Open any high-end decorator or gardening magazine and you are likely to find a room or garden punctuated with a large weather-beaten olive jar. These vintage to antique vessels, some dating back more than 300 years, have myriad uses in almost any setting.
“Olive (or oil) jars can date back hundreds of years. Those from Greece – called pitharis – were used mainly to store the family olive oil,” says antiques dealer Tara Shaw, whose eponymous warehouse on Religious Street showcases many of these vessels in her large pea gravel yard. “In the earlier Minoan culture, the large jars stored liquids, wine and grains. Some believe the jars held water, and when the water evaporated, a home was cooled down. They might have been forerunners of modern-day air conditioners.”
Often, these jars were used to transport goods throughout the Mediterranean countries, and thus, were early shipping containers. The earthen jars made in France were called biots and served similar functions. They can be distinguished from those made in Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey by their rolled lip and a creamy mustard or green glaze that was applied around and just under the lip.
Smaller jars were used to store olives, pickles, cheese or salt, says Shaw. But it is the large, sinuous jars – some measuring more than 3 feet tall – that have captured the interest of antique collectors and decorators. And as with any one-of-a-kind artifact, they are becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Shaw recommends the larger jars be used indoors in foyers and other large spaces.
“Think of scale, when placing these indoors. The taller the ceiling height, the taller your jar can be,” she says. She often places one on either side of a fireplace mantel. Some deocrators use the large jars as bases for dining room tables, and smaller jars as bases for end tables.
Outdoors, Shaw recommends grouping different sizes in par terre gardens or making them into fountains, adding a cooling water source to the setting. These containers also make elegant planters for small citrus trees or colorful annuals, herbs or succulents.
“If you place your antique olive jar outdoors, make sure to drill holes in the bottom for drainage, whether you plant in them or not, “says Shaw. “If you don’t, the water that collects in the bottom will be a breeding ground for mosquitos.”
No two antique olive jars are alike. Each was made hundreds of years ago by artisans, thrown by hand, a perfect blend of earth, water and fire. Over the years, many were painted, and the crackled remnants found today add to the aged look and elegant patina. Some jars bear rough-hewn markings along the lips that once identified the owner.
When searching for your perfect antique olive jar, look closely at the patina. There should be no gloss. Look for residue on the interior, borne from decades or even centuries of use. Those chunks of layered paints should be uneven and crackled. Some pots may have a natural algae growing on the exterior. There even may be a chip, crack or both. All of these imperfections tell the story of a vessel that has lived a long, productive life.
“Each jar has its own unique personality and is a work of art. It is truly a one-of-a-kind item that sets the stage in a room or garden,” says Shaw. “These ancient jars are something to add to your collection of treasures and live with forever. I tell my clients: buy the one you fall in love with and use it any way you want.”
Line a garden path with olive jars.
Place a large olive jar in a garden or next to pool and plant a citrus tree in it.
Use a smaller olive jar to hold umbrellas next to your front door.
Add drama to a foyer with one large olive jar and light from behind.