At Large  November 29, 2022  Danielle Vander Horst

Consider this Before Buying an Ancient Coin Necklace or Jewelry

Credit: atelierdivin.com

A replica coin necklace of the Roman Emperor Vespasian by Atelier Divin.

Ancient coins are unique among the broader category of antiquities. Easily portable, iconographically striking, and often made of precious materials, ancient coins have found enthusiasts among professionals and laypersons alike. Although the collection of coins is fraught with intense ethical debates (ones which we will return to below), the ways in which coin collecting can manifest have produced rather interesting results throughout history. Perhaps one of the most striking examples has been the incorporation of coins into pieces of jewelry

The first occurrences of coined jewelry have mostly been attributed to the Greco-Roman world, where coins had punch holes or were set into elaborate pendants, located ubiquitously across the ancient Mediterranean. Coins were often prized for much more than their monetary value and are very often found in contexts with no obvious economic functions.

Credit: The British Museum.

A gold and garnet pendant with a solidus of Valentinian II. The coin was minted ca. 375-392 CE and set into the necklace sometime in the 7th century CE.

The iconography of the portraits that coins bore, typically either deities or political leaders, added to the social value of coins greatly and gave them entirely new realms of meaning. The image of the Roman emperor was a particularly powerful tool and the display of high-value gold coins (called aurei) with imperial portraits could provide unique opportunities for elite Romans to flaunt their wealth as well as their allegiance to the royal family. 

Imperial coins were also sometimes the only images of the emperors that many within the empire would ever see in their lives. Numerous examples of ancient necklaces, earrings, and rings have survived where a golden aureus or another type of coin with an imperial portrait has been made the focal point of the piece. As the Roman empire continued to expand and conquered more places further afield, coins from new provinces could be prized for their alternative iconographic vocabularies that gave their owners a sense of the exotic. Coins from Greece and Egypt would certainly have fallen into the latter category for Roman consumers. 

The medieval and Renaissance periods continued to utilize coins in jewelry pieces, oftentimes placing older Roman coins into contemporary jeweled settings. Such coins were of course still signs of monetary wealth, being made of fine gold or silver and fetching handsome prices, but their age now also lent the wearer a certain air of cultured refinement. 

Credit: Bergdorf Goodman.

An ancient Greek drachm of Alexander the Great set in a modern necklace by Bergdorf Goodman for $5,698.00. The seller claims the coin is an authentic and legal object.

Contemporary and modern trends have not strayed far from preceding ones, and ancient coin jewelry has been brought once again to the aesthetic fore. Today, a simple Google search inundates one with endless links to jewelry websites, Etsy shops, and eBay posts advertising ancient coins set in necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets. Whether or not these coins are authentic is another matter, but the fact remains that there is something deeply evocative about owning a piece of the past and displaying it in such a manner. 

Many of the coins that can be purchased as jewelry pieces today remain oriented with their obverses (the face side) prioritized, showcasing the faces of ancient rulers and deities. In fact, when placed side-by-side, there is often not much difference between some ancient and modern settings of these coins. 

Credit: Wikimedia.

The Frome Hoard of coins found in Somerset, England now in the Museum of Somerset. 52,503 coins were found within the jar.

There are many concerns and issues that surround the use of genuine ancient coins in commercial retail. For one, there is the issue of availability and authenticity. Ancient coins tend to be found either as sporadic discoveries on archaeological sites or in large caches, called hoards. Hoards can contain thousands of coins at once and have produced no small percentage of the coins we have today. They are also typically found in very random circumstances without broader archaeological contexts. For example, in 2010, a metal detectorist in the United Kingdom located a hoard of 52,503 coins dating to the 4th century CE in a field. The finder of the hoard, now called Frome Hoard, alerted the authorities of their find.

However, such honesty is not always the case and some coins have quite a lot to contribute to history. One coin found in modern-day Israel was looted in 2002 from a hoard in the Ella Valley near Jerusalem. The design on the coin was minted during the Jewish rebellions in 69 CE and the looted example was only one of four known coins of that design. The coin was noted to be worth one million dollars and authorities pursued it through illegal networks for over twenty years before successfully recovering it. 

Of course, not all ancient coins are so rare and precious but those that would be chosen for display pieces tend to be of exceptional quality and should be prized more for their historical rather than their aesthetic value. Many coins available for sale purport to have legal paperwork, but it is never a clear-cut matter. One country may recognize coins for sale as valid but they may have been looted out of a neighboring one. Such occurrences are not unheard of, especially between Greece and Turkey.

Credit: Miri Bar, Israel Antiquities Authority.

A quarter shekel coin dated to ca. 69 CE looted from the Ella Valley in Israel. Estimated value is $1m and it is one of four known coins of this design.

Regardless of these uncertainties, however, the demand exists and is such that even recognizable store names like Bergdorf Goodman claim to carry authentic and legal ancient coins in necklace settings one such priced at over five thousand dollars. Of course, cheaper options can be found but lower prices always bring along suspicions of either inauthenticity or illegality. 

Many people see the demand for authenticity as part of what continues to spur on illegal looting and the loss of historical context in many countries, but there are also those within the coin-collecting world who rail against such objections to owning these objects, arguing that it is exactly because of their quantity that collection should be allowed. 

There is no easy answer or solution to the much larger problem of antiquities trading, but if you should find yourself in the market for coined jewelry, it might do well to remember that on the modern market replicas are just as available, often much cheaper, and don’t carry the ethical baggage of their authentic counterparts.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a Ph.D. student in Classical Archaeology at Duke University. She has excavated with multiple projects in Italy and predominately researches ancient identities in the northwestern Roman provinces.

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