)

Victorian Etruscan Revival Gold Earrings (Courtesy of Nancy Brace of Splendors From The Past)

Victorian Etruscan Bracelet (Courtesy of Jennifer Lynn's of Timeless Jewelry)

After the early 1900s, other style and design trends assumed dominance, and the popularity of ancient jewelry styles faded for a few years. The Victorian Revival of the 1940s gave another boost to some Etruscan style designs, but these were not as dominant as they once had been. The next big boom in Etruscan style jewelry came from a rather different direction.

During the mid 20th century, charms and charm bracelets became a wildly popular phenomenon. Just as in all other areas of fashion, charms went through many styles and trends. An Etruscan-style charm craze struck during the 1950s, leading to a somewhat alarming reinterpretation of the minutely detailed, exquisitely crafted jewelry of the ancients. It is safe to assume that the original ancient artists would have been astonished by these renderings, which are large and crudely packed with swirls, spirals, glass stones, and faux pearls. Themes for these so-called Italian style or fancy charms included traditionally-inspired pitchers and urns, but also more startling items such as baby carriages, roller skates, windmills, golf bags, telephones, and typewriters.(6)

Florenza Base Metal Charm circa 1955. From "Charms and Charm Bracelets: The Complete Guide"

Mexican Sterling Fish Charm circa 1960. From "Charms and Charm Bracelets: The Complete Guide"

Italian "Etruscan Fob" Charm Bracelet in 800 Silver circa 1955. From "Charms and Charm Bracelets: The Complete Guide"

Jayposon Catalog, Book 4, 1958 Gold Etruscan-style Charms. From "Charms and Charm Bracelets: The Complete Guide"

Butler and Wilson re-imagined these large, gaudy charms in the 1980s, amplifying the size even more, until they parodied the delicacy of the Etruscan originals.

Butler & Wilson Etruscan Revival Charm Bracelet circa 1980s - Milky Way Jewels

The popularity of oversized Etruscan-inspired jewelry during the 1980s was not exclusively confined to charms. This collar necklace with its huge dangling fobs and ornately detailed embossed floral design can also be considered Etruscan Revival.

Gold-plated Collar Necklace circa 1980s - Milky Way Jewels.

An interesting mystery from the 1950s or 1960s is that of Etrusceana jewelry. This U.S. company produced gold and silver plated Etruscan-inspired jewelry sometime after 1955. We know this because their mark included a copyright symbol, but no other information is known. Discovering the secrets of Etrusceana would be a great project for some budding costume jewelry researcher!

Etrusceana Gold Choker Necklace - Milky Way Jewels

So the history of Etruscan jewelry both begins and ends with a mystery. Scholars are working to unearth more information about the history and culture of the ancient Etruscans, and we can hope that more examples of their magnificent goldwork will be revealed in time. We can also hope that the history of Etrusceana jewelry will be unearthed, as well.

Etrusceana Silver Brooch Set - (Courtesy of Nancy Brace of Splendors From The Past)

  1. The Mysterious Etruscans -
  2. Christie Romero, Warman's Jewelry: Identification and Price Guide (Krause, Iola, WI, 2002), p. 55.
  3. Patricia Bayer, et al., The Jewelry Design Source Book (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1989), p. 16.
  4. Tracy Tolkein & Henrietta Wilkinson, A Collector's Guide to Costume Jewelry (Firefly, Willowdale, Ontario, 1997), p.45.
  5. Allison Eckardt Ledes, Revival Styles in Jewelry, The Magazine Antiques, Vol. CLXVI, No. 6, December 2004, p. 14.
  6. Joanne Schwartz, Charms and Charm Bracelets: A Complete Guide (Schiffer, Atglen, PA, 2005), pp. 95-96.

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