THE ART & CULTURE OF GOLDKNOWLEDGE IS PRECIOUS

  • From the very first discoveries of gold along the rivers of Africa and Asia the sheer ease with which the metal could be worked inspired craftsmen to shape it for adornment. Gold's versatility, besides its beauty, recommended it above all other metals. It was so malleable that it could be hammered cold into a thin, translucent wafer, so ductile it could be drawn into thin wires making delicate chain and filigree work possible from earliest times. Its colour and sheen naturally equated it with the sun, while its incorruptibility (which makes the dating of early gold jewellery difficult) made it a symbol of permanence. Wearing it was also a symbol of wealth and power. That is the major difference between jewellery ancient and modern. Today, jewellery is a mass-market product and, as such, consumes virtually all newly-mined gold. That is nothing new; gold was made into jewellery long before it was used as money. The earliest gold jewellery, which dates from the Sumer civilisation flourishing between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq around 3000 BC was widely worn by both men and women. The range has astonished archaeologists who discovered the treasure in the Royal Tombs at Ur. Besides a king's gold helmet of great elegance decorated in impeccable repoussé technique, and a queenly headdress of golden beech leaves very naturalistically rendered, were earrings, bracelets and 'foxtail' chain (a style still widely used today). 'Sumerian jewellery fulfilled practically all the functions which were to occur during the course of history,' observed the jewellery historian, Guido Gregorietti. 'In fact, there were more different types of jewellery than there are today.'

    The Egyptians Unlike ancient Sumer, Egypt had much gold to hand, in the Eastern Desert and in the lands to the south. The goldsmith's repertoire of skills advanced rapidly. The Egyptians understood fire assaying to test the purity of gold, mastered the art of alloying with other metals for hardness or colour variations, and casting, including the lost-wax technique, which remain at the heart of much jewellery manufacture. Their achievements were preserved in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, who died in 1352 BC. The treasure of that tomb with its necklaces, pectorals, earrings and the astonishing mask of solid gold, beaten and burnished over the head of Tutankhamun's mummy, was described by the archaeologist Howard Carter when he first glimpsed it as 'wonderful things'. The tomb of the boy-king of Egypt from 1361 to 1352 BC preserved some of the greatest treasures of the Egyptian goldsmiths' craft. The king's body was encased in a coffin of solid gold sheet two millimetres thick, weighting over 90 kilos (2,900 ounces). The head of his mummy was shrouded in a great mask of beaten gold. The golden throne nearby was adorned with delicately worked scenes showing the young king being anointed by his queen. The treasure of Tutankhamun is normally on display in the Cairo Museum but has drawn crowds of several million when exhibited in Europe and America. It is a symbol of the magnificence achieved in gold from ancient times. The forms of gold work produced in Egypt remained surprisingly constant for more than 2000 years until the country was conquered by Alexander the Great. Gradually, the Egyptian designs began to be replaced by Greek and, in turn, Roman forms.

    The Minoans

    There is little evidence for Greek jewellery in Greek lands much before 1800 BC and the rise of the Minoan and Mycaenean civilizations. Technical accomplishment proceeded with the Minoans on Crete producing the first known cable chain, another staple in modern catalogues, and the Etruscans in Italy perfecting granulation in which thousands of tiny grains of gold were used to outline and silhouette animal and human figures, giving a feeling of texture and light. Best known are the gold masks and massive gold rings found by Schliemann at Mycenae at the end of the nineteenth century. The demise of the Mycenean civilization around 1100 BC was followed by a so-called Dark Age, after which gold jewellery reappeared again around 800BC. By 500 BC goldsmiths were producing fine, intricate work in a repertoire of forms that were to become a hallmark of classical Greek jewellery. Political unrest within Greece, and the growth of Greek trading centres as far apart as South Italy, Egypt and the Black Sea lead to dispersion of Greek goldsmiths and by the time Alexander the Great extended the Greek Empire to include Egypt, and as far as the very borders of India in about 330 BC, Greek styles of goldwork were already established.

    The Etruscans

    From about 700 BC a gold jewellery industry was established in Etruria in Italy. Although this Etruscan jewellery was made over only a short time compared with the longlived goldsmithing industries of many other ancient regions, it is well known because of its intricacy and, in particular, because of its amazing use of granulation work. Granulation work is the use of minute gold balls, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them, to produce patterns and designs. Granulation was produced in many areas and periods - from before 2000 BC right up to modern times, but few schools of goldsmiths matched the minute precision of the Etruscan work. Interestingly it is probably a lack of gold supplies that lead to this preoccupation with the intricate and miniscule - quality in place of quantity. By about 300 BC Greek jewellery styles had largely taken over in Italy and the Etruscan tradition faded away until European jewellers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to replicate it.

    The Romans

    When Rome expanded its Empire to take in most of the ancient world from Britain to the borders of Persia, it inherited the Greek empire and often the Greek jewellers of the East and the Celtic traditions of the West. However, Roman goldsmiths, though by no means lacking in skill, preferred plainer geometric shapes and patterns to the exuberant gods, myths and foliage of Greek jewellery.Gold jewellery was in great demand and important members of Roman society were proud of their collections. The Romans, however, ushered in a different phase: the love of gems and coloured stones. Until then gold itself had been the essence of jewellery. Roman goldsmiths applied it as a setting and framing for brilliant and valuable stones - emeralds, sapphires, aquamarines, peridots, diamonds (though uncut) - and pearls started to become more popular. Even then, Sri Lanka, (formerly Ceylon) and India were major gem sources. The Romans also introduced more extensive use of gold coins.

    Byzantine jewellery

    Gold jewellery became increasingly ornate as the Roman Period progressed. By the time Constantine the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 325, the strong, stark simplicity of early Roman jewellery had been largely replaced by more intricate gold jewels blazing with bright gems. With the change to Christianity we enter what is termed the Byzantine Period, when the capital was Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul) and though ornate gold work was favoured - intricate lace-like pierced work in particular - political changes along the Eastern Trade Routes lessened the variety of gems available. Jewellery became incorporated into the symbolism of the dominion of the Christian church and the growing power of kings. For much of the Dark and Middle Ages, goldsmiths' talents served church and state. The sixth and early seventh centuries AD saw the production of magnificent Byzantine gold jewellery some of which incorporated gold coins. However, the rise of Islam as a power and the not-unconnected move towards less ostentation and display in Byzantine private and religious life meant that the sun was setting on the ancient goldsmithing traditions of Greece and Rome

    Early Medieval Europe

    When the Romans withdrew from Northern and Western Europe under attack from various warlike tribes, the uniform Roman goldworking styles that had stretched right across the then known world disappeared. In their place came the no-less impressive gold jewellery of the Saxons, Merovingians, Franks and others. The problem now was not lack of demand for jewellery, but the lack of raw materials. Gold, largely imported from the Byzantine world, became scarcer and so the gold used in jewellery was often greatly debased by alloying it with silver. By the time the Vikings started to transform the political face of Europe, gold jewellery was rare and almost all was in silver or base metals such as copper or iron.

