The Greek Key Motif

The Greek Key Motif

The ‘Greek Key’ motif in jewellery can also be known as the ‘Running Dog’, the ‘Greek Fret’, the ‘Maze Pattern’, the ‘Labyrinth Pattern’ or the ‘Meander Motif’. The name is derived from the River Meander, the historical name for the Büyük Menderes River in contemporary Turkey. The River Meander had many twists and was mentioned by Homer in the Iliad.  There is also said to be a connection between the motif and the Cretan labyrinth.

The earliest examples of the motif have been found in the farming communities in Anatolia, 6000 BC and it was a common pottery design throughout Neolithic Europe. It was the most important symbol in ancient Greece, decorating many temples and objects. Interestingly, the Ancient Chinese developed a similar design known as ‘Chinese Fretwork’. Variations of the motif are also found in African, South American and Native American design. It is also reminiscent of many Celtic design elements. 


To the Ancient Greeks, the design symbolised infinity or the ‘eternal flow of things’. It is also said to symbolise friendship, love and devotion and is given as a marriage gift to this day. It is also thought to represent the four cardinal points or the four seasons. 

Most of us will recognise this ubiquitous motif even if we are not aware of the name or the origin.  There are many variations – sometimes the pattern is rectangular and sometimes it is rounded, sometimes there is a simple geometric design and other times is is more elaborate and complex. It may boarder an object or cover a larger area. (If the decoration forms interlaced patterns, it is known as Guilloche.) However, two elements remain consistent – the design is maze-like and repetitive.

Georgian and early Victorian Neo-Classical and Architectural Revival

The Georgian era was distinguished by several great archeological discoveries greatly influencing Georgian jewelry motifs.  When the ruins of Pompeii were excavated from 1706 to 1814 a wave of Neo-classical design influenced almost every area of manufacturing, art and craft. In the 1760s in particular, Roman and Greek motifs, such as Greek Keys and laurel and grape leaves, abounded. The Greek Keys motif was particularly popular on the mountings of cameo. The Greek Keys motif continued in popularity through the Victorian era and remains popular to this day.


Fine Antique Coral Cameo Brooch within a Frame Accented By Greek Key Motifs And Applied Ropetwist Borders, With Pendant Hook, Mounted in Gold c.1801-1908 Prices4Antiques

Art Deco

The Greek Keys Motif experienced another wave of popularity during the Art Deco era. However, many have said that the designers of the Art Deco era were in fact deriving their ‘Greek Key’ Motifs from the Egyptian designs that were being uncovered during the great archeological discoveries of the era. This makes a certain amount of sense as the Art Deco era is not known for it’s neo-classical styles, besides the Greek Key, but is of course renowned for it’s Egyptian Revival styles. Regardless of the inspiration, the motif is still referred to as ‘Greek Keys.


Art Deco Greek Keys bangle. Elder and Bloom.


© Pippa Gaubert Bear and Elder and Bloom LLC, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Pippa Bear and Elder and Bloom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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