The Greeks and Romans engraved small stones with symbols and designs to make gems. They rarely used stones that are considered precious today, such as diamonds or rubies, but used instead agate, quartz, and similar minerals. Craftsmen fashioned jewelry from gems, as well as from ivory, metal, and glass.

The ancient Greeks and Romans prized gems for several reasons. Since certain stones were thought to possess magical or medicinal powers, people wore gems made from these stones, hoping to bring themselves good fortune or good health. The Romans, for example, believed that wearing amethysts could prevent or cure drunkenness. Some gems were valued simply as ornaments. Men and women wore them mounted on rings and strung on necklaces, or placed them in the handles of combs, mirrors, and knives. Specially carved gems, called seals, served as a form of identification. People “signed” their names by pressing their seals into moist clay or hot wax. When the clay dried or the wax cooled, the mark of the seal remained. Archaeologists* have found thousands of such seals from all over the ancient world.

Before 1000 B.C., craftsmen in Greece and on the island of Crete had developed techniques for cutting and engraving hard stones using a bronze drill. These skills were lost, however, and for the next several hundred years, the Greeks could only carve gems by hand from soft stones, such as serpentine, and from ivory. In the 500s B.C., the Greeks again learned how to carve hard stones using abrasive powders and drills powered by wheels.

Using these rediscovered techniques, Greek gem cutters were able to carve detailed designs in small stones. Influenced by Egyptian styles, they made scarabs, which were gems carved in the shape of beetles. Scarabs remained popular for centuries. Talented artists also carved elaborate gems with scenes from myth or legend, such as Heracles fighting a lion, or portraits of leading citizens. Gem cutters used a wide variety of stones, such as purple amethyst, multicolored agate, clear rock crystal, red garnet, deep blue lapis lazuli, and sard, a popular orange-red stone. Using stones with layers of different colors, cutters made cameos, gems in which the design appears in two or more colors. Although imperial* Rome did produce fine cameos, its craftsmanship did not match that of the Greeks, and Roman gem cutters often copied Greek designs.

* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

Both men and women in ancient Greece and Rome wore jewelry. Archaeologists have found pins, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and buttons, often buried in the graves of their owners. Many of these ornaments were made of silver and especially gold, although jewelry makers were also known to use less costly materials, such as bronze, iron, and lead. The Greeks and Romans decorated some jewelry with precious stones, such as rubies and emeralds, but these were rarely engraved. Fake gems, made from colored glass to look like valuable stones, were much in demand.

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

Even though Petronius Arbiter and other Roman writers criticized the desire for elaborate and expensive jewelry as morally corrupt, extravagant jeweled belts and buckles became popular during the later years of the Roman Empire. (See also Clothing; Crafts and Craftsmanship.)

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!