Sotheby‘s curates 19th century Egyptian-themed jewels this winter

This December, Sotheby’s in New York will showcase a selection of Egyptian-themed jewels to celebrate 100 years since the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb – one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

September 30, 2022: Similar to Classical, Gothic, Medieval and Renaissance revivals, Egyptian art began to influence the decorative repertoire of the arts early in the 19th century. This December, Sotheby’s in New York will showcase one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, before jewellery auctions. 

Egyptian jewellery

Castellani Necklace and Scarab Brooch.

Apart from that, rare jewels by legendary Italian jewellery house Castellani and the renowned designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany for Tiffany & Co. were unveiled in Dubai this September, in an exploration of the timeless fascination with ancient Egyptian culture or what is often referred to as ‘Egyptomania’. 

Carol Elkins, Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s Jewelry department in New York, said, “The 100th anniversary of one of the most spectacular archaeological events of the 20th century – the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb – has inspired us to survey how Ancient Egyptian culture has flourished throughout centuries, especially as it pertains to jewelry design from the 19th century to the present day. We’re so honored to unveil these three exceptional highlights of our burgeoning showcase, representing some of the greatest achievements in jewelry-making during the 19th century and turn of the 20th century."

Ancient Egypt provided a rich source of new ideas for decorative motifs, and jewellers such as Froment Meurice, Mellerio and Boucheron in France, Castellani and Pierret in Italy and John Brogden, Robert Phillips and Carlo Giuliano in England fell under the spell of pharaonic Egypt. Jewels in the shape of falcons, winged scarabs, lotus flowers, papyri and similar subjects often decorated with opaque enamel imitating the white, blue, yellow, red and green palette of Egypt imparted an alluring sense of exoticism, appealing to the elegant, discerning and fashion-conscious collector. 

Egyptian jewellery

Louis Comfort Tiffany Egyptian Revival Gold and Colored Stone Necklace.

The auction includes a Castellani necklace and brooch using the art of micromosaic, whereby thinly spun glass filaments are cut into segments and set into a matrix. Inspired by artwork found in ancient Egyptian temples, the fringe-design necklace combines geometric shapes with carved scarabs – harking back to the age of the pharaohs, when they were a sacred symbol of life and resurrection. These extraordinary jewels from the personal collection of Alfredo Castellani were first sold in Rome in 1930. The number of surviving Egyptian-style pieces by Castellani is few, so these two spectacular examples are scarce.

For Louis Comfort Tiffany, Egypt had long been a source of inspiration. Still, it was only after a trip to the country in 1908 with his collaborator Julia Munson that he devised jewellery collections in the Egyptian style. In 1913, the New York Armory held a fair that was a watershed moment for both the fine and decorative arts, representing the new “modernist” trend emerging in Europe. Realism and figural representation were displaced by minimalism and abstraction. In an attempt to counteract this trend, and as a promotion for his design concepts, Tiffany hosted an Egyptian-themed costume party in the Tiffany Studio’s showroom, a “grand pageant” presentation reenacting Mark Antony’s return to Cleopatra in Alexandria.
Tiffany may have seen or been familiar with the ancient Egyptian menat, a necklace composed of strands of beads linked to an amulet as a counterbalance at the wearer’s back to keep it in place. The menat was intended to bring good fortune and was worn as protection from evil spirits. Tiffany's necklace in 1913 can be considered a modern interpretation of the menat. Still, in his example, the counterbalance is centred. It takes the shape of a miniature semi-cylinder of beads surmounted by an oval lapis lazuli cabochon at the centre, with the aten above, symbolising the sun, flanked by cobras. His design is elegant and timeless but very wearable and remains fashionable today more than a century later. 

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