In prehistoric times, naturally occurring glass, called obsidian, was used not only for weapons and tools but also for objects of personal adornment. After the invention of glassmaking, similar objects were fashioned in man-made glass, or a combination of glass and other precious materials. Hellenistic jewelry is characterized by intricate gold patterns augmented by bits of semi-precious stone and colorful inlay elements. Etruscan jewelry is also renowned for its masterfully crafted goldwork. Roman jewelry has been described as an amalgamation of Eastern and Etruscan jewelry styles, combining the use of colored stones favored in the East with manipulated goldwork typical of Etruscan jewelry. The Romans greatly favored the use of stone and glass in their jewelry, and expanded the Hellenistic tradition by focusing on the visual effects multicolored bits of stone and glass could achieve in their own right. The Romans used glass extensively to imitate precious stones such as emerald, sardonyx, and amethyst, since glass was much easier to carve and the glassmaker had full control over colors and patterns.
By the third century A.D., inlays in Roman jewelry had become more important than their settings, and this reflected the general Roman taste in jewelry styles. Egyptian mummy portraits (18.9.2) from the Roman period illustrate the sorts of rich jewelry combinations with which well-to-do ladies bedecked themselves. Because of its remarkable adaptability and potential to imitate more precious materials, glass offered a uniquely affordable alternative to the expensive items favored by the aristocracy without losing any of the visual appeal for which such materials were favored. Jewelry made entirely of glass, such as many of these rings and bracelets, had wide appeal in Roman society. The availability of relatively inexpensive glass jewelry enabled less affluent Romans to follow imperial and aristocratic fashions.
The three rings seen here were made in a variety of materials. Two were made by winding hot threads of differently colored glass together and setting a glass bezel into the top; the third is gold with a cameo glass inlay. A bezel featuring a pair of confronted busts is set in the ring of blue openwork glass, and the design of this ring may have been intended to imitate openwork gold jewelry, called opus interassile. The other glass ring sports an opaque green-blue glass bead. The gold ring features a bezel in cameo glass, carved to show a nude, draped figure in white glass against a blue background. It is a fine example of the beautiful effects that could be achieved by combining gold and glass. Both bracelets are made of blue glass with applied glass-thread decoration; the larger of the two sports a wide, twisted glass ribbon down the middle and the smaller a zigzag pattern of yellow glass threads that were trailed onto the bracelet while still hot and malleable.