Courtesy of SEIGELSON, New York. Cartier Scarab Belt Buckle Brooch commissioned by Linda Lee Porter in 1926.
Jewels are layered with cultural and historical references, but some are more steeped with meaning than others. Mesolithic people ascribed apotropaic power to bones, teeth, stones and even tree bark that was worn and recorded as the oldest form of jewelry, the Amulet. Thought to provide protection against evil, danger, and disease, amulets fabled powers acquiesced to our ancestor's primordial fight for self-preservation in a harsh world. Therefore, amulet jewels were widespread in early civilization.
Today amuletic jewelry weaves a thread of continuity from ancient to modern times, connecting generations and cultures. Whether copying or reinterpreting motifs, jewelers still look to the past for inspiration. Let us explore how two important ancient amulet motifs have stood the test of time, inspiring jewelry design from the stone age to the present.
Eye of Horus
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Gold Foil. Egypt. 570–526 B.C.
Courtesy of SEIGELSON, New York. Cartier “Eye of Horus” Bracelet,
commissioned by Linda Lee Porter in 1928.
Courtesy of Hemmerle. Hemmerle “Eye of Horus” Cuff 2019.
Amulets in the shape of the Eye of Horus date back to at least 3,000 BC. According to ancient Egyptian myth, Horus was a powerful sky god in the form of a falcon. His right eye was the sun, and his left eye was the moon. Horus lost his left eye in a battle with the god Seth, who killed his father Osiris. The goddess Hathor restored Horus’s eye, which he then offered to his slain father Osiris, resurrecting him to life. Grounded in this myth, the Eye of Horus, also referred to as wedjat, became a sacred symbol of regeneration, protection, healing and wholeness in ancient Egypt. It was often carved into amulets to provide safety for wearers or fashioned into funerary monuments offering the souls of the departed safe passage into the afterlife.
The designs of my favorite objects bridge what I relate to today with what I find beautiful tomorrow, and never neglect my desire to engage with the past. The above Eye of Horus examples, spanning from the reign of Amasis to today, are the perfect example of how the revival jewelry tradition continues to find a strength of design in timeless symbols laced with meaning. For example, Hemmerle’s “Revived Treasures” collection imaginatively sets an Egyptian faience amulet from 400 BC into a sleek, contemporary bronze and white gold cuff. This homage to Egypt rebuffs heavy gem-set and diamond pavé jewelry trends by juxtaposing ancient and contemporary motifs with understated elegance.
Revival jewelry became extremely fashionable in the 19th century as archaeological digs unearthed ancient treasures and newly established museums introduced these finds to the public. Notably, the excavation of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 was a groundbreaking historical discovery that sparked renewed enthusiasm in ancient Egypt. One look at the grand allegorical breastplate of King Tutankhamun was proof enough to me that “Egyptomania” and “Tutmania” hysteria was well-founded.
Courtesy of Egypt Museum. King Tutankhamun’s breastplate, circa 1330 BC.
The central motif and focal point of Tutankhamun’s breastplate is a green scarab. Symbolizing Ra, the sun god and creator of the universe, as well as resurrection, transformation and protection, the scarab was arguably the most potent of all amulets to ancient Egyptians. When first identified, this green scarab was believed to be made of quartz. However, in 1998, it was discovered that the amulet was made of Libyan Desert Glass, one of the rarest minerals on earth created during a meteorite collision between 28 and 26 million years ago. Abounding with symbolism, each amulet was meticulously selected with the purpose of ensuring the King's safe passage to the afterlife. A close look at the ornament depicts the god Ra (winged scarab) metaphorically carrying the celestial bark with both the sun and the moon up toward the sky.
Egyptomania inspired jewelers such as Louis Cartier to enrich their collections of ancient amulets and promptly incorporate them into jewelry designs. This 1926 Cartier scarab brooch and belt buckle commissioned by Linda Lee Porter is a prime illustration of Art Deco Egyptian Revival jewelry; wherein, Cartier centered an ancient fragment of faience scarab (740 – 660 BC) and incorporated the symmetric, geometric lines that define the Art Deco period using baguette-cut diamonds and sapphires. Today, Los Angeles based contemporary jeweler Vram Minassian modernizes the ancient scarab motif further by using unexpected, colorful gems such as carved watermelon tourmaline and alexandrite.
Courtesy of The Walters Art Museum. Egypt. 1186-718 BCE.
Courtesy of SEIGELSON, New York. Cartier Scarab Belt Buckle Brooch,
commissioned by Linda Lee Porter in 1926.
Courtesy of Vram Jewelry. Carved Watermelon Tourmaline, Alexandrite and Gold Ring, 2017.
Though there is no scientific evidence that an amulet truly shields the wearer from danger, some find comfort in their own belief that they are protected, while others prefer to hedge their bets. There seems to be no harm in hoping for a little divine intervention today, just as our ancestors did in the past.