    Islam

    The rise of Islam from the mid seventh century AD was part and parcel of the move away from ostentatious jewellery wearing. Wealth was better used to build mosques or finance new conquests. Very little gold jewellery has survived from between about AD 650 and AD 1000. When gold jewellery began to appear again in any abundance it was a fairly uniform rebirth - from the Islamic World in the East to Britain in the West. Although the reasons for this re-birth are still debated, what is amazing is how rapidly goldworking skills of the highest quality were re-established, from the amazing wire and granulation work of Fatamid Islamic work to the enamelled gold of Western Europe. Gold was the main trading commodity in the Islamic world, mines from Africa to Afghanistan were exploited and even ancient Egyptian tombs were deliberately plundered.

    The Renaissance

    Renewed joy in extravagant personal adornment came only with the Renaissance, and Renaissance goldsmiths such as Caradoso and Cellini achieved a prestige equal to that acquired by the artists and sculptors of the age. The rediscovery by wealthy Italian patrons of ancient art and jewellery happened just at the moment when Spain was finding fresh sources of gold in South America. While goldsmiths in South America and around the Mediterranean developed their craft completely unknown to each other in very different cultures, both the techniques and the concept of the richness of gold paralleled each other. The gold that Spain acquired, however, was at the expense of the great heritage of Pre-Columbian jewellery.

    Pre-Columbian jewellery

    Pre-Columbian is the general term for jewellery and ornaments in gold made in South America, chiefly in what are now Colombia and Peru, before Columbus discovered the Americas. Until the nineteenth century the gold objects that pre-dated the Spanish conquest were usually attributed to the Incas themselves, but it is now known that the goldsmith's art reached a high level much earlier. Around 1200 BC, the first great Peruvian civilisation of Chavin was already making gold ornaments by hammering fine sheets of metal and decorating them with embossing. The technique of casting gold was developed by the Nazca people in the deserts of southern Peru before AD 500. The apogee of technical skills came during the Chimu Empire between AD 1150 and 1450, when goldsmiths perfected lost wax casting, alloys, welding and plating. They learned how to do filigree by rolling gold under tension into fine wires. Unlike most of the goldwork of Egypt, Greece or Rome, much of the Pre-Colombian gold jewellery was cast and the gold was mixed with copper to facilitate this means of production - copper reduces the melting temperature and makes it easier to produce intricate castings. The high copper content also gives the gold a subtle rosy hue. Plating was done with an alloy of 30 per cent gold, 70 per cent copper; after being poured onto an ornament, this alloy was treated with acids extracted from plant juices producing a copper oxide which could be cleaned off, leaving the surface covered with a thin film of pure gold. Wonderful replicas of animals, birds, plants (golden corn in a sheaf of silver leaves) were made. When the Incas conquered the Chimu, they still employed their best goldsmiths, for the craft was highly esteemed, gold was 'the sweat of the sun' (and silver 'the tears of the moon'). This tradition, however, was shattered by the Spanish invasion of South America and Pizarro's capture and ransom of the Inca. An estimated eight tonnes of Pre-Columbian ornaments were melted down to pay for it, and a tradition of craftsmanship built up over 2,500 years destroyed. The best collection of surviving Pre-Columbian gold is in the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Columbia. The Renaissance delight in gold jewellery was eclipsed in the seventeenth century by the improvement in the cutting and polishing of precious stones and a flow of diamonds from India brought back to Amsterdam and London by the Dutch and British East India companies. Gold again became the setting.

    The Gold Coast of West Africa

    The goldsmith's art was flourishing, however, on the Gold Coast of West Africa, in what is now Ghana. The Gold Coast was not just a prime source of gold but of goldwork by the Ashanti people from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Their 'jewellery', however, was not created for the adornment of women but to designate the rank of the ruling class.

    Nineteenth Century Europe

    In Europe it was not until the nineteenth century that the real transformation back to gold jewellery took place, through the combined influence of early mechanisation of such processes as chain-making and the huge increase in gold supplies brought about by the Californian, Australian and South African gold discoveries. What had previously been an exceptionally rare metal, largely the prerequisite of kings and princes, was suddenly in abundance. The art of the goldsmith working for a wealthy patron, however, did have a final crescendo in the creations of Carl Fabergé for the Russian Czars. Moreover, the new industrial middle class of Europe and the United States provided a growing market for the jewellery. Gold wedding rings, for the first time, became commonplace.

    And into the twentieth Century

    Thus the story of gold jewellery in the twentieth century is primarily one of an ever-widening market for something that had previously been a restricted luxury. As gold was gradually phased out as a monetary metal (most still went into coin - see glossary/coins today - at the beginning of the century), so an alternative popular use was created.

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    The cradle of the goldsmith's art was the Sumerian civilisation which flourished in the fertile plain between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris just north of Basra in modern Iraq. They consolidated their homes and villages into larger, better-organised communities, mini-city states, on the banks of the rivers. Then they traded their wheat or barley up and downstream for other goods, including gold. Thus, in what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia, The Land Between the Rivers, the Sumerian people flourished from 4000 BC for almost 2000 years. Their cities, Uruk, Larsa, Umma and Ur, had a network of streets and well-organised society. They pioneered cuneiform writing on clay tablets the size of a postcard, and wrote poetry. Their craftsmanship with wood, stone, ivory, semi-precious stones and, above all, gold was astonishing. The evidence is before us at the British Museum in London, the University Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and, nearer its origins, at the Baghdad Museum in Iraq. Gold cups, helmets, bracelets, garlands and chains of delicate workmanship are now on display that reveal an exceptional understanding of how to exploit gold's malleability, ductility and resilience. "Sumerian jewellery fulfilled practically all the functions which were to occur during the course of history," the jewellery historian Guido Gregorietti observed. "In fact, there were more different types of jewellery than there are today."

    After the Sumerians wrote the opening chapter in the history of gold, mastery of the metal subsequently spread out through a crescent of early civilisations, between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean to Assyria and Babylonia, onwards through Anatolia (modern Turkey) to the city-state of Troy, southwards to Egypt, westwards to Minoan Crete and Mycenæ in mainland Greece, and ultimately to the Etruscans in Italy. But the Sumerians showed the way ahead.

    Sumer itself did not have gold; that was traded down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers from the interior of Asia, where alluvial gold gleamed in the rivers of Anatolia and across the Black Sea in southern Russia (whither Jason and his Argonauts from Greece later went in search of the 'golden fleece' - sheepskins were used to catch gold particles in streams).

    The veil over Sumer was lifted in 1922 by the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in a joint expedition for the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, which spent 11 years excavating the 'Royal Tombs' at Ur. Under a heap of rubble, Woolley located 16 royal tombs, built at the base of deep pits. In each pit were neat rows of bodies, not just the elite Sumerian society, but women harpists and female attendants to accompany them on their journey to another world. They seemed to have been poisoned or drugged, for there was no sign of violence.

