Jewels and precious metals

Jewels and precious metals evoke a sense of grandeur and opulence. Positive representations in the Bible carry associations with honour, worth or beauty. Negative representations carry associations with idolatry or temptation.

Honour and beauty

Solomon and the Queen of ShebaIn the Old Testament, there was seen to be a close association between material prosperity and blessing from God (an idea later overturned by Jesus). King Solomon’s great wealth (61 Kings 10:14-186]) was attributed to this and attracted prestigious visitors from afar, including the Queen of Sheba (who came accompanied by her own gold, precious stones and other lavish gifts 1 Kings 10:10). 
In Song of Songs, human beauty is portrayed through precious materials (Song of Songs 5:14). Ezekiel portrays Israel as the bride God generously adorned with jewels (Ezekiel 16:12-13) (although she faithlessly scorned this love by turning the precious gifts into ‘images of men’ Ezekiel 16:17), whilst Isaiah 54:11-12 describes God lovingly re-building a ravaged Jerusalem with precious stones. God’s desire for the best for his people is echoed in the visionary description of the New Jerusalem at the end of time. Built and paved with gold, with a wall of jasper on foundations of twelve precious jewels, the twelve city gates are each made of a single pearl, a symbol of perfection (Revelation 21:18-21). 

Worship and idolatry

In the Old Testament, the Tabernacle and later the Temple were sites associated with the presence of God. They were created using the finest of materials and decorated with jewels and precious metals given by the Israelites as an act of worship (see Exodus 35:22 and 1 Chronicles 29:7-9). In the New Testament one of the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the magi was gold Matthew 2:11. The popular carol We Three Kings speculates that this signifies Jesus’ kingship, although this idea is not directly found in the Bible.
Adoration of the Magi by El Greco 1568However, when people became devoted to the precious materials themselves, rather than God, or used them to create items to be worshipped, this is regarded as an act of idolatry in the Bible. A much referenced example was when the people of Israel grew restless waiting for Moses’ return from Mount Sinai so melted down their jewellery to create an idol in the form of a golden calf Exodus 32:1-7. This act incurred the anger of both God and Moses. 

Wisdom and character

The Bible references valuable and desirable materials as benchmarks to emphasise the greater worth of certain nonmaterial objects:
  • Wisdom and understanding are better than gold and silver, according to Proverbs 16:16
  • The writer of Psalms 119:127 loves God’s commandments more than gold (similarly Psalms 19:9-10)
  • In Proverbs 31:10 it is an ‘excellent wife’ whose worth is considered more precious than jewels
  • Christian faith that been tested is ‘more precious than gold’ (1 Peter 1:7)
  • The ‘ransom’ payment of Jesus’ blood is far more valuable than ‘perishable things such as silver or gold’ (1 Peter 1:18).
The process of refining precious metal (melting it down and skimming off the dross) is used as an analogy for God’s work in the lives of his people:
He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 
                              Malachi 3:3 ESVUK     
(See also Zechariah 13:9.)
1 Corinthians presents a related analogy for the life of a Christian: a building, founded on Jesus, which will one day be tested by fire. Some materials – gold, silver, precious stones – will survive the fire better than others 1 Corinthians 3:11-14.

Treasure as a metaphor

Several of Jesus’ parables revolve around jewels and gold:
Revelation makes several references to jewels and precious metals. Revelation 4:3 describes one with ‘the appearance of jasper and carnelian’, seated on a throne, surrounded with a rainbow like an emerald.
However, the New Testament is aware of the seductive danger of precious ornament. Women are cautioned against focusing on jewellery and other adornments in favour of spiritual character 1 Peter 3:3-4. The ‘Great Prostitute’ sitting on the scarlet beast in Revelation 17:3-4 is ‘adorned with gold and jewels and pearls’.


  • Several of the stories in Arabian Nights feature lavish treasures, for example the password-protected horde discovered by Ali Baba, and the jewel-embellished palace that Aladdin commissions from the genie for his princess bride
  • In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596-98) the task set for Portia’s suitors involves choosing between caskets of gold, silver and lead. Meanwhile, Shylock is seemingly more distraught at his daughter’s theft than at her elopement. ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!’ (Act III Scene I) 
  • In The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas, the imprisoned protagonist learns the details of an island treasure horde full of gold, diamonds and other jewels. He later finds these riches, and uses them to resource his revenge
  • ‘The’ Ring of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1937-49) is a plain gold band which wields untold dark power. Anyone who owns it for a time becomes fixated by it; the story of Gollum shows the great lengths to which they will go to retrieve it
  • Umberto Eco devotes several pages to descriptions of the elaborate treasure housed in the crypt of the abbey where the action of The Name of the Rose (1980) takes place.
  • The Carol Anne Duffy poem Warming Her Pearls (1987) describes a lady’s maid tasked with wearing her mistress’ jewellery during the day so that it will be warm when she dresses her mistress for the evening.

Other cultural references

  • The 17th-century oil painting Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer inspired an historic novel (Tracy Chevalier, 1999) and a film (Peter Webber, 2003) of the same name.

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