GLASS HISTORY: Naturally occurring glass, especially the volcanic glass obsidian, has been used since the Stone Age in many localities across the globe for the production of sharp cutting tools and, due to its limited source areas, was extensively traded. With respect to man-made glass, the ancient Romans were the first to mass produce glass articles, and this included glass jewelry and gemstones. In the ancient world, glass jewelry was very costly, not only for the ancient Romans, but particular so going back another 3,000 years further to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Sumeria. Though glass jewelry, especially gemstones and beads, have been fashioned for perhaps 5,000 years, very little is known about the production of glass in the ancient world.
Perhaps about 4,000 B.C. the ancient Egyptians started fashioning amulets, beads, and small vessels out of a material known as “faience”, an ancient precursor of glass created by crushing quartz sand and mixing it with an alkali binder and mineral oxides to provide color. The discovery of the techniques for producing glass was probably the accidental byproduct of the ancient production of faience. Ancient lumps of glass have been discovered in the area of ancient Mesopotamia, as well as ancient Syria and Egypt, dating as far back as 4,000 B.C. Written records from ancient Mesopotamia refer to the manufacture of glass, describing the manufacturing process as difficult and a closely-guarded secret. Initially ancient glass vessels were produced in with the use of molds of forms. Some of the earliest surviving examples were from the 15th century B.C. tombs of the wives of ancient Egypt’s Pharaoh Thutmose III. Glass beads dating to about 1,800 B.C. were produced by the Indus Valley Civilization.
Around 1,500 B.C. two new production techniques gave rise to more frequent manufacture of glass in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece. Both techniques involved the use of molten glass rods, either wrapped around a mud core, or placed within a mold. However the end product was still nonetheless frightfully expensive and the process both lengthy and labor-intensive. The disasters that overtook Late Bronze Age civilizations seem to have brought glass-making to a halt. It picked up again in its former sites, as well as in Syria and Cyprus, in the 9th century B.C., when the techniques for making colorless glass were discovered. The first glassmaking "manual" dates back to about 650 B.C., in cuneiform tablets discovered in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. In Egypt glass-making did not revive until it was reintroduced in third century B.C. Ptolemaic Alexandria. During the Greek Hellenistic (colonizing) period many new techniques of glass production were introduced and glass began to be used to make larger pieces, notably table wares.
The term “glass” originated in the late Roman Empire in the Roman glassmaking center at Trier, now in modern Germany. The Romans utilized glass in domestic, industrial and funerary contexts. Glass was used primarily for the production of vessels, although mosaic tiles, window glass, jewelry, beads and gemstones were also produced. Roman glass production developed from Hellenistic technical traditions, initially concentrating on the production of intensely colored cast glass vessels. However, during the 1st century AD the industry underwent rapid technical growth that saw the introduction of glass blowing techniques (introduced a century earlier in Palestine and Syria), wherein a blob of molten glass was inflated either free form or into a mold by blowing through a hollow metal blowpipe. Glass blowing became widespread during the later Roman Empire, and with it the dominance of colorless or “aqua” colored glass, and the inexpensive process created huge demand for glass products, including jewelry.
Syria became the "glass factory" of the Roman Empire and glassware came to be widely disseminated throughout the Roman Empire. Roman glass ware which had already been traded as far as China and Western Asia (Roman glass has been found in first century B.C. tombs in China as well as what was Parthian Persia) now came to be exported throughout the known world in vast quantity. Glassblowing allowed glass workers to produce vessels with considerably thinner walls, decreasing the amount of glass needed for each vessel. Glass blowing was also considerably quicker than other techniques, and vessels required considerably less finishing, representing a further saving in time, raw material and equipment. Although earlier techniques dominated during the early first century A.D., by the middle to late first century earlier production techniques had been largely abandoned in favor of blowing.