    The tombs were also the great repository of early Sumerian wealth and artistry, dating from 2800 - 2370 BC. The treasures included a golden helmet of great elegance, decorated in impeccable embossed technique, with its crown crinkling like the hair in a wig (Baghdad Museum, Iraq). Nearby, was a bull's head of delicate gold foil attached to the sound box of a harp (University Museum, Philadelphia) and a wonderful sculpture depicting a goat or ram caught in a tree, made of foil, shell and lapis lazuli over a wood core (British Museum, London). One tomb held the body of a woman named Pu-abi, resting on a wooden bier. She had ten rings of gold and lapis lazuli, with a golden cup nearby. Her female attendants had garlands of willow leaves made of gold foil in their hair, and gold vessels and jewellery abounded.

    The treasures reveal how well the Sumerian goldsmiths understood working with gold. They used different alloys, and cast cold either solid or hollow ornaments. Using the lost-wax technique, they chased veins on leaves or grooves on beads. Jugs or cups could be beaten into shape from a flat sheet of gold, using sophisticated heat treatment. They beat gold into thin foil or ribbon. "Sumerian work is flavoured with amazing sophistication ... delicacy of touch, fluency of line, a general elegance of conception," wrote jewellery expert Graham Hughes. "All suggest that the goldsmiths' craft emerged almost fully fledged in early Mesopotamia."

  • To appreciate the history of gold, there can be no more moving experience than to look upon the face of Tutankhamun, the boy king who ruled Egypt from 1361 to 1352 BC. The great mask of solid gold, beaten and burnished, that was found over the head and shoulders of his mummy has an almost haunting presence that astonishes the thousands who see it in the Cairo Museum or visited the exhibition that toured Europe and the United States in the 1970s. "It is the finest funerary mask ever found in the world," Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, a leading Egyptologist at the Louvre in Paris, once wrote. As he first peered into gloom, the archaeologist, Howard Carter, who located Tutankhamun's tomb near Luxor on the river Nile in 1922, was asked "What do you see?".


    "Wonderful things" Carter replied. But even he could not conceive the golden treasures he would unveil. They are unforgettable proof that 3,500 years ago the techniques of mining, refining and working gold to the highest level of craftsmanship were already well advanced. To the Egyptians, the yellow blaze of gold was a symbol of the sun god Ra.

    The civilisations of ancient Egypt along the fertile banks of the Nile go back at least to 4000 BC. Jewellery always fascinated the Egyptian people. At first, bright, glazed stone beads sufficed, but by the beginning of the First Dynasty in 3100 BC, craftsmen had progressed to fashioning beads from highly coloured semi-precious stones and gold. For the next 3,000 years jewellery adorned the living and offered protection to the dead, who could use it in the Afterlife.

    "Jewellery might signify rank or office, but was also worn for decoration by everyone from the meanest peasant to the pharaoh himself" notes Marjorie Caygill of the British Museum in her new A-Z companion of that museum's collections. "Most basic types were established in form as early as the end of the Old Kingdom, circa 2200 BC; only earrings made a relatively late appearance. In paintings and statues the Egyptians were depicted in all their finery - ear plugs, diadems, pectoral, choker, collar."

    The gold itself came initially from alluvial deposits in the Nubian Desert between the Nile and the Red Sea (the Egyptian word for gold was nub) and from the south in what are now Sudan and Ethiopia. Rather later, underground mining was developed as surface deposits were worked out. The historian Diodorus recorded the wretched conditions in which slaves worked and lived underground in the first century BC.

    The supply of gold, however, was often erratic. Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, tells of Queen Hatshepsut, co-regent with Thutmose III, one of Tutankhamun's predecessors, who heard of two great columns at a temple gate set up by a much earlier pharaoh that were, supposedly, of electrum, containing 75% gold, 22% silver and 3% copper (a common way gold was found in ancient times) and weighed no less than 75 tones. She determined to do the same. Sadly, the royal treasury lacked that amount of electrum, which would have been an extraordinary quantity in those days when gold output in the entire region might have been two or three tonnes annually at best. She had to make do, instead, with columns covered with thin sheets of electrum.

    The reality, again revealed by Madame Noblecourt, was of modest supply. She records how Tutankhamun installed a man named Huy as his Viceroy of Nubia, gave him a gold ring of office and sent him up the Nile on a fine river boat (which is pictured on a surviving frieze) to collect taxes and tributes from the south. Huy took along an "accountant scribe of the gold" and set up in a Nubian palace, where men and women came with tributes, sometimes gold rings, but usually gold dust in small bags. The gold was weighed on scales and recorded by the scribe. After a while, Huy returned upriver to Tutankhamun in Thebes, and in a great ceremony laid the bags of gold dust before him. Thus was gold that ended up in Tutankhamun's tomb gathered in. And the ornaments that he wore in life were placed with him when he died.

    The unique feature of the Tutankhamun treasures is the huge range of gold artefacts uncovered. It is simply the most comprehensive collection of the work of Egyptian goldsmiths. Many other individual examples of Egyptian gold jewellery or sculpture from earlier and later periods survive in the British Museum, the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum in New York. But here, in one tomb, was the great Egyptian gold show of 1352 BC in its entirety.

    Tutankhamun himself was buried in a sarcophagus within which were fitted, one inside the other, three coffins. The first two were covered with gold leaf, the third was solid gold sheet two millimetres (0.01 inches) thick and weighed almost 110 kilos (3,536 troy oz). Within lay the mummy of Tutankhamun, the head covered by the gold death mask, a serene portrait of a young man of 18 with a long, thin nose and full lips. It shows, says the Louvre's Madame Noblecourt, "Workmanship of the highest order". Packed amid bandages winding the mummy itself were 143 articles of gold jewellery, all in an excellent state of preservation after nearly 3000 years. Gold finger stalls were on the king's hands, gold sandals on his feet, along with necklaces, diadems, gold rings, bracelets, daggers, pectorals, pendants and amulets. One great necklace of a vulture was made up of 256 pieces of gold. Tutankhamun was provided with two daggers encased in gold sheaths, one with an iron blade, the other with a blade of hardened gold. The gold dagger and its sheath are regarded as supreme examples of the goldsmith's artistic ability and technical skill.

    All around in the chambers of the tomb were other examples of their handiwork. A throne of carved wood, gold-plated and inlaid with multi-coloured glass, glazed terracotta and semi-precious stones. A wooden shrine covered with panels of sheet gold on which had been worked scenes from the daily life of Tutankhamun and his Queen Ankesenamun; a touching documentary in gold of a teenage couple at home surrounded by flowers and birds, and out hunting duck in the marshes. And a small solid gold figure of Tutankhamun wearing only a blue crown and a kind of plated kilt, a sculpture of a very young man, almost a child. That is part of the enduring charm of the Tutankhamun treasures: they are magnificent but they also offer a window on the life and times of an Egyptian ruler centuries ago. To see these treasures in the Cairo Museum or simply reproduced in books, is to feel a real affinity for this young man because of the way his life has been captured, not by a painting or a photograph, but in gold.

