Armenian Jewelry Art

The Armenian highlands, exceptionally rich in raw materials, played a significant role in the development of metallurgy, particularly gold mining, jewelry-making, and the production and circulation of gold coins in the ancient and medieval East.

From the Early Bronze Age, a unique center of jewelry art took shape in the Armenian highlands, which became a distinct branch of decorative and applied arts.

Stylistic and compositional characteristics of gold samples of decorative art, trends, and processes of transformation, along with comparative analogies, indicate that Armenian jewelry craftsmen, being familiar with the achievements of their contemporary jewelry art, devoted significant attention to principles and archetypes inherited from their ancestors. Gold and silver cups, bowls, and jewelry items found in Armenia stand out for their exquisite taste and high craftsmanship.

In the northeast of the Armenian highlands (within the territory of the Republic of Armenia), golden adornments began to be worn from the second quarter of the 3rd millennium BC. Individual gold deposits and manifestations could serve as raw material sources for local goldsmithing, of which several dozen exist in Armenia. The earliest examples of gold artifacts have been discovered at early Bronze Age sites (Metsamor, Shengavit, Khachenaget, Stepanakert), representing various stages of the Kura-Araxes culture.

Ancient jewelry samples from the Armenian highlands, due to their perfection and variety, serve not only as vivid evidence of a canonical worldview system but also outline the scope of a specific artistic style and aesthetic standards, holding a unique place in the jewelry art of the ancient world. The best testament to this are the adornments, buckles, and medallions of gold and silver with ornate surfaces found in the burials of Vanadzor, Aygeshat, Odzun, Karashamb, and Lori Berd.

While the jewelry art of the Middle Bronze Age was characterized by filigree and granulation techniques, from the early stages of the Late Bronze Age, artifacts made using cloisonné filigree became popular, introducing new shapes and objects. Exceptional jewelry pieces from the 16th-9th centuries BC include the tops of scepters with a pair of zoomorphic heads from Vanadzor, a frog figurine and a chest ornament with a lion’s head from Lchashen, and symbolic female pendant figures from Lori Berd, Lchashen, and Vanadzor, among others.

The jewelry art of later periods is closely linked to the stylistic features of the art of the Kingdom of Urartu (9th–7th centuries BCE). The Lori Berd burials are especially rich. For the first time, a bead in the shape of a lion has been discovered, made using almost all the technical means of modern jewelry making, as well as gold diadems, a gold bracelet with a snake-head terminal, and so on. Bracelets associated with the snake cult, representing masculine power, benevolent forces, and fertility, were widespread in the Urartian Kingdom from the 8th century BCE.

Tools, molds, semi-finished products, and gold items found in Artashat and Garni show that, in Hellenistic Armenia, craftsmen employed various techniques such as forging, casting, inlaying, stamping, engraving, threading, filigree, gilding, drawing wires of various thicknesses, making fine threads, rolling, and cloisonné enameling, among others.

In the Hellenistic period, casting and stamping were more commonly used. The development of jewelry making was significantly aided by the discovery of rolling technology in the 1st century BCE, which allowed for the production of quality, thin, uniform-thickness sheets. This further stimulated the development of soldering techniques.

In medieval times, jewelry art reached a higher level. In major Armenian cities like Dvin, Van, Artzni, Karin, and others, many jewelers worked, organized into artisan guilds.

Various technical methods were employed: wax modeling, casting with molds, forging, embossing, bead decoration, engraving, gilding, silvering, blackening, and more. In jewelry, a separate field was constituted by masters of silverwork. In the mentioned cities, jewelry workshops and stores filled entire streets. One of the most remarkable examples of medieval Armenian jewelry art is the so-called Vilgord cup, made in Cilicia in the 12th–13th centuries.

Another interesting example of applied art is a gold cup found during excavations in Artashat.

The best examples in medieval jewelry art are objects of church utensils (chalices, cups, censers, and offering plates), of high-ranking clergy (panagia, scepters, and archbishop eagles, signet rings, etc.), and silver covers—cases for Gospels. Notable are reliquary boxes inlaid with thin gold and silver plates and precious stones, dated to the 10th–14th centuries. Gold weaving became widespread; the best examples of which are samples of children’s clothing found during excavations in Ani. Among the monuments of visual arts, manuscript miniatures have survived the best, in the earliest of which (6th–7th centuries), gold was used alongside valuable pigments. Gold was also used for making precious manuscript covers.

In antiquity and the Middle Ages, Armenia was a crossroads of international trade routes connecting the East with the West. The earliest gold coins found in Armenia were minted during the time of Alexander the Great. They were in circulation from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BCE and served as international currency. In the 1st century BCE, Armenia was integrated into the Roman monetary system. Of particular importance to Armenian numismatics are the gold coins of Cilician Armenia, issued by kings Levon II (1198–1219), Hetum I (1226–1271), and Constantine I (1298–1299). In the Middle Ages, gold, along with its role as a universal equivalent, accumulated in the form of hoards. It, like silver, was considered a sacred royal metal, and within these hoards, gold, silver, precious stones, clothing, various royal, princely, and church symbols, as well as books, took on a hierarchical importance.

