Ancient Roman general (and later emperor) Vitellius was said to have financed an entire military campaign by selling one of his mother's pearl earrings. Back in the first century A.D., the Queen of Gems was a rarity, expensive and reserved exclusively for the noble and affluent.
A sumptuous cache of pearl- and emerald-encrusted rings, bracelets, gold necklaces and other opulent objects from the Roman Empire are on display in the exhibition "Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville" at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. On view for the first time outside of Paris, the assortment of precious jewelry accompanies the 90-piece gilt-silver Berthouville Treasure of statuettes and ornamental vessels that were found by a French farmer plowing a field in 1830. Both are on loan from the royal collection of the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
It's no surprise the extraordinary craftsmanship and timeless style created in Ancient Rome is consistently replicated at high-end stores catering to the rich and famous. For example, the Treasure of Naix — eight gold necklaces accented with emerald, glass, amethyst, pearl and sardonyx — resembles pieces at Barneys and Cartier. Updated versions of an emerald, pearl and gold ring (circa 100-200 AD) and gold cuff bracelets were spotted at the Van Cleef & Arpels booth at the recent LA Art Show.
Gold may have been coveted for its incorruptibility, but the cameo was once the elite status symbol.
"One piece that signified great wealth and power were cameos," said Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, noting the "Cameo Depicting Jupiter." Poised holding a scepter and thunderbolt, Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus, is intricately detailed in layers of brown and bluish white sardonyx set in a 14th century mount of gold and enamel.
While cameos are raised images, intaglios are the reverse, carved so that the image is recessed into stone. Intaglios with images of emperors and gods carved into amethyst, carnelian or nicolo stone were also highly regarded in antiquity. Fast-forward to present day, when the Elizabeth Locke collection at Neiman Marcus features intaglio earrings, rings, bangles and cerulean teardrop pendants priced up to $18,000.
"Precious stones in antiquity were valued much more than gold and silver," Lapatin said, noting the inner luminescence and glow that captured the light.
"Because the stones came from conquered territories, faraway mythical places like Egypt and India, it created an aura of magical powers," said Lapatin. "Ancient writers often talked about how the gleam and luster of gems imparted divinity on the land."
Mystical qualities were also attributed to perfume flasks. The bottles' design emulated the mysterious properties of the serum inside. The "Seasons Vase," a slender, elegant alabastron etched in blue and white glass that's considered one of the finest surviving examples of cameo glass, is also part of the exhibit, which is scheduled to run though Aug. 17.
"Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville"
Where: Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades
When: Through Aug. 17. Closed Tuesday.
Tickets: $15 parking
Contact: (310) 440-7300, www.getty.edu