The Byzantine Empire lasted from 4th century BC to 14th century AD, a span of 1000 years. The empire was vast, with great resources. Its capable artists drew from earlier Greek, Hellenistic and Roman traditions and invented an entirely unique and remarkable jewelry which is now housed by various
prominent museums around the world. The typical Byzantine jewelry box would have been filled well. From head ware to earrings and necklaces to body chains, bracelets and rings, just about every possibility to decorate oneís body was used.
It is believed that ancient Egyptians viewed the ring, a never ending metal band, as representing eternal love and as having supernatural power. Rings were worn on the 4th finger of the left hand because they thought the "vena moris" or the "vein of love" ran through it, to the head.
The jewellery-making techniques such as engraving, embossing, filigree, granulation and enameling were virtually the same as those used in antiquity. However the Byzantine Empire's direct contact with the East led to the adoption of new methods of decoration. One of the distinctive traits of Byzantine jewellery is the lavish use of precious stones. Pearls from the Persian Gulf, emeralds from Egypt and India, sapphires from Ceylon were brought to the Empire to embellish valuable objects.
Rings were popular and have probably been made everywhere in the empire. Sometimes with a stone, but often made of inscribed metal only. The rings are often gold or bronze with large etched or jeweled faces.
In the Roman Republic, (before 44 BC), by law only citizens could wear rings. And a male citizen could only wear one ring, and that ring was made of iron. In the early empire only Patricians, (the upper class of citizens), could wear gold rings. Other citizens and freemen could wear silver or bronze. Slaves were not allowed to wear rings at all. As the empire expanded the laws and customs regarding jewelry were relaxed.
Clothing was dictated by social class, and changed little for over 1000 years. Consequently jewelry and hairstyles were the dominant means of expressing a Romanís social and economic status. In the later empire some people wore rings on every finger, and even on their toes! The normal everyday Roman was not this ostentatious.
They wore only one or two rings, usually of bronze. Since Roman clothing had no pockets, one popular ring was the key ring. Unlike the modern key ring which holds a group of keys together, a Roman key ring was a finger ring containing an actual key, possibly to a strongbox where the family valuables were stored, or maybe even to the door of the wearerís house.
A typical Byzantine way of using gemstones was to cut them into polished cabochons and set them in collets. The gem became more important than the gold in Byzantine times and less effort is put into gold surrounding big gemstones. The art of glyptography was kept in honor and cameo's and intaglios were popular as ring stones and pendants.
Another method of decoration which is of oriental origin and was frequently used by Byzantine jewellers is niello. Though niello was known in the Mycenaean period it was subsequently forgotten, to reappear on Roman objects. The decorative effect is based on the contrast created between the colour of the ground metal and the dark motifs. It can be applied to gold, silver and bronze Pierced and cut-out decoration (opus interrasile), that appears in many pieces of Byzantine jewellery, also has eastern roots.