The traditions of Armenian jewelry art have survived through the centuries to the present day. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the craft of Armenian jewelers, while continuing the best traditions of their predecessors, acquired new qualities and expanded production by creating new household items. These items became widely integrated into urban life and became one of the main indicators of elite culture. The use of silverware (plates, spoons, cups, glass holders, etc.) indicated the high status and standard of living of the urban population. The abundance of jewelry depended on the luxury and attractiveness of Armenian women’s dresses (Karin, Kars, Akhaltsikhe, Alexandropol, etc.).

Based on the technical, technological, and artistic features of Armenian jewelry, various schools are distinguished: Van, Vaspurakan, Karin (from which the schools of Kars, Akhaltsikhe, and Alexandropol emerged), Syunik-Artsakh, Lesser Armenia, Cilicia, etc. Armenian gold and silver craftsmen had high reputations in Armenian communities in Constantinople, Tbilisi, Crimea, Poland, Astrakhan, Nor Jugi, etc. Like medieval craftsmen, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were also organized into guilds. Each jewelry school had its own specialization and orientation with its own set of ornamental motifs. Overall, floral and geometric patterns were common to all.

For example, the Van-Vaspurakan school was famous for making silver and gilded (with enamel) belts and decorations, household items for urban life, and many other types of applied art. The Vaspurakan school was also known for the use of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic patterns, as well as the depiction of famous monuments and portraits of notable Armenians.

The ornamentation on larger items (trays, goblets, plates, cigar cases, women’s bags, etc.) was more varied than on smaller ones (earrings, rings, etc.).

The Karin-Akhaltsikhe-Alexandropol school was characterized by the techniques of granulation and filigree, which were used to make decorative and applied objects and jewelry (napkin holders, head ornaments, bracelets, silver and gilded belts, dagger handles, etc.).

L. Zagursky, a member of the Russian Imperial Geographical Society, spoke enthusiastically about the jewelry art of Akhaltsikhe craftsmen, emphasizing the craftsmanship of pistol barrels with carving, “especially the filigree silver items, reminiscent of the best times of Byzantium. How much purity, delicacy, and elegance in their finish!”

The Syunik-Artsakh school was known for belts and jewelry made using granulation and oxidation techniques.

Armenian jewelers used more than a dozen technical and technological methods: casting in wax and clay molds, forging and tempering, ornamentation, stamping (hallmarking), making cylindrical tin objects, thread weaving, granulation, engraving, gold or silver plating, tarnishing, silvering, creating alloys of silver and gold, etc.

Alongside jewelry-making, there were also other crafts, the most famous of which was the art of processing precious and semi-precious stones. This brought fame to Armenian jewelers, whose highly artistic creations enjoyed great demand among affluent populations in the East and West.

Armenian jewelers from India achieved great success in processing semi-precious and imitation stones (costume jewelry). In the 17th–19th centuries, they made almost half of the similar ornaments sold in Europe.

One of the finest examples of Armenian craftsmanship is the diamond-encrusted throne, presented as a gift to Russian Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (now kept in the Armory Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin). The highly artistic works of Armenian jewelers are kept in many museums around the world and in private collections (the British Museum, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Armory Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin, etc.).

The high-quality craftsmanship of Armenian jewelers enjoyed great demand even during the Soviet era, not only within Armenia but also beyond its borders, particularly in Russia and most other Soviet republics. A pivotal moment in the jewelry-making industry was the establishment of the Yerevan Jewelry Factory in 1951 (which became a plant in 1965). Alongside mass production of gold items that drew upon the best traditions of their predecessors, unique bespoke works were created and successfully showcased at all-union and international exhibitions.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an entire generation of professional and folk artisans emerged whose art successfully combined traditional skills with modern innovations. Worthy of mention are the golden letters of the Armenian alphabet and the golden cross engraved by Armenian masters, housed at the residence of the Catholicos of All Armenians in the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, a masterpiece of modern jewelry art.

At present, there are also many individual craftsmen in the field of jewelry art who take custom orders. In their gold and silver items and decorations, they adhere, on the one hand, to traditional techniques and national ornamental motifs, while also considering the requirements of modern design, on the other.

Crafted with great artistic taste and at a high level, these items are in demand both among local residents and numerous tourists. In Yerevan, they are primarily sold at the Vernissage and the “gold market,” serving as souvenir items.

Translated: Vigen Avetisyan

  1. Armenians / ed. by L.M. Vardanyan, G.G. Sarkisyan, A.E. Ter-Sarkisyants; N.N. Miklouho-Maclay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology RAS; Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography NAS RA. — Moscow: Science, 2012. — (Peoples and Cultures).
  2. Armenia. The Legend of Being. The Country That Radiates All Circles of History [catalog] / Editorial and Publishing Department of GIM. — Moscow, 2016.

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