  • Legend has it that King Minos of Crete was the son of Zeus, the king of gods, and Europa, the beautiful daughter of the King of Tyre. On Crete, King Minos built a magnificent palace, with a labyrinth beneath in which lived a ferocious monster, the Minotaur, part bull and part man. Each year the King of Athens sent a tribute to King Minos of seven young men and seven young women, who were devoured by the Minotaur. That is, until Theseus arrived as another potential victim, fell in love with Minos' daughter Ariadne, who thoughtfully provided him with a ball of thread to spin out as he went into the labyrinth. There, he slew the Minotaur, then made his way out following the thread and into the arms of Ariadne.


    The legend, it turns out, has more than a kernel of truth. In 1900 Arthur Evans, an English scholar and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, found the palace of King Minos at Knossos in a wild but beautiful valley on Crete. It was quite a labyrinth, having at least 700, and maybe 1200, rooms at one time. And within were colourful friezes showing young acrobats somersaulting up over the horns of a bull, landing momentarily on its back before springing over the tail into the arms of a colleague. This sacred 'bull dancing' was watched by a great crowd. The women had gold filigree twined through their piled-up hair, they wore bracelets and necklaces (as did the men) and their bosoms were bare. In a famous remark, an early French visitor to the excavation exclaimed, "Why, they are Parisiennes!"

    Certainly, Minoan society was prosperous, lively and almost cosmopolitan, for the people lived as sea traders around the eastern end of the Mediterranean world. Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey (with Troy), mainland Greece and perhaps Sicily, were all within range of their ships. Minoan Crete exported fine wines and olive oil in beautiful storage jars, brought back Egyptian luxuries, Lebanese cedarwood, copper from mines in Cyprus to make bronze, and gold, probably from Egypt and Turkey, to make jewellery. Goldsmiths and other craftsmen from the mainland may also have migrated there. The Minoan civilisation began as early as 3000 BC and lasted until about 1150 BC, but was in its prime from about 2000 to 1450 BC, when the palace at Knossos was devastated, probably by an earthquake. Besides Knossos, other great palaces were built at Mallia, Phaistos and Zakro, further proof of what Marjorie Caygill of the British Museum calls a "spectacular Bronze Age civilisation".

    The gold jewellery made by the Minoans was, from the start, a reflection of rural Crete. Jewellery from early Minoan tombs before 2400 BC depicts daisies, lilies, roses and sprays of olives. The Madonna lily, one of the oldest cultivated flowers, was adopted as the royal flower on the island. A later jewellery collection, now in the British Museum and known as the Aigina treasure dated from 1700 - 1500 BC, keeps up the theme. A gold pendant, called the 'Master of Animals', shows a Cretan god standing in a field of lotus flowers, each hand holding a goose by the neck. Two earrings from the same collection are of double-headed snakes which enclose facing pairs of greyhounds, with little owls hanging in chains from the edges. The British Museum also has a gold signet ring engraved with a scene of two wild goats mating. Another fine gold pendant, in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion on Crete, represents two hornets with wings raised.

    This jewellery, created when the Minoan civilisation was at its peak, coincides with the triumph of Egyptian gold work that gave us the treasures of King Tutankhamun. The Minoans had close trading links with Egypt. Sir Arthur Evans (as he became) believed that some foreign visitors shown in Egyptian tomb paintings of around 1450 BC (shortly before Tutankhamun) had the bearing and looks of Minoans, with dark curled hair, thin waists (a feature of all Minoans) and typical short kilts. The Minoans presented their Egyptian hosts with pottery: jars and vases of exceptional delicacy, painted with rare skill. The sophistication of Minoan pottery complements their craftsmanship in gold. It was a society that appreciated talent, in art as much as bull dancing.

    The advantage Crete enjoyed was that, strategically placed in the eastern Mediterranean, it was in contact with many other peoples, and so drew on ideas and techniques not just from Egypt, but from Anatolia (Turkey), Mesopotamia (Sumer and the later civilisations of Assyria and Babylon) and Greece itself. The Minoans, for instance, are thought to have developed gold 'cable' chain, something even the ingenious Sumerian goldsmiths did not come up with. And, in turn, Minoan craftsmanship was to have great influence at Mycenæ on mainland Greece, which really picked up the evolution of gold after the island economy slowed.

    The Minoan culture survived one serious earthquake around 1700 BC which destroyed many palaces, but never really recovered from the destruction of Knossos in 1450 BC by another earthquake.

    Yet the talent was not quickly extinguished. In 1965 the tomb of a Minoan princess, who died around 1400 BC, was found in a cave above the vineyards near Mount Juktas. It proved one of the richest burial sites ever found on Crete. The princess was surrounded by 140 gold ornaments. Gold ribbons with rosette patterns lay at her waist and feet, five necklaces of gold and two small gold boxes lay on her breast. She wore five signet rings of gold. The largest necklace was of twenty papyrus flowers strung together. As John Sakellarakis, then Assistant Curator of the Archaeology Museum in Heraklion where the treasure now rests, observed, "The jewellery is as fashionable today as it must have been in 1400 BC". That is a fitting legacy for one of the liveliest of ancient Mediterranean civilisations.

  • To walk through the Lion Gateway of the citadel of Mycenæ overlooking the plain of Argos and realise that, through this arch, King Agamemnon led the Greeks setting out for the siege of Troy around 1250 BC, is to live a moment of history. And then to visit the National Museum in Athens and gaze upon the gold death masks of some of Mycenæ's rulers (one may be of Agamemnon himself) that were excavated at Mycenæ along with gold cups and signet rings embossed with scenes of hunting, brings home the remarkable way in which the life of early civilisations was often captured in gold. What ancient goldsmiths depicted can provide a durable and untarnished record, unlike writing on papyrus, tablets of clay or even frescos, which were all vulnerable to time.


    Mycenæ and the neighbouring citadels of Tiryns, Thebes and Pylos ruled over the fertile Argos region, to the west of modern Athens, from around 1600 - 1100 BC. The Mycenæans were a vigorous people, probably originating from the north and also having links with the Caucasus region of Southern Russia, Anatolia (modern Turkey) and with Minoans on Crete. The relationship between Mycenæans and Minoans has long been argued by archaeologists. Mycenæan craftsmanship in pottery and gold shows strong influence from Crete; indeed, some artefacts found at Mycenæ may even have been made there. So was Mycenæ originally a Minoan colony? And did the Mycenæans sack Knossos on Crete around 1400 BC? And why did the Minoans send a contingent of troops to help Agamemnon in the siege of Troy? Certainly, the relationship was close. Moreover, Mycenæ reached its prime as Minoan influence waned, and it may be that her craftsmen migrated to Mycenæ. Craftsmen were sought after and respected in Mycenæ. The unique Linear B tablets found there, written in an early form of Greek, which are an inventory kept by palace clerks, reveal a complex, highly organised society. Leather workers, saddle makers, carpenters, masons, potters, bronzemakers and goldsmiths are all listed and had their place.

