Their weight is not measured in carats and they do not shine – indeed, sometimes they are outright rusty. Yet ancient coins can add as much intrigue to jewellery as sparkling gems. The Romans wrought their money into weighty medallions and 2,000 years later it’s a look that has contemporary currency. The autumn/winter collections of Bottega Veneta, Oscar de la Renta and Versace all jangled with coin-like accessories; jewellers Anissa Kermiche and Alighieri are recasting the coin pendant with fashionable flair; while Elizabeth Gage and Benedetta Dubini are setting genuine antiques in stately style.
The name most often associated with the coin-set jewel, however, is that of Bulgari, whose Monete collection – today featuring dazzling sautoirs and significant signet-style rings – was first launched in the 1960s by then creative director Nicola Bulgari, a keen coin collector. “He was guided by the beauty of the portraits of Roman emperors and combined them with the simplest of settings,” says creative director Lucia Silvestri, who explains that to preserve the coin’s numismatic value, it is “sandwiched” between two bezels.
Fine examples are highly collectable. A 1970s 18ct gold bangle set with three Roman coins sold at Christie’s last December for $28,000 over a $5,000-$7,000 estimate, while New York dealer Eleuteri offers two iconic 1970s necklaces: a curb-link chain hung with an ancient bronze coin for $22,000; and a striking choker – its double snake-like gold Tubogas bands beset with a depiction of Emperor Maxentius – for $68,000. Other noteworthy versions from this era come from Buccellati, whose Byzantine coin brooch radiating gold diamond-studded fronds is $6,000 on 1stdibs. Such examples are predominantly bought to be worn, as demonstrated by Bulgari ambassador Kitty Spencer’s gala pairing of a sparkling Temperley London jumpsuit with a Monete necklace set with a Roman coin of Emperor Hadrian. Another fan is Jodie Foster, who has several Bulgari coin necklaces, inherited from her mother.
“It is important to weigh up both the numismatic value and the concept of the piece of jewellery,” says Daniela Mascetti, Sotheby’s chairman of jewellery, Europe. “Gold coins are intrinsically more valuable, but a rare silver coin from ancient Greece can be of greater interest.” Symbolism, talismanic power and even political allegiances all come into play. At the start of 44 BC, for example, Julius Caesar featured on a silver denarius coin alongside the legend “Dict Perpetuo” (dictator for life); a few months later coins were minted to mark his assassination – an example of which can be found at the British Museum.
“The majority of Roman medallions come from the Constantinian era [AD 306-337] and are usually found in the peripheral areas of the ancient Roman Empire, such as today’s Poland, Ukraine and Czech Republic,” says numismatic expert Giuliano Russo, owner of London-Zürich-Milan dealership Numismatica Ars Classica, who often sources ancient coins from jewels. “There was a huge flow of Roman gold to these areas and it’s plausible to think that the large, and often elaborate, gold medallions were payment for the highest members of the tribes in exchange for protecting the border – or more simply, so that they wouldn’t attack the Romans themselves.”
Roman and later Byzantine examples today have museum status, such as those donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by US financier John Pierpont Morgan. One features a double chain hung with two openwork pendants, each set with a gold aureus coin of Emperor Severus Alexander; another is a pectoral necklace, its large central medallion flanked by 14 smaller coins, all depicting Byzantine emperors.
Such pieces were popular until the 7th century, “but it was only in the 19th century that coins were treated as precious gemstones,” says Keith Penton, head of jewellery at Christie’s London, when “Italian archaeological revivalist goldsmiths, such as Castellani and Carlo Giuliano, took up the form”. A stunning example – a c1875 gold filigrée Castellani brooch centred on an ancient Greek silver coin from the Lycian League depicting the laureate head of Apollo – was recently sold by London dealer Wartski.
But a coin need not be 2,000 years old to be of interest to jewellers. The 1977 diamond and platinum Bulgari necklace that was once owned by Barbara Sinatra and sold at Sotheby’s last year for $62,500 is set with a 1857 one-dollar gold coin. Fabergé had set rubles into its jewellery and objets, while Cartier used 18th- and 19th-century French gold coins in its 1960s cufflinks and charm bracelets. Examples of each were recently sold at New York’s FD Gallery, which also has ancient Bulgari examples – from clip-on earrings ($5,000) to sautoirs ($38,000).
Singapore-based author and philanthropist Paige Parker has a bijou c1970 Bulgari box clutch set with two gold American coins, and commissioned a bracelet and necklace set incorporating a pair of sovereign coins from 1968 (the year of her birth), given to her by her investor husband, Jim Rogers. “I designed the pieces with the guidance of Karen Au Yeung, senior vice president and senior international specialist at Christie’s in Hong Kong,” says Parker. “We added diamonds to make the pieces more modern. They are very chic and I wear them an enormous amount.”
Regardless of era, there is one aspect of fine coin jewellery that all experts agree on. “It’s the patina that gives the flavour of the past and gives them their beauty,” says Silvestri. “Once gone, it is impossible to restore.” Polish at your peril.