Wearable history

Wearable history

crafted glass

Wearable history

I’m looking at a piece of history. Not any history, but at something that may be 2,000 years old. “Each piece is different, one-of-a-kind, and tells a story,” says the owner of a shop that sells Roman glass jewellery in Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s old port area in Israel. Roman glass is an ancient material discovered in Roman archaeological excavation sites in Israel and in other Mediterranean countries. Jewellery made out of it is one of the most popular types and styles, enabling a person to wear fashionable history.

The glass is crafted into elegant bracelets, necklaces, earrings, brooches, rings and pendants. “The glass in this aqua-hued jewellery probably began life as a drinking glass or a vase or a vessel,” the shopkeeper goes on. “There are many Roman archaeological sites in modern-day Israel from where we buy shards of glass fragments and then design our jewellery around it. You can also buy them from the Israel Antiquities Authority; carbon dates much of the broken glass and pottery retrieved from archaeological digs when builders run across archaeological finds while erecting new buildings.” Each fragment’s colour and texture are the result of eons of changing weather conditions. They become flecked with natural blue-green and aqua patina.

Everyone’s pick

In the Roman Empire, glass was considered a luxury material and was available only for the wealthy. So, it was blown into the shape of vessels for storing water and olive oil. As the popularity of the glass spread, craftsmen found other uses for this material. Vases, goblets, bowls, perfume pots and pitchers made of this glass were brought to life. Then wine, medicine, perfumes and food were also stored.

At that time, glass was manufactured by a laborious process of core forming, casting, cutting and grinding. However, since the invention of the glassblowing method, the mass-produced glass was available to the public in attractive forms. Glass is formed when sand, soda and lime are fused at high temperatures. The colour of the glass can be altered by adjusting the atmosphere in the furnace and by adding specific metal oxides to it. Ancient Israel was one of the largest glass producers of the Roman Empire because it had large tracts of sand in its beaches and dunes. They helped preserve the glass through the centuries, shaping and tempering it into the jewellery-quality pieces that are being excavated today.

How do these lovely colours and shades develop? Each piece of this glass has endured the pressure of wind and soil to end up being so beautiful and textured. Complex natural chemical processes through the ages, and minerals of the soil have worked their magic on the glass, giving it an opalescent shimmer.

To think about the colours in the jewellery is an activity in drawing metaphors. Some shimmer with the colours in a peacock’s feather; some others bring to mind the gold foil; some have the beauty of acid green — all these colours just because the glass stayed buried quietly in the damp soil over centuries.

 Deposits & decoding

“Blue and purple glass belonged to royalty,” pitches in Sharon Pelleg, my Israeli guide. Each fragment varies in thickness, age and composition. “The designs for the jewellery are usually based on artefacts recovered, and drawings discovered in the archeological digs.”

The largest quantities have been found in Israel’s Judaean Desert on Israel’s western border, along the shores of the Mediterranean, where the arid atmosphere has preserved antiquities well. Each piece of Roman glass is examined and certified for authenticity by a group of experts.

Sharon tells me to watch out for fake Roman glass jewellery while shopping because the glass’s natural colouring can be easily duplicated. Sometimes, the duplicates are made from old light bulbs, or even plastic.

 “The fake pieces are most often dull or have a matte finish, which is not characteristic of the shine of a real piece,” she explains. “Buy the jewellery that comes with a radiocarbon dating certificate,” she advises. Roman glass is set in sterling silver or 14-karat gold, which accentuate its beauty. I buy a lovely pair of teal earrings encased in sterling silver. I then have the sheer pleasure of revelling in the fact that the glass in the earrings was made by craftsmen years ago, and that I have brought home a piece of history. Had it been a part of a goblet or a jar? Who had used it?

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