    However, any craftsmen moving from Crete to Mycenæ found one crucial difference in outlook. The Minoans were a pastoral, peaceful people. The Mycenæans were a warrior race, around whose heroes legends were built. The gold artefacts of Mycenæ reflect that. While Minoan jewellery was delicate representations of flowers or olive groves, at Mycenæ the gold became death masks for heroes, hilts for swords, embossed breast-plates, or was inlaid as hunting or fighting scenes in daggers. A Minoan sense of movement in the whirl of the dance was retained along with an appreciation of nature, but hunting or fighting were prominent.

    Mycenæ's gold supply was probably erratic and never on the scale of Egypt. The gold ornaments found in the main grave circle at Mycenæ in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann weighed together 15 kilos (482 troy oz) while Tutankhamun's gold coffin alone was 110 kilos (3,536 oz). Serious gold deposits were not located until the time of Alexander the Great around 350 BC when mines were opened at Mount Pangaios in Macedonia. Such gold as arrived probably came from Asia Minor, beyond Troy or down from the Black Sea coasts, whither Jason and his Argonauts from the Greek city of Thessaly, went in search of the golden fleece - the sheepskin used to trap gold particles in streams. Jason's legendary voyage confirms the Greek search for gold.

    The Mycenæans were not only warriors but traders around the eastern Mediterranean. One gold signet ring shows a touching scene of parting and embarkation on a ship. The Mycenæans loved big, bold signet rings. "These rings are one of the miracles of the goldsmiths' craft" wrote jewellery expert Graham Hughes. "Fine, strong and desirable ... evidently important symbols for very grand people." They served as seals, as much as rings to be worn. The gold crown was cut in deep relief with scenes crowded with action - hunting, fighting lions, duels, battle scenes. Drama exploded, too, on a pair of magnificent gold cups showing the capture of two wild bulls, one with his leg already hobbled by a rope, struggling to escape, while the other is tempted with a cow. The goldsmiths of Mycenæ left an enduring record of their aggressive society at the time of the Trojan wars.

  • Mystery still surrounds the origins of the Etruscans, whose artistic, energetic, pleasure-loving society dominated the western side of Italy from Bologna to Rome for 400 years after 700 BC. Modern Tuscany was the heartland of Etruria. Archaeologists variously suggest they came from the north beyond the Alps or migrated from Lydia (western Turkey) driven out by a long famine; the culture also showed Greek influence, but that probably came through trade contacts. The Etruscans left no written literature and the jottings of their language found in tombs has not been deciphered. What they did leave behind was an astonishing legacy of colourful tomb paintings, decorated pottery, bronze work and, above all, gold ornaments. "The masterpieces of Tuscan goldsmiths' work remains unmatched and unmatchable even today," observed Professor Raymond Bloch of the Sorbonne, author of three books on Etruscan life. That inheritance, however, is reflected today in Arezzo, once a city-state of ancient Etruria, which is a centre of the modern Italian gold jewellery industry.


    The Etruscans had several advantages. Besides the fertile Tuscan countryside, Etruria had iron, tin, copper and zinc mines in the mountains. The people who had migrated there from the north around 1000 BC knew all about iron and refining, so Etruria enjoyed not just prosperous agriculture, but minerals to export in return for more luxurious things such as ivory, silver and gold. Greek merchants, who were trying to extend their own sphere of influence into the western Mediterranean, thus found an intelligent, civilised people with whom they could do business and exchange ideas. It has even been suggested that goldsmiths from Greece, where gold was scarce after the collapse of Mycenæ, moved to Etruria. By 500 BC, Etruria boasted good roads, well-laid-out cities, a well-trained army (on which Roman legions were later modelled) and its influence extended to Rome itself.

    In this environment, art and craftsmanship could flourish, including virtuoso goldsmiths. The Etruscans prided themselves particularly on their techniques of filigree, delicate tracery in gold wire, and granulation, tiny particles of gold creating an intricate pattern. Over 5000 individual grains of gold may carpet an ornament. It is immensely time-consuming, painstaking work, and indeed, jewellery historians have long wondered how they did it?

    "Jewellers ... have become increasingly frustrated by the fact that they cannot do granulation as well as the Etruscans" noted Graham Hughes in The Art of Jewellery, "although the Etruscans had no temperature control, no high precision tools, no refined metals, no accurate drills ... and no magnifying glasses with which to survey their superlative work." One such masterpiece is a pendant head of the horned river god Achelous in which granules of gold create a magnificent beard (the pendant is now in the Etruscan section of the Louvre in Paris).

    Etruscan jewellery is a showcase for the goldsmiths' art, partly because the men had a much more relaxed attitude to women than, for example, the Greeks or Romans. Women held a privileged position, sitting beside their husbands on the banquet couch in their finest jewels. One gold clasp, adorned by an oval plate and five lions, was over 300 centimetres (one foot) long. Another clasp of double gold sheet had a line of nine golden birds along its top. The goldsmiths had free rein. "The Etruscans seem to have made everything we wear today" Graham Hughes observes, "bracelets, clasps, earrings of great splendour ... necklaces and pendants, equipped with chains of modern intricacy and complete flexibility."

    After 300 BC, Etruria, which had always remained a rather loose alliance of city-states, gradually succumbed to the growing power of Rome itself. Its unique identity as a buoyant, artistic society vanished, but its gold work can still be admired today.

    Etruscan gold ornaments can be seen in several Italian museums including Museo Nazionale de Villa Guila and the Vatican Museum in Rome, Museo Archeologico in Florence, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, and at the Louvre in Paris.

  • The Romans have a unique place in the history of gold. Their growing empire after 300 BC was gradually aided by a substantial increase in gold supplies, which ultimately reached perhaps ten tonnes (320,000 troy oz) annually after 100 AD, not just the highest level to that date, but one not achieved again for over one thousand years. To the Romans, gold was not only for jewellery, which became almost commonplace, but for coinage. The Roman empire brought the widespread use of gold coins throughout the Western world, from the shores of the Mediterranean up through France and Spain to Britain (which was a Roman colony from 43 AD to 410). The evidence keeps turning up in coin hoards dug up even today across Europe. Archaeologists found a cache of 43 gold Roman aureii in a deposit box in the City of London in 2000; the coins, now on display in the Museum of London, dated between 65 and 174 AD and would have been the equivalent of the Roman legionary soldier's pay for nearly four years. The British Museum in London, which has one of the world's most comprehensive collections of gold coin, has hundreds of Roman coins from other hoards.


    The significance of the Roman coins is that previously the metal had never been abundant enough to underpin a far-reaching monetary system. Gold had been used in coins in Lydia (western Turkey) in the 6th century BC and also in Greece under Alexander the Great, but silver had always been more plentiful and used extensively there. The Romans first issued silver and copper coins by 300 BC, but only struck gold coins in times of national emergency. However, after the Emperor Augustus, 31 BC - 14 AD, gold coins bearing the emperor's head were struck regularly and in quantity. Gold coins excavated from the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 AD, suggest that the gold coins in circulation were worth twice as much as the combined circulation of silver and copper coins. Gold coins paid for many of the empire's expenses, particularly the wages of its 400,000 soldiers (gold coins stamped with a cohort's number have been found). But coin was used not just by the emperor or his generals, but by wealthy citizens and merchants. And, as the hoards indicate, gold coin was stored as savings. This was quite different from its use in elaborate ornaments that were a symbol of wealth and power for the living and the dead in earlier civilisations. Gold was money throughout the Roman empire.

