Francesca Balzan

The Jewellery History of Malta: some observations on its study

DOI: 10.7431/RIV01072010

The study of the history of jewellery in the Maltese Islands is still in its infancy. Malta has had an extremely chequered and rich history, which saw the islands absorbing influences from its various colonizers. These included the Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of the Order of St John, French and the British. This multipilicity of influences would clearly have been reflected in the jewels that were acquired, worn and collected on the islands, however no systematic study had ever attempted to analyse the subject in a proper academic fashion

Recent scholarship on the history of costume and silver in Malta did make occasional reference to jewels, but this, if anything, highlighted the glaring gap in this area of academic research.  Previous authors who had written about Maltese ethnography had observed this lacuna.

In 1973, Thomas Foster had very perceptively remarked that:

«there is a body of work by Maltese gold and silversmiths and jewelers that urgently needs study. No small part of this is the ecclesiastical gold and silver ware and jewellery, some of which can be seen displayed in parish churches at fiestas. Together these precious objects must form a collection of first-rate importance that still awaits its cataloguer and its historian»1.

The eminent Maltese folklorist Guze Cassar Pullicino also commented about the fact that jewellery, as well as specific items of Maltese costume «lend themselves to monograph treatment»2.

The examination of gold and silver objets d’art and the legal and historic framework in which they were created was systemically tackled and published by Victor Denaro, who produced the first landmark study on the silver of Malta3, followed by Jimmy Farrugia who examined Maltese domestic and ecclesiastical silver in great detail and was himself a collector4. Alaine Apap Bologna produced an important study5 to accompany a major exhibition dedicated to Maltese silver organized by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti in 19956 and continues to study the history of silversmiths and goldsmiths in Malta. Jewellery, however, was never intended to be the focus of these studies.

When I decided to take up this area of research some years ago, there was therefore an abundance of untapped sources to assess, but no previous studies to rely on. Just a few months into my research, it became very clear that this was a very rich aspect of the Maltese heritage that would reward the researcher. The sources were copious and their study would result in a new insight into Maltese culture and social history.

The sources for the study of Maltese jewellery history were principally the surviving artefacts. Unsurprisingly, the churches held an abundance of old jewellery sometimes mutilated in order to be attached to chalices and reliquaries but quite often surviving intact as jewellery pieces adorning paintings and processional statues in these churches. The Treasury of the Cathedral church of Malta, for example, conserves some outstanding pieces which were also well documented in the meticulously compiled inventories still preserved in the Cathedral archives (Fig. 1). The earliest surviving inventory dates to the mid-16th century7. This and subsequent inventories helped in determining the approximate dating and provenance of these pieces.

Private collections to a lesser extent also conserved some interesting pieces, but these proved difficult to provenance and often bore signs of re-working. National museums have few jewellery pieces as there never seems to have been a specific interest in acquiring jewellery for the National Collection. Private museums such as the Casa Rocca Piccola8 in Valletta and Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum9 in Mdina are practically the only museums displaying antique jewellery in Malta. Foreign museums on the other hand did have several pieces of interest, many of which were adorned with Maltese crosses possibly indicating a Malta-made or Malta-connected source of origin particularly pertaining to the period when the Knights of the Order of St John ruled over the Maltese islands (1530-1798)10.

Portraits and other paintings of the period showed how jewellery was worn in Malta (Fig. 2). Through the systematic study of these paintings, specific tendencies could be detected, such as the wearing of a particular type of ring on the fingers of adult females in the late 18th century. Other painted images of the time included illustrated inventories of the treasures of the Conventual church of St John, Valletta, the principal church of the Order, which held a remarkable collection of relics, several of which were placed in suitably rich and jeweled containers. These reliquaries, few of which survive in situ, were sourced from different areas of Europe and brought to Malta, thus providing a splendid display of European taste in the adornment of the precious metals. The Maltese craftsman must have assimilated these variegated influences, just as his contemporaries did in the arts of silver working, furniture and paintings.

Documentary sources proved to be another important source for the study of Malta’s jewellery history. It is perhaps not sufficiently well known that Malta is particularly rich in archival material, mainly starting with the period of the Order’s rule from 1530 onwards. Church records, together with the judicial records of the Magna Curia Castellania, the records of the Order of St John, Notarial records and several other archival sources, are easily available and contain much data which is not only fundamental for the study of Maltese history, but also for the wider Mediterranean and European context (Fig. 3). Official records of the Order, records of the licencing of botteghe, fonds of inventories which were drawn up as a result of litigation or due to the death of the owner, in addition to the various Cathedral and church inventories compiled throughout the centuries, proved particularly useful for jewellery studies in Malta. Notwithstanding, there remain several other archival sources which await further investigation.

Secondary sources fleshed out the details. These included eye-witness accounts and descriptions of the costume worn by the Maltese, penned by travelers to Malta. Malta was the southernmost tip of Christianity in Europe, and had achieved great fame as the small island which, against all odds, resisted the siege of the Ottoman force in 1565. This was a feat so remarkable that it was celebrated throughout Christendom. Several travelers ventured south to Malta to witness it first hand and left accounts of what they saw and experienced in Malta.

Recent studies on the jewellery history of other places were of use for comparison purposes. In particular one could track several parallels with the jewellery of Sicily and of Spain which can be attributed to their political and geographic proximity to Malta.

Using the above sources, I was able to track the context of jewellery making and patronage of jewellery in Malta. Prior to 1530, when the Knights arrived in Malta, not much mention is made of jewellery and precious stones. The situation changes dramatically upon the arrival of the Order of St John. Precious stones and artistry connected with the crafts of gold and silversmithing now became evident. Trade aspects of jewellery, such as how the jewellery was being sold, the identification of hitherto unknown gold and silversmiths and the licencing practices at the time were examined and a list of jewellers was compiled. Jewellery items of the period were also identified and studied from an art historical perspective.

A lot of work remains to be done in this area. Several documentary sources still have to be tapped and it is expected that much jewellery in Maltese collections remains to be examined. An opportunity to do so, particularly from a multi-disciplinary point of view, will be a major exhibition which is scheduled for 2013 and which will be organised by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, a not-for-profit organization which has acquired an impeccable reputation for the organization of well researched exhibitions, particularly focusing on the decorative arts.

Jewellery history in general is perhaps one aspect of the decorative arts that needs better recognition not only in Malta, but also internationally. It is a fact that exhibitions on jewellery, organizations dedicated to its study and publications of the highest caliber are always on the increase worldwide. While jewellery historians find employ in museums, there are few jewellery historians represented on faculties of universities and consequently few courses which focus specifically on the history of jewellery. Yet, the propensity of jewellery history to contribute to a new reading of the history of a place and of a people is not to be overlooked.

Moreover, the study of the history of jewellery and the identification of certain types as historically important, and therefore worth preserving, has become particularly relevant in these times of global economic recession when the price of precious metals, particularly gold, continues to rise and old jewellery is being valued for its melt-down value rather than its historic and artistic relevance. This too, will one day form a chapter of our jewellery history: a sad chapter, where the destruction of old pieces essentially means the erasing of part of our heritage. The ability to recognize historically important pieces is the only means to prevent this happening. Dissemination of knowledge garnered by jewellery historians is therefore crucial for the protection and preservation of antique jewellery.

On a final note I wish to augur this online journal well. Given the active participation of scholars not only from different areas in Italy but also from other Mediterranean countries, it should prove to be a unique resource for researchers in the decorative arts as well as a platform for international discussion on the several branches of the decorative arts.  It is hoped that this online journal will include articles in different languages in order to attract further contributions and a wider readership from Mediterranean-based scholars. Extending to North African scholarship would, for example, be particularly useful. These areas have impacted so strongly on our history and material culture and yet collaborative efforts and links with scholars of North African art are still not fully realized.


ACM: Archivum Cathedralis Melitae

  1. T. FOSTER, Aspects of Maltese Folk-Art, in Maltese Folklore Review, I, No. 4, 1973, p. 300. []
  2. C. PULLICINO, Notes for A History of Maltese Costume, in Costume in Malta, Malta 1998, p.17. []
  3. V. DENARO, The Goldsmiths of Malta and Their Marks, Florence 1972. []
  4. J. FARRUGIA, Antique Maltese Domestic Silver, Malta 1992 and Idem, Antique Maltese Ecclesiastical Silver, I and II, Malta 2001. Part of Dr. Farrugia’s silver collection was bequeathed to the Cathedral Museum, Mdina, where it is now on display. []
  5. A. APAP BOLOGNA, The Silver of Malta, Malta 1995. []
  6. For more information regarding this exhibition see: []
  7. ACM, Misc. 215 []
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  10. These include Maltese cross badges in the Victoria & Albert collection and the Royal Collection, London, and Maltese cross rings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and the Schmuckmuseum, Pforzheim. []