Reach for the stars with ancient astronomical jewelry

A Greek gold repousse pendant picturing the sun, with circles representing stars, and dating to circa 4th-3rd century BC, realized $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Artemission and LiveAuctioneers

Humankind has marveled at the beauty of the heavens since well before written history. To the ancients, the sun was not merely a natural phenomenon, but also a god. Its daily journey across the horizon symbolized fertility and rebirth as well as strength and power. Luminous stars, which helped sailors and other travelers orient and navigate, and the silvery moon, which was revered for its recurrent, mystical phases, were objects of awe. These astronomical symbols not only featured in religious rites, but also fired the artistic imagination. 

Many early sun-shape pendants were fashioned as open bronze circles. Others were embellished with dotted rims, open crosses, rounded perforations or sun wheels — concentric circles with radiating arms. Yet shimmering gilded discs, some patterned with tiny sun motifs, may have been regarded as far more powerful.  

A gold lunar-shape Byzantine pendant, dating to circa 900, sold for £2,400 ($3,311) plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bronze Age lunar amulet-pendants were often crude crescents, meant to represent the sliver of the new moon. Others were graduated circlets, each featuring a single, large, pointedly off-center, round perforation, possibly shaped that way to indicate lunar phases. Yet gold and silver lunulae — broad, crescent-shaped, decorative collars unearthed in Ireland — may be the most distinctive Bronze Age jewelry finds of all.  

During the Hellenistic period, wearing gold jewelry was fashionable and indicated one’s wealth, strength, and social status. Some Greeks wore simple, sun-shaped circlets. Those who were more affluent favored pendants, brooches, medallions and armbands graced with sun motifs placed amid rosettes, repousse-point stars, filagree scrollwork, and granulation — delicate ornamental patterns worked in grains of gold. Many crescent-shape pendants, representing the Greek moon god Selene, also feature granulation and repousse-point stars.  

A bronze openwork solar disc plaque with radiating arms, dating to the 2nd millennium, realized £70 ($97) plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Jewels were among the few items that Roman women could call their own. They took full advantage of the opportunity, using jewelry to signal their tastes and rank. Gold, concave or discoid sun-shaped pendants were popular, and some were enhanced with concentric filigree bands, ornamental stars, granulated collars, delicate filigree or gemstone insets. 

During the late Roman Empire, women wore gold or silver gemstone intaglio finger rings depicting a radiantly crowned Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). Members of the lower classes, however, apparently relied on simpler bronze amulets in shapes they believed would provide personal protection: shields, sunbursts and open sun-whorls. Crescent-shape lunar pendants, which represent the Roman god Luna, range from coarse stamped bronzes to gold-and-garnet beauties with filigree spirals or decorative rosettes. Gold finger rings festooned with petite crescents and stars, as well as star-shape brooches, were also desirable. 

A Roman gold intaglio lunar crescent pendant featuring filigree spirals and cabochon garnets, and dating to the 2nd century, realized $4,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Artemission and LiveAuctioneers

Ninth-century Byzantine lunar-shape gold earrings, while small, may feature extensive openwork, floral scrolling and granulation, along with suspended glass beads. In addition to bright enamel detail, Byzantine brooches typically feature intricate gold twisting or openwork that seem to subtly embrace a full moon.   

A Viking silver lunar crescent pendant depicting a mythological face and dating to the 9th or 10th century sold for $800 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Centuries later, the Vikings, who worshiped the sun, created       bronze and silver sun-wheel brooches as well as gold sun whorls and sunbursts. Since they worshiped the moon as well, many of these seafarers wore bronze, gold or silver crescent-shape amulets, brooches, pendants and pectorals. Some pieces were simple, while others featured scrolled wirework, geometric filigree or graceful granulation. Designs that Vikings regarded as protective included little raised repousse shields, fearsome mythological faces and winged monsters.         

This gilded Jewish-Islamic necklace featuring silver, coral and crescent-shaped ornaments sold for $650 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Alma and LiveAuctioneers

From the 18th- through the mid-20th century, skilled Yemeni metalsmiths created exquisite gold and silver jewelry for betrothed women. Some of their filigree necklaces that follow the natural form of the neck are lunar-shaped. Others, explain experts at Alma Gallery in Tel Aviv, take the form of large crescent-shape pendants or amulet boxes and reflect shared Jewish and Islamic historic, cultural and artistic motifs. 

Each piece of ancient astronomical-themed jewelry is unique and embodies the culture, beliefs, social status and wealth of the person who first wore it. Most were highly valued, and thus were well preserved through subsequent generations. These ancient masterpieces of the jeweler’s art are not only priceless to those who wear them, but also timeless, as they allow one to see the sun, moon, and stars through ancient eyes.