    As that empire extended, so it gave the Romans control over more regions with gold production. Their early conquest of Egypt gave them access to African gold; in Spain after 100 AD they developed substantial mines (the same deposits have been tapped again in the 1990s with modern technology) while, to the east, gold mines in Rumania were one of the temptations encouraging the Emperor Trajan to take over the country in 106 AD. The high tide of production was between 100 and 300 AD, and while annual output fluctuated considerably as rich new deposits were worked out, it probably averaged between five and ten tonnes (160,000 - 320,000 oz). Cumulatively, this put a significant amount of gold into circulation, not least because the Romans tried to enforce strict limits to how much gold could be buried with the dead.

    Roman writers remarked on the abundance of gold. Lucian noted the extravagance of women. "On their wrists and arms gold snakes which ought to be real live ones" he wrote "the gold goes right down to their feet and there are bangles around their ankles." Petronius reports on a woman named Fortunata who had a hairnet of pure gold wire and claimed she had 6½ pounds (Roman) of gold ornaments - 2.1 kilos (67.5 troy oz). And a fresco of the first century AD from Pompeii shows a woman wearing more jewellery than clothes. The ruins of Pompeii have provided the best examples of Roman goldsmiths' work, which can now be seen in Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

    Initially, Roman jewellery adopted the delicate style and technique of the Etruscans, whom they had brought into their political system by 250 BC, but soon imposed their own solid, simple tastes. Earrings were the vogue. Signet rings and seals in gold were engraved with illustrations of a hedonistic lifestyle to give the wearer status. Roman engineering achievements, such as aqueducts, were depicted in elaborately made ornaments. "For the first time architecture shows through into jewellery" noted jewellery historian Graham Hughes. For the first time, too, coins were made an integral part of jewellery (a design still seen in Saudi Arabia today).

    Coin fabrication must have taken a substantial part of the gold available. The main gold coin, the aureus, was usually 950 fine (22 carat) and weighed 7.3 grams (0.23 troy oz); 45 aurei weighed one Roman pound (libra). Although it was too valuable for most daily transactions, they were used by administrators, traders and for army pay (one aureus was a month's pay for a legionary). In Britain, one aureus would buy 400 litres (28.57 gallons) of cheap wine or 91 kilos (200 pounds) of flour. Silver and copper coins were used for small purchases. A smaller gold coin, the solidus, weighing 4.4 grams (0.14 troy oz) was introduced after 300 AD, possibly because gold supplies were declining as the Roman empire passed its peak. The solidus survived as the main gold coin of the Mediterranean world after the fall of Rome, being minted by Byzantine emperors in Constantinople (as the 'bezant') until after 1100 AD, but long before that, its true gold content was increasingly debased and few were made. A new widely circulated, acceptable gold coin came only with the Venetian ducat in 1285. For that reason the Roman empire stands out as a landmark in the history of gold.

    While the Museo Archeologico in Naples has a wonderful collection of gold from Pompeii, the British Museum in London also has a good showcase of Roman jewellery and, in its HSBC Money Gallery, a comprehensive display of Roman gold coins explaining how they fit in the evolution of money.

  • For over one thousand years, from 330 AD to 1453, Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine empire, was the bridge between eastern and western cultures and the link, too, from the world of gold in Roman times and the modern era. The empire was the focal point not just of the gold trade, but set the style for its use in coin, jewellery, art and architecture. Its gold coin, evolving from the Roman solidus into the nomisma (often known as the bezant), was "accepted everywhere from the ends of the earth," an observer in the 6th century noted. He added, "It is admired by all men and in all kingdoms, because no kingdom has a currency that can be compared to it". The bezant personified gold coinage from the fall of the Roman empire to the rise of Venice with its famous golden ducat.

    The Byzantine empire began in 330 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted the city of Byzantium as his seat of power, renaming it Constantinople. By 395 AD the Roman empire was divided in two, with separate emperors for Rome and Constantinople. As the power of Rome, assailed by barbarians from the north, thereafter disintegrated (the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410), Constantinople prospered.

    The Emperor Anastasius (491-518) exercised rigorous financial control and ultimately bequeathed a treasury containing 104 tonnes (3.34 million ounces) of gold - an astonishing accumulation, amounting to at least 20 years world gold output then.

    With that firm foundation the Emperor Justinian I (527-565) created the golden age of Byzantine civilisation with the true flowering of Christian art in antiquity in churches and basilicas adorned with frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, icons and mosaics. Gold itself was central to that fertile period, not so much as a metal (although jewellery and gold leaf were everywhere) but for its colour. "Artists used, in particular, bright gold and luminous blues for their paintings or panels or in manuscripts," observed the great art historian E. H. Gombrich. A gold sky or golden hills were the setting in which to make a figure stand out. Never was gold venerated so much for its colour.

    This great period of early Christian art is best preserved for us to admire today in mosaics at Ravenna, just south of Venice. In the 6th century AD Ravenna was a flourishing Adriatic port, that served as Byzantium's Italian stronghold. Two churches there, Sant'Apollinaro Nuovo and San Vitale, are unequalled in western Europe as the most precious examples of Byzantine architecture, sculpture and magnificently coloured mosaics. "These mosaics owe their compelling power to the brilliancy of the gold grounds," wrote the French art historian André Grabar. Mosaics were composed of small cubes, known as tesserae, made of stone, tile or glass laid out in a bed of mortar. The golden tesserae were made by affixing gold leaf to the cubes. In Ravenna's churches we can still see not just mosaics of religious images, such as the Virgin and Child with golden haloes, but the Emperor Justinian himself set against a gold background with his wife Theodora beside him draped in gold jewellery.

    Constantinople itself had similar splendours, not least in the great church of Haghia Sophia, completed for Justinian in 537. Besides mosaics and wall paintings, the internal columns of the brick-built church were covered with gold leaf. "In the evening the interior was so radiant that one could suppose the sun was shining," a visitor reported. The Emperor's own palace had a throne room lined with gold mosaics and in the courtyards around goldsmiths plied their trade (as they still do today in little workshops around Istanbul's great churches and mosques). The emperors sought to preserve their wealth by insisting on taxes being paid in gold, which could then be used for building, for paying their armies, civil servants or foreign subsidies.

