You might think the intrigue surrounding the ill-fated Cleopatra, last queen of the ancient Egyptians, first inspired the trend for exotic jewelry styled like Ankhs and scarabs. In fact, the interest in Egyptian motifs wasn’t widespread until the late 1700s, when Napoleon’s military campaign in Northern Africa helped to popularize fine jewelry featuring the exotic aesthetic. The British fell for Egyptian styling after the 1798 Battle of the Nile, and soon wealthy women all across Europe were wearing Egyptian-inspired jeweled brooches, headbands, and flower-shaped pins in their hair.
The demand for Egyptian designs boomed again during the 1920s, after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 spread Egyptian imagery throughout the western world. Newsreel footage of archaeological digs and Hollywood depictions of the gilded Egyptian empire sealed the deal: Egyptian style was red hot.
Not only was Egyptian jewelry linked to ancient opulence, it also held the allure of a legendary culture and its mysterious symbols. Often Egyptian revival designs were pulled directly from Egyptian amulets worn for good luck—the Udjat, or eye of Horus, was a common motif, symbolizing healing and protection; scarabs and lotus flowers represented rebirth and resurrection; and the Ankh was a symbol of eternal life.
Produced by major fashion-jewelry firms like the Napier Company in New York, Egyptian revival jewelry was typically made from flashy golden forms featuring carved hieroglyphics, pharaoh’s heads, sphinxes, and even mummies. Bigger was always better, especially for exotic pieces like headbands with dangling forehead pendants, oversized bib necklaces, or heavy chain-link “slave” bracelets.
Costume jewelers such as Whiting & Davis, Lisner, and Monet quickly produced revival pieces of their own, using enamel inlays in the plique à jour style to showcase animals like falcons, jackals, scarab beetles, and cobra snakes. Other emblems of the desert, from pyramids to palm trees, adorned long necklaces and fringed earrings inlaid with semi-precious stones or rhinestones. Since the '20s, the Egyptian revival trend has returned every few decades. Some of the most ornate pieces were made by Joseff of Hollywood for the 1963 epic “Cleopatra,” starring Elizabeth Taylor.
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