Constantinople’s greatest industry in jewelry was the making of elaborate head-pieces for royalty and other aristocracy. We tend to take “crowns” for granted now, as part of the whole history/fantasy landscape. Crowns, gowns, horses, lances, etc. But crowns, like anything else, had their own evolutionary path.
The aristocracy of Eastern Rome was inbred and inward-looking, mainly confined to its one huge city. Through this city, so much trade shipping passed that its wealth from fees and tolls never ran dry. Additionally, once it became Constantine’s new capital, it collected taxes from all surrounding regions.
The men and women of Byzantine nobility had to find ways to show off their wealth to each other. After heavily embroidering their simple T-cut robes, they began to decorate their hair and heads. Pearls were great favorites, and of course gold was the chief metal. We don’t have as many early Byzantine images as later ones. Here is an early (ca. 500) mosaic of a court lady, whose hair is decorated with a very simple crown. We can see pearls and some colored gems set in gold, and she has pearl earrings.
The most famous images from the Byzantine court are the twin mosaics of Justinian and Theodora. Their century, the 7th, was a high water mark of Byzantine wealth and influence. Here is Justinian, in his crown, and Theodora in her crown and earrings. At this point, the head-decoration has fully become what we think of as a crown.
Images of saints were important elements in Byzantine crowns and other jewelry. This later crown, from the 11th century, is pretty much nothing but images of saints—on solid gold. Saints’ relics (hair, bone, scraps of cloth) were placed into little jeweled cases embedded in later crowns and other decoration, especially collars worn around the neck, and rings.
The King of Hungary became Christian around 1000 and although Hungary was part of the Roman church, the Hungarian crown was modeled after Byzantine ones. It included both icons and jewels. Notice that the jewels are round, not cut with flat faces the way we style modern jewels.
The trend toward making the crown into a full hat continued; we have one image of the last Emperor of New Rome, at the time that the Ottoman Turks were besieging Constantinople. His crown has become a jeweled hat with long dangles of more jewels. By this time, in the 15th century, there had been so much trading with the Far East that this crown appears to be influenced by Central Asia’s love of hanging strings of bangles from headgear, as illustrated by this crown from Samarkand.
One other far eastern influence is worth mentioning, although its influence came only late in the Middle Ages. Mongolian queens, who sometimes rode into battle, wore a distinctive tall hat. Its fashion changed over time, sometimes a simple cone and other times a high column. Late medieval ladies in Europe copied the tall cone shape, perhaps modeled after Queen Monduhai who re-established the Mongolian kingdom in the 15th century.