    Property and wealth, however, were increasingly shifting into the hands of the Church. Churches and monasteries were endowed with gold, and gold coin was melted to make plate and ornaments for the church. Moreover, pressure was building to ban all religious images, such as those on mosaics or wall paintings. A 'dark age' closed in on the Byzantine empire soon after 700 and lasted until 850. All mosaics and frescoes were destroyed in Constantinople but, fortuitously, not in Ravenna. The empire survived, but what emerged was initially less prosperous and less creative. In 856 the treasury of the Empress Theodora was only 35 tonnes (1.14 million ounces) of gold, one-third of the treasure held by Anastasius 350 years earlier. Fresh gold supplies were limited. The bezant gold coin was increasingly debased; by 1081 the gold content was only six carats (250 fine). The Emperor Alexius I Comenus restored credibility in 1092 with a new coin of 4.4 grams (0.14 ounces) called the hyperpyron, which many still nicknamed bezant and the Venetians called perpero. But the coin never gained the prestige of the nomisma five hundred years earlier and since gold production was still small, circulation was not widespread. When gold output did appreciate sharply after 1300 it was the Venetian ducat that became supreme in the Mediterranean world and the east.

    Byzantine goldsmiths and artists, however, achieved a final burst of creativity. The goldsmiths perfected the skill of making a dazzling display of enamels, made from finely ground coloured glass, which were either set into metal settings, technique known as cloisonné, or laid into engraved channels in the main metal (champlevé). Brilliant gold and blue enamels were favoured. Byzantine artists also excelled themselves in creating icons. The icons were largely painted on screens separating the sanctuary from the nave of Byzantine churches. They were objects for contemplation, their religious images designed to explain the sacred word. Each icon had to follow strict traditional patterns and technical rules. Usually a wooden panel was faced with linen, covered with gold leaf as the vital background on which the picture was then painted in egg tempera. New mosaics with gold settings were also created in Haghia Sophia and in the Church of St Saviour in Chora, now known as Kariye Camii. Those in Kariye Camii, in particular, are the supreme legacy in Istanbul to have survived from this final flowering of Byzantine art before the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 brought to an end over one thousand years of Christian rule.

    The gold coins of Byzantium can be seen in many museum collections, including the British Museum's HSBC Money Gallery, which sets them in the context with the evolution of money from Roman to Venetian times. The great surviving mosaics of the early Byzantine period are in the churches of Sant'Apollinaro Nuovo and San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy; these churches are normally open from 8.30 am until noon and 2 pm until 5 or 6 pm. In Istanbul itself Haghia Sophia, where some mosaics from the later period of Byzantine art survived its conversion to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, is normally open from 9.30 until 5 pm every day except Monday. Kariye Camii (Church of St Saviour in Chora) which has the pride of later Byzantine mosaics and frescoes is open from 9.30 am until 4.30 every day except Tuesday.

  • Germany, Italy, United Kingdom

    The Roman empire brought a remarkable unity to much of western Europe for almost 500 years, before it fell apart in the face of barbarian invasions from the north soon after 400 AD (the Romans quite Britain in 410). While the Byzantine empire to the east in Constantinople prospered, western Europe lost the coherence of its public institutions and a gold coinage system which Rome had imposed. And it was to be almost a thousand years before strong, centralised coinage returned.

    Thus the story of gold through the Dark Ages and then the early Middle Ages, from 500 until 1200, is fragmented. A few gold coins were minted here and there by English, French or Germanic rulers. As for goldsmiths, they served church and state; pectoral crosses, religious plate and gold altar fronts for the church, crowns and symbols of office for kings and chieftains. Women seem to have worn little gold jewellery until fashion changed after 1300.

    An enduring problem was the shortage of new gold production, which did not pick up until fresh supplies from West Africa arrived increasingly after 1200 and gold mines opened in Hungary after 1320. Meanwhile, surviving Roman gold coins were often melted to make plate or ornaments for the church. The shortage of gold was such that many beautiful religious artefacts of medieval times which appear to be of gold are actually silver or more often copper gilded with a thin veneer of gold. If you visit the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, which has a unique collection of medieval religious objects, the label by each almost invariably reads 'gilded silver' or 'gilded copper', though they have the glow of gold. The colour of gold was equally apparent in religious paintings and frescoes (as in the Byzantine empire), often as the background setting for luminous blue figures, but it was gold paint or gold leaf. Indeed, gold had a divine overtone in the haloes of the Virgin and Child or a golden sky implying heaven.

    The return of gold to western Europe began after 1100 with the Crusades. The Crusaders had to pay their way, but since Europe was short of gold, they paid largely in silver. Once in the eastern Mediterranean they bought up the local gold bezant coins of the Byzantine empire or Arabic dinars and ultimately these became a source of gold for Europe. The growing power of Venice also brought more trade between west and east. And that prosperity sucked in gold that had long been coming across the Sahara desert in camel caravans from West Africa, but had primarily been used for coin by Islamic rulers in North Africa or by the Byzantine empire. Gold coins were minted in Sicily in 1231 using African gold, and in Florence and Genoa in 1252; even the English and French kings minted a few small gold coins.

    Venice, however, swiftly became the main market for gold, a position it was to hold for the next four hundred years. The market was strictly regulated. All imported gold had to be registered at the official Assay Office on the Rialto, and could not be exported unless it had been refined to at least 23 carats (958 fine). In 1273 the refining of all imported gold (which mostly arrived as dust) was entrusted to two goldsmiths chosen and paid for by the assay office. The price of gold was fixed officially every day on the Rialto. In 1284 Venice opened its gold mint and the next year struck the first gold ducat of 3.55 grams (0.114 ounces) that was to become a symbol of its wealth and power for the next five hundred years. The ducat was the most widely accepted coin since the Romans' solidus.

    The supply of gold was enhanced soon after 1300 by new mines north of Budapest in Hungary, so that with African gold the total supply available for Europe probably rose to over six tonnes (200,000 ounces) annually by 1350, the highest level since Roman times a thousand years earlier. Suddenly all Europe was making gold coins. In France the king's mints produced nearly 10 tonnes (350,000 ounces) of gold coin in 1338-39. In 1344 the mints of Florence, Genoa, Venice, Bruges (Flanders) and London coined over five tonnes (170,000 ounces) of gold between them.

    The goldsmiths' world changed too. Their patrons were no longer simply the church or kings and princes. Wealthy merchants ordered gold jewellery not just for themselves, but for their wives. "Fashion became dominant ... and women began to wear as much jewellery as men," observes jewellery historian Graham Hughes. Gold finger rings and brooches came back in style.

    A clear sign of this new era was the growth of goldsmiths' guilds with closely regulated membership and strict standards. In 1238 controls were put on London goldsmiths to conform to standards laid down by the King. In Paris in 1258 the Provost decreed that all gold articles must match "the touch of Paris" at 22 carat (916 fine). London goldsmiths instituted their famous Trial of the Pyx in 1282, at which they assayed coin of the realm. And the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London received its first royal charter in 1327.

    Suddenly, the world of gold was on the brink of the modern era. Venice had a daily gold 'fix' just as London does today. Goldsmiths in London and Paris were hallmarking jewellery, just as they do today. Shortly the Renaissance would launch new intellectual and artistic ideas, while explorers were pushing round Africa and across the Atlantic to the New World which would provide a new dimension in gold and silver supplies.

