Do you own a piece of jewelry with the ‘Greek Key’ motif? Do you know where it came from? Find out!
The ubiquitous Greek Key
Who doesn’t recognize the meander pattern or ‘Greek Key’ — the repeated decoration used in architecture, furniture, clothing, and even jewelry? Today, one cannot ignore the contemporary use of this strong pattern of repeated design.
Do you know where the Greek key comes from? Did you know that all Greek Key patterns are not the same? Read on!
What’s the origin of the Greek Key?
There are other names for the Greek Key. All the names are applied to any variation of the repetitive configuration. Perhaps you’ve heard the term, “Meander Pattern”, for the Meandros River found in Turkey? It’s also been called “Greek Fret”, “Maze Pattern”, and “Labyrinth Pattern”.
So where did this idea of a continuous labyrinth embellishment come from?
According to an article in Antique Jewelry Investor, the pattern originated from Greek mythology and was symbolic of the labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur.
Do you remember the story about King Minos of Crete? On advice from the Oracle of Delphi, King Minos built a labyrinth under his palace to house the half-man/half-bull, human-eating Minotaur. He commissioned Daedelaus to design an elaborate maze.
Then, Androgeus, son of King Minos, was accidentally killed in some games in Athens. To avenge his son’s death, each year, the king demanded that young boys and girls from Athens were to be sacrificed to the monstrous beast imprisoned there. Once the children were forced into the maze, they could never find their way out and were eaten by the hideous creature.
Deciding to end the tyranny, Theseus, son of Athenian King Aegeus, went to Crete to kill the beast. Aided by King Minos’ daughter Ariadne, Theseus used a ball of string to mark his steps into the maze in order to find his way out and back to safety. Theseus succeeded. He killed the Minotaur, freed the other children, and got out of the labyrinth. Unfortunately, on his return trip to Athens, Theseus forgot to change the sails from black to white to indicate his success, and his father, out of grief over the loss of his son, plunged into the sea to his death.
Are all Greek Key patterns the same?
No. Look carefully at the countless examples from Ancient Greece to the present. There are many variations. However, two elements remain the same: the design is maze-like in appearance and it is repeated over and over.
Sometimes the pattern is rectangular in shape with a very simple geometric design. Other times a more elaborate design reminds one of an old-fashioned key. Sometimes a swirl or more circular repetitive design forms the pattern. It may boarder an object or cover a larger area.
If the decoration forms interlaced patterns, it is known as Guilloche.
Greek Key as a design element
The Greek Key is found in Classical Greek and Roman architecture including Georgian revival, Greek revival, Neoclassicism, and Second Empire.
In Europe, this pattern was included in the dominant style of architecture during the 18th century. The style of architecture also influenced and was reflected in the jewelry of the time. We see the Greek Key in modern architecture as well.
For centuries, jewelry – and not just Greek — features the Greek key pattern. Some antique jewelry with the Greek Key are considered highly valuable.
Today, we see Greek Key in everything from home décor, to clothing and fashion, and more. Greeks in Greece call it the “touristiko” (meaning for tourists), but Diaspora Greeks love anything with the Greek Key, symbolizing their beloved motherland.
Now you know your Greek Key
Whether the piece of jewelry you have — necklace, earring, or bracelet — forms a border around a gemstone or is a continuous design, it now has more meaning.
Now that you know your Greek Key, you can share with others the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth pointing to your jewels as a reminder. This powerful story vividly explains not only the intricate pattern, but also the repetitive nature of the design signifying mystery, cunning, and bravery.
Paraskevi, also known as Vivian Paul Anton, is a 2nd generation jewelry designer, certified gemologist, and proprietor of Paul’s Jewelers in Milwaukee, WI. She trained at the Gemological Institute of America and at the Kulicke-Starke Academy of Arts. Early in her career, she interned with Ilias Lalaounis in Greece. Her pieces have been featured in major magazines and acquired by actors, athletes, and patrons all over the world.
More Jewel School with Paraskevi of Paul’s Jewelers: