The jewellery of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods is among the finest of the ancient world, unsurpassed in richness of subject matter and composition, luxurious media and exquisite attention to detail. In particular, figural forms, which were a popular theme, could be quite striking for their detail and clarity, with miniature figures in gold and stone revealing a quality of workmanship found in monumental sculpture. The present pair of earrings attest to this excellence. Each is composed of a finely carved garnet bead in the form of an African head, the facial features and short curly hair incised in painstaking detail. Each head is strung with double gold wire, connected above and below to a tapering thick loop of twisted wire, the ear hook curving back on itself to form a continuously curving s-shape. Jewellery such as this was intended to surprise and delight the viewer, thereby enhancing the appeal of the wearer.
This type of African head pendant originates from Greece, from the third to second century BC. Images of Ethiopians and Nubians were popular in Egyptian art but were relatively rare in the Mediterranean world until the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BC suddenly exposed the Greeks to the peoples of the African continent. As part of this new and intriguing Nilotic landscape, images of Africans evoked the distant and exotic cultures at the edge of the known world. The popularity of Nilotic themes coupled with a Greek tradition in jewellery of elaborate figural pendants (for example, beads, acorns, vessels, and female heads) led to the depiction of Nubians and Ethiopians as part of the popular repertory of wearable art. Initially, heads were fashioned wholly in gold, but by the late third and early second century, semi-precious stones were incorporated into the composition, as here. Materials rich and warm in colour, such as carnelian, sardonyx, amber, and garnet, were all transformed into African figures, not only rendering each piece more elaborate, but also imbuing them with a striking liveliness and depth of character.
The use of gemstones set into gold jewellery remained a popular practice in the early Roman period; precious stones were said to have held magical properties and were considered markers of high social status. Pendants and earrings in the form of African heads seem to have been particularly popular in Italy, with examples known from Bari and Ruvo.
A pair of gold earrings with the head of an African in garnet is in the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (inv. no. 57.1562-3, circa third century BC), and a similar pair from Cyme, Turkey, is in the British Museum, London (inv. no. 1877,0910.28, circa fourth to third century BC). However, these examples are earlier, and lack the clarity of form and sharpness of carving evident in the present pair.
N. M. Heeramaneck, New York, 1960s.
Published: Bonhams, London, 1 May 2013, lot 223.