Nile Style: Modern Egyptian Inspired Costume Jewelry

Early in my selling endeavors I purchased a small sterling basket charm with a porcelain top that depicted the Sphinx and pyramids. Once home I was surprised to find that the charm opened to reveal a tiny gold baby tucked in the cotton inside—Baby Moses! I listed it on a popular auction site and was amazed as the price increased over the next several days, finally ending over $100! Intrigued by the outcome I questioned the buyer, who was thrilled to have won the auction and explained that it was from the 1920s and celebrated the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. It was called “Egyptian Revival;” it was the first time I had heard the term. A recent conversation with costume jewelry expert and author Jacqueline Rehmann gave me much more insight:

Why did this discovery create such a stir?

Howard Carter’s discovery in 1922 undoubtedly qualifies as the greatest archeological find ever made. It famously captured the public imagination like nothing before or since. Tutankhamen lived and died against a backdrop of one of the richest and most sophisticated periods of Egyptian history. His tomb contained everything that was required for a happy existence in the afterworld. Despite the fact that grave robbers had broken in at least twice in ancient times and made off with about 60 percent of the original jewelry more than 200 pieces remained, including 20 pectoral ornaments—a type of heavy, ornate necklace. Much of the jewelry was found inside Tut’s sarcophagus, inserted into his mummy’s wrappings. Even with the pilferage, it took Carter almost a decade to photograph and record all of the details of Tut’s treasures which included an astounding 5,398 items.

Was Egyptian inspired costume jewelry an immediate result of the discovery?

Almost immediately, enameled silver and gold-plated metal winged scarabs, falcons, and vultures were produced as brooches and bracelets in the United States, Europe, and even Egypt beginning in the mid-1920s. In 1926, cobra jewelry was popular and included necklaces which coiled around the neck. The ‘slave’ bracelet, made with glass cabochons or molded scarabs, or large, open rectangular links of silver, was a popular jewelry item. Around this time, Napier introduced a line of jewelry which they described as having the “Spirit of Ancient Egypt.” Egyptian style costume jewelry from the early 20th century is rare in the collectibles market and usually expensive when found. More extraordinary pieces can be found in museums. 

 

I remember seeing the elaborate costumes and jewelry used in the 1963 Cecil B. DeMille movie Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor. The luxurious costumes and sets made it the most expensive movie of the time at $44 million. How did these romantic silver screen portrayals affect the costume jewelry market?

Movies depicting Cleopatra, including the 1934 movie featuring Claudette Colbert created an enduring market for Egyptian inspired jewelry . During the 20th century many actresses were cast in the role of Cleopatra on stage or in the movies. In fact, over 40 American actresses have played the famous Egyptian Queen. All the attention assured an almost continuous stream of Egyptian influence in costume jewelry designs. From the mid-to later part of the 20th century almost every costume jewelry manufacturer created their interpretations of Egyptian-inspired ornaments. One of Miriam Haskell’s most popular lines is the collection designed by Larry Vrba which lasted from 1972-1977. The line featured a variety of colorful designs including beautiful collars rivaling those worn by the Pharaohs. Some companies even copied exactly jewelry found in the King Tut tomb.


Having listed pieces in our shop from Haskell’s line as well as Hattie Carnegie, Har, and many unsigned pieces, I have noticed that the colors are often the same. Is there some significance to the colors used?

The Ancient Egyptians did have symbolic meanings for colors and used specific colors in their jewelry. Modern costume jewelry makers have mimicked those same colors:

Red could symbolize fire, the sun, and blood. Blue was associated with the heavens and with water; relating to the symbolism of water, blue could represent the concept of fertility and was associated with Osiris. Yellow, an alternative solar color, was used for solar symbols such as the scarab, winged scarab, and other symbols such as the Isis knot; it could also symbolize the golden bodies of the gods. Black was the color of the underworld and funerary deities, also symbolic of fertility through its association with the rich, dark earth of the Nile valley so it was also used in non-funerary contexts. Green, the color of luxuriant vegetation and of life itself, could signify health and vitality; the eye of Horus is often depicted in this color. Symbolically significant creatures including the serpent and baboon were often depicted in green. White, the color of purity, was used to represent sacred animals and also used as an alternative to yellow.

Thanks so much for all the information you have shared with us this month about Egyptian inspired costume jewelry. I think the world will always be enamored with the mystique and opulence of ancient Egypt. I know that recent designers such as Kenneth J. Lane, Joan Rivers, Erwin Pearl, Les Bernard, Christian Dior and many others are keeping this fashion trend alive, creating future collectibles for the next generation.

Cindy Brown for Cinsababe’s on Ruby Lane

Jacqueline Rehmann has loved costume jewelry since she was a child and has been collecting for over 40 years. She is the author of two books on jewelry including Classic American Costume Jewelry Volumes I and II. She has also published numerous articles in a variety of antiques publications, as well as the former VFCJ journal and Costume Jewelry Collectors International (CJCI). She is also a member of CJCI.


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