Glass making reached its peak at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, with glass objects in domestic contexts of every kind. An eight ton glass slab uncovered by archaeologists indicates that glass was being produced in very large batches contained in tanks situated inside highly specialized furnaces. Glass was seemingly manufactured on a large scale by a limited number of workshops, and then broken into chunks for distribution to a multitude of local producers of end products. Otherwise there is only limited evidence for small-scale local glass manufacture, and only in context of window glass. The first-century A.D. Roman Naturalist and Historian “Pliny the Elder” documented the furnace-production of molten glass and the development of related production technologies.
The Roman writers Statius and Martial both indicate that recycling broken glass was an important part of the glass industry, and that quantities of broken glassware were concentrated at local sites prior to melting back into raw glass. This is supported by the fact that only rarely are glass fragments of any size recovered by archaeologists from domestic sites of this period. With respect to glass jewelry, it is well known that the Romans and their successors in the East, the Byzantines (and Eastern Europe in general), were very fond of elaborate jewelry and other personal adornments. Typical jewelry included bracelets worn both on the forearm as well as upper arm, rings, earrings, and pendants, and in the classical world, glass jewelry was just as costly its counterparts made in gold and/or gemstones.
Though introduced in first century A.D. Alexandria, the use of glass windows gained widespread popularity in the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. throughout Europe, mostly in conjunction with churches and royal structures. In the 8th century A.D. glass was described in Arab poetry, and in another 8th century book a Persian chemist recorded 46 recipes for colored glass (a later edition of the book included 12 additional recipes). By the 11th century clear glass mirrors were being produced in Islamic Spain. In Germany the 11th century saw the introduction of a technique which mass-produced thin sheet glass, and in the 12th century the use of stained glass rapidly became an important medium in Romanesque and Gothic art. However the mass-production of glass during the era of the Roman Empire was not matched by the modern world until the advent of the industrial revolution. Glass remained expensive through the 17th century, and glass gemstones though less expensive than natural gemstones, were still expensive. The “gemstones” in the least expensive “costume” jewelry were generally made from colored amber. Excepting of course genuine precious and semi-precious gemstones, glass “gemstones” were still the domain of relatively more costly pieces.
HISTORY OF SILVER: After gold, silver is the metal most widely used in jewelry and the most malleable. The oldest silver artifacts found by archaeologists date from ancient Sumeria about 4,000 B.C. At many points in the ancient world, it was actually more costly than gold, particularly in ancient Egypt. Silver is found in native form (i.e., in nuggets), as an alloy with gold (electrum), and in ores containing sulfur, arsenic, antimony or chlorine. Much of the silver originally found in the ancient world was actually a natural alloy of gold and silver (in nugget form) known as “electrum”. The first large-scale silver mines were in Anatolia (ancient Turkey) and Armenia, where as early as 4,000 B.C. silver was extracted from lead ores by means of a complicated process known as “smelting”. Even then the process was not perfect, as ancient silver does contain trace elements, typically lead, gold, bismuth and other metals, and as much as a third of the silver was left behind in the slag. However measuring the concentrations of the “impurities” in ancient silver can help the forensic jewelry historian in determining the authenticity of classical items.
From Turkey and Armenia silver refining technology spread to the rest of Asia Minor and Europe. By about 2,500 B.C. the Babylonians were one of the major refiners of silver. Silver “treasures” recovered by archaeologists from the second and third millenniums demonstrate the high value the ancient Mediterranean and Near East placed upon silver. Some of the richest burials in history uncovered by archaeologists have been from this time frame, that of Queen Puabi of Ur, Sumeria (26th century B.C.); Tuankhamun (14th century B.C.), and the rich Trojan (25th century B.C.) and Mycenaean (18th century B.C.) treasures uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the skin of their gods was composed of gold, and their bones were thought to be of silver. When silver was introduced into Egypt, it probably was more valuable than gold (silver was rarer and more valuable than gold in many Mesoamerican cultures as well). In surviving inventories of valuables, items of silver were listed above those of gold during the Old Kingdom. Jewelry made of silver was almost always thinner than gold pieces, as indicated by the bracelets of the 4th Dynasty (about 2,500 B.C.) queen Hetephere I, in marked contrast to the extravagance of her heavy gold jewelry. A silver treasure excavated by archaeologists and attributable to the reign of Amenemhat II who ruled during the 12th Dynasty (about 1900 B.C.), contained fine silver items which were actually produced in Crete, by the ancient Minoans. When the price of silver finally did fall due to more readily available supplies, for at least another thousand years (through at least the 19th dynasty, about 1,200 B.C.) the price of silver seems to have been fixed at half that of gold. Several royal mummies attributable to about 1,000 B.C. were even entombed in solid silver coffins.