    Many museums in Europe hold gold coins and treasures from the medieval era. Among the best collections are those of Musée National du Moyen Age, the Louvre and Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, the British Museum for coins and the Sutton Hoo treasure, the Victoria & Albert Museum for jewellery, the Albertinum Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden for coins and jewellery, Museo Correr in Venice for Venetian ducats, Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan for jewellery and enamels, Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm for Viking jewellery, and Kunsthistorisches in Vienna for medieval art and jewellery.

  • In the Spring of 2002 a magnificent collection of works of art, including the largest private holding of Renaissance jewellery in Britain, will go on permanent exhibition in London. Welcoming the news, The Times said in an editorial, "Renaissance men and women knew a thing or two about embellishment ... many of the period's great names did their time in goldsmiths' workshops, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi and Sandro Botticelli". These beautiful treasures were assembled by Sir Julius Wernher, who himself did time in the gold trade as one of the first gold and diamond magnates in South Africa in the late 19th century. His collection has now been lent to the British nation for 125 years.


    The show is a timely reminder of the verve, the intellectual and artistic energy that was released in Florence and then through all Italy early in the 15th century. After generations in which artists and goldsmiths had largely served the church, they could suddenly go in pursuit of reality instead of a religious idea. Patronage was no longer ecclesiastical, but largely secular. Medieval art had been a flat, stylised depiction of things; Renaissance artists went back to the ancient technical skills for creating a harmony based on the reality of anatomy and perspective. As The Times editorial points out, many of the greatest Renaissance artists and sculptors were initially apprenticed as goldsmiths and one can add to that list such names as Donatello, Verocchio, Cellini and, from northern Europe, Albrecht Durer.

    Even before this unleashing of artistic talent, the gold business in the Italian city states of Florence, Genoa and Venice was already well established; their mints issued gold coins, their banking houses with great names like Medici, Bardi and Peruzzi had a network of agencies throughout Europe - and many of Europe's kings and princes were in debt to them. The bankers and wealthy merchants provided the patronage under which artists, sculptors and goldsmiths could thrive (though they often had great difficulty getting paid).

    This commercial prosperity also underwrote an era of discovery, the search for new routes to the east and ultimately, with Christopher Columbus, west to the New World. The Portuguese were already pushing down the west coast of Africa by the 1440s, tapping directly gold production from the 'Gold Coast' that had previously come across the Sahara. The Portuguese issued a new cruzado coin of African gold in 1457. Sicily was also bringing in African gold in exchange for wheat. By 1488 the Portuguese had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, opening the sea route to India and the Far East. Just four years later Columbus discovered the Americas. Thus at the same moment new sources of supply for gold and silver were found in Central and South America, while direct access was achieved to major markets in the east. Gold coin was minted in Seville in Spain, in England (where Henry VII had launched an early version of the sovereign in 1489) and, as usual, the Venice mint was busy with ducats.

    Europe's goldsmiths were busy too. The combination of increased supplies and wealthy new patrons brought an enormous expansion of their workshops, not just for gold work but for silver plate and tableware. "The 16th century was a period of dramatic shifts of emphasis in the field of goldsmiths' design," says J. F. Howard in his book Virtuoso Goldsmiths. "The Renaissance remained the dominant influence ... the century begins with Italy as the centre from which knowledge of and taste for antiquity was diffused throughout western Europe ... (but) the Orient exercised powerful influence, particularly in goldsmiths' designs." Italy led the way with the best workshops in Florence, Rome, Milan and Venice and famous goldsmiths such as Benvenuto Cellini (see Renaissance Goldsmiths), Manno di Sburri and Antonio Gentile. However, by 1540 the talent was increasingly to be found north of the Alps, working at the French court in Paris, or in Antwerp, Nürnberg and Augsberg. The 'virtuoso goldsmith' in Nürnberg was Wenzel Jamnitzer (1508-1584) who was renowned for a remarkable sense of scale and perspective in crafting gold and silver. As J. F. Howard remarks in Virtuoso Goldsmiths, "The goldsmiths ... showed outstanding mastery of sculpture in precious metals". They were equally skilled at engraving them.

    The goldsmiths were also mobile, moving from country to country, either to the court of a potential patron or to the workshop of a master goldsmith. Goldsmiths could be flexible because they had only to take their hand tools with them. Italian workshops seem to have been full of young German goldsmiths learning their trade, while Cellini, perhaps the greatest of all goldsmiths, was summoned to the French court in 1540 to work for King Francis I (the royal summons was quite convenient, since it got Cellini, a boisterous fellow, out of prison for some escapade). He spent five years in France, sculpting while he was there the gold salt cellar for which he is famous. "It was oval in form, standing about two-thirds of a cubit (12 inches/30 centimetres), wrought of solid gold and worked entirely with the chisel," Cellini wrote in his autobiography. The salt cellar, now in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches museum, is perhaps the supreme triumph of a Renaissance goldsmith.

    The achievements of goldsmiths in Europe throughout the Renaissance period may be judged from the fact that the treasuries of kings and queens (such as Elizabeth I in England) were primarily in gold and silver plate, rather than coin. And on their peregrinations around their kingdoms they took much of it with them in their baggage trains. Kings and queens prided themselves on the goldsmiths who worked for their court, for their jewels or plate were items of prestige when they met other rulers.

    Between 1400 and 1600 the Renaissance transformed European culture and society. In the first hundred years the revolution was in ideas, in painting and in sculpture, but after 1500, moving into the period often called the High Renaissance, the new flow of gold and silver from the Americas transformed the goldsmiths' world too. Over 150 tonnes (4.8 million ounces) of gold was officially imported into Spain from the New World between 1503 and 1600; much of it went through the goldsmiths' workshops. One other new invention helped them - printing. For the first time books on jewellery designs were printed and distributed throughout Europe. Cellini himself wrote a goldsmith's manual, "Upon which," says jewellery historian Graham Hughes, "any modern workshop could still base its activity". Good testimony to the impact of the Renaissance on the gold trade.

    The work of Renaissance goldsmiths, in both gold and silver, came to be seen in many Europe museums. Cellini's gold salt cellar is in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches museum. In Dresden the Albertinum Staatliche Kunstsammlungen has its famous Green Vault collection of European goldsmiths' work, and in Paris Musée des Arts Decoratifs has a collection of jewellery and silverware, as does the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The new exhibition of Renaissance jewellery from the collection of Sir Julius Wernher will be reviewed by GoldAvenue when it opens in 2002.

  • Cellini In the middle of the Ponte Vecchio over the river Arno in Florence, with its phalanx of little jewellery shops on each side, is a small statue of Benvenuto Cellini, 1500-1571. A tribute by the city to one of its finest craftsmen. "The greatest goldsmith of whom the world has ever heard," an admiring Michelangelo once said. Cellini worked wonders with his chisel; a master sculptor whether in gold, silver or marble. And he did not mind telling people how good he was. He was a boaster, a brawler, almost a bandit at times. For him an artist had to be a virtuoso for whose favours cardinals or princes had to compete. As the art historian E. H. Gombrich put it, "Picking quarrels and earning laurels, Cellini is a real product of his time". Cellini told a great anecdote about how he was once carrