Although Roman clothing styles in general are known for their simplicity and lack of ornament, the widespread use of jewelry provided Roman women with a rare opportunity for display. (The only form of jewelry worn by men was the signet ring, often a gold ring with a decorative stone at its center.) Fashion historians believe that the Romans inherited their love of jewelry from the Etruscans who lived in Italy before the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C.E. The Etruscans had a great love of jewelry. They wore bracelets, earrings, and rings. One custom they seemed to have begun was wearing several rings on each hand. They also developed a unique technique for making gold jewelry called granulation. This involved soldering tiny grains of gold on a solid gold background, which made the item sparkle. This gold-working technique was lost for many centuries and was not recovered until the nineteenth century.
Early Roman jewelry was modeled on Greek and Etruscan examples and remained fairly simple. As Roman armies ventured further from Italy in source of conquest, they began to return home with new jewels and precious stones. During the period of the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ), as the empire began to prosper and many people became more affluent, Roman jewelry became much more ornate. Instead of glass and semiprecious stones, jewelry now included opals, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds. (Diamonds were uncut, however, and were always mounted in rings.) The most precious items used for jewelry were pearls, which arrived from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), off the coast of India.
During the Roman Empire women wore jewelry of all types: earrings, rings for the fingers and toes, bracelets, anklets, and necklaces. Fibulae, or clasps, were used to hold clothing in place and were made in great variety. Contemporary observers took notice of the great wealth of jewelry worn by Roman women. For example, Lollia Paulina (d. 49 C.E. ), the wife of the Roman emperor Caligula (12–41 C.E. ), had a set of pearls and emeralds that would be worth several million dollars today.
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Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.