Around 1,000 B.C. Greek Athenians began producing silver from the Laurium mines, and would supply much of the ancient Mediterranean world with its silver for almost 1,000 years. This ancient source was eventually supplemented around 800 B.C. (and then eventually supplanted) by the massive silver mines found in Spain by the Phoenicians and their colony (and ultimate successors) the Carthaginians (operated in part by Hannibal’s family). With the defeat of Carthage by Rome, the Romans gained control of these vast deposits, and mined massive amounts of silver from Spain, stripping entire forests regions for timber to fuel smelting operations. In fact, it was not until the Middle Ages that Spain’s silver mines (and her forests) were finally exhausted.
Although known during the Copper Age, silver made only rare appearances in jewelry before the classical age. Despite its infrequent use as jewelry however, silver was widely used as coinage due to its softness, brilliant color, and resistance to oxidation. Silver alloyed with gold in the form of “electrum” was coined to produce money around 700 B.C. by the Lydians of present-day Turkey. Having access to silver deposits and being able to mine them played a big role in the classical world. Actual silver coins were first produced in Lydia about 610 B.C., and subsequently in Athens in about 580 B.C. Many historians have argued that it was the possession and exploitation of the Laurium mines by the Athenians that allowed them to become the most powerful city state in Greece. The Athenians were well aware of the significance of the mining operations to the prosperity of their city, as every citizen had shares in the mines. Enough silver was mined and refined at Laurium to finance the expansion of Athens as a trading and naval power. One estimate is that Laurium produced 160 million ounces of silver, worth six billion dollars today (when silver is by comparison relatively cheap and abundant). As the production of silver from the Laurium mines ultimately diminished, Greek silver production shifted to mines in Macedonia.
Silver coinage played a significant role in the ancient world. Macedonia’s coinage during the reign of Philip II (359-336 B.C.) circulated widely throughout the Hellenic world. His famous son, Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.), spread the concept of coinage throughout the lands he conquered. For both Philip II and Alexander silver coins became an essential way of paying their armies and meeting other military expenses. They also used coins to make a realistic portrait of the ruler of the country. The Romans also used silver coins to pay their legions. These coins were used for most daily transactions by administrators and traders throughout the empire. Roman silver coins also served as an important means of political propaganda, extolling the virtues of Rome and her emperors, and continued in the Greek tradition of realistic portraiture. As well, many public works and architectural achievements were also depicted (among them the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus). In addition many important political events were recorded on the coinage. You can Romaan coins which depicted the assassination of Julius Caesar, alliances between cities, between emperors, between armies, etc. And many contenders for the throne of Rome are known only through their coinage.
Silver was also widely used as ornamental work and in other metal wares. In ancient cultures, especially in Rome, silver was highly prized for the making of plate ware, household utensils, and ornamental work. The stability of Rome’s economy and currency depended primarily on the output of the silver mines in Spain which they had wrested from the Carthaginians. In fact many historians would say that it was the control of the wealth of these silver mines which enabled Rome to conquer most of the Mediterranean world. When in 55 B.C. the Romans invaded Britain they were quick to discover and exploit the lead-silver deposits there as well. Only six years later they had established many mines and Britain became another major source of silver for the Roman Empire. It is estimated that by the second century A.D., 10,000 tons of Roman silver coins were in circulation within the empire. That’s about 3½ billion silver coins (at the height of the empire, there were over 400 mints throughout the empire producing coinage). That’s ten times the total amount of silver available to Medieval Europe and the Islamic world combined as of about 800 A.D.
Silver later lost its position of dominance to gold, particularly in the chaos following the fall of Rome. Large-scale mining in Spain petered out, and when large-scale silver mining finally resumed four centuries after the fall of Rome, most of the mining activity was in Central Europe. By the time of the European High Middle Ages, silver once again became the principal material used for metal artwork. Huge quantities of silver from the New World also encouraged eager buyers in Europe, and enabled the Spanish to become major players in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. Unlike the ores in Europe which required laborious extraction and refining methods to result in pure silver, solid silver was frequently found as placer deposits in stream beds in Spain’s “New World” colonies, reportedly in some instances solid slabs weighing as much as 2,500 pounds. Prior to the discovery of massive silver deposits in the New World, silver had been valued during the Middle Ages at about 10%-15% of the value of gold. In 15th century the price of silver is estimated to have been around $1200 per ounce, based on 2010 dollars. The discovery of massive silver deposits in the New World during the succeeding centuries has caused the price to diminish greatly, falling to only 1-2% of the value of gold.
The art of silver work flourished in the Renaissance, finding expression in virtually every imaginable form. Silver was often plated with gold and other decorative materials. Although silver sheets had been used to overlay wood and other metals since ancient Greece, an 18th-century technique of fusing thin silver sheets to copper brought silver goods called Sheffield plate within the reach of most people. At the same time the use of silver in jewelry making had also started gaining popularity in the 17th century. It was often as support in settings for diamonds and other transparent precious stones, in order to encourage the reflection of light. Silver continued to gain in popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the 20th century competed with gold as the principal metal used in the manufacture of jewelry. Silver has the highest thermal and electrical conductivity of any metal, and one of the highest optical reflectivity values. It has a brilliant metallic luster, is very ductile and malleable, only slightly harder than gold, and is easily worked and polished. When used in jewelry, silver is commonly alloyed to include 7.5% copper, known as “Sterling Silver”, to increase the hardness and reduce the melting temperature. Silver jewelry may be plated with 99.9% pure ‘Fine Silver’ to increase the shine when polished. It may also be plated with rhodium to prevent tarnish. Virtually all gold, with the exception of 24 carat gold, includes silver. Most gold alloys are primarily composed of only gold and silver.
Throughout the history of the ancient world, gemstones were believed capable of curing illness, possessed of valuable metaphysical properties, and to provide protection. Found in Egypt dated 1500 B. C., the "Papyrus Ebers" offered one of most complete therapeutic manuscripts containing prescriptions using gemstones and minerals. Gemstones were not only valued for their medicinal and protective properties, but also for educational and spiritual enhancement. Precious minerals were likewise considered to have medicinal and “magical” properties in the ancient world. In its pure form silver is non toxic, and when mixed with other elements is used in a wide variety of medicines. Silver ions and silver compounds show a toxic effect on some bacteria, viruses, algae and fungi. Silver was widely used before the advent of antibiotics to prevent and treat infections, silver nitrate being the prevalent form. Silver Iodide was used in babies' eyes upon birth to prevent blinding as the result of bacterial contamination. Silver is still widely used in topical gels and impregnated into bandages because of its wide-spectrum antimicrobial activity.
The recorded use of silver to prevent infection dates to ancient Greece and Rome. Hippocrates, the ancient (5th century B.C.) Greek "father of medicine" wrote that silver had beneficial healing and anti-disease properties. The ancient Phoenicians stored water, wine, and vinegar in silver bottles to prevent spoiling. These uses were “rediscovered” in the Middle Ages, when silver was used for several purposes; such as to disinfect water and food during storage, and also for the treatment of burns and wounds as a wound dressing. The ingestion of colloidal silver was also believed to help restore the body's “electromagnetic balance” to a state of equilibrium, and it was believed to detoxify the liver and spleen. In the 19th century sailors on long ocean voyages would put silver coins in barrels of water and wine to keep the liquid potable. Silver (and gold) foil is also used through the world as a food decoration. Traditional Indian dishes sometimes include the use of decorative silver foil, and in various cultures silver dragée (silver coated sugar balls) are used to decorate cakes, cookies, and other dessert items.
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