If you are traipsing up to Berlin any time soon, you may be tempted to view some ancient bling at the Neues Museum, in a collaborative exhibition of old jewels between the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte –Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Berlin Museum for Prehistory & Early History) and the the Römisch-GermanischesMuseum der Stadt Köln (Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne).
Strangely enough, it all began in the 1800s, when a schoolboy decided he wanted to collect antique coins. Baron Johannes von Diergardt was the grandson of a wealthy merchant who traded in velvet and textiles. Thanks to his family wealth, Johannes collected magnificent jewels throughout his life – Migration Period gold jewellery from the Black Sea, early medieval silver brooches, and richly decorated belts from France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
Contrary to most collectors, he did not keep his collection to himself, but loaned extensively to the Berlin Museum under the promise of anonymity, remaining documented as an ‘unnamed patron’. In his older years, albeit being a very private person, he enjoyed stopping at the museum after visiting hours, have a chair provided for him, and sit in the midst of his treasures, admiring them and chatting with museum staff.
Finding himself in financial difficulty during the 1920s’ economic crash, Johannes decided to sell the collection, immediately offering it to the Berlin Museum, which however took its time to decide to buy. In the meantime, Johannes passed away. His heirs awarded the contract to the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, which reacted quickly, decisively securing the purchase. The collection transferred to Cologne, forming the basis of the eventual Roman-Germanic Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Museum).
Now, thanks to the Cologne and Berlin museums’ collaboration, these treasures of old jewels have returned temporarily on show in Berlin after an absence of some 80 years. The “Diergardt Collection” as it is known, covers many geographical spaces and epochs from the northern Black Sea region where diverse cultural traditions met over time: Scythians and Greeks, Sarmatians and Romans, Germanic tribes and Huns.
The collection contains exhibits preceding the 1st millennium A.D. when Europeans slowly crafted metal jewellery and tools. Valuable jewellery was buried with important women, and gemstones were used in the ornamentation of early medieval outfits. Garnet, a blood-red gemstone from South Asia, was particularly popular and was mounted on rings, brooches, belt buckles and prized weapons.
Women wore elaborate chatelaines hanging from a belt or brooch, holding several pendants – practical utensils, ornaments or charms. Silver fibulae (brooch cum safety pins), typically made of silver, often gilded and adorned with red gemstones, served both as fasteners and ornaments, lavishly decorated, often with Animalia. During the Migration Period, some women north of the Black Sea fashionably wore fibulae in pairs. The fashion spread throughout Europe during the Early Middle Ages, testimony to the exchange that connected women from remote regions.
‘The Crown of Kerch – Treasures from the Dawn of European History’.
Open at the Neues Museum, Berlin until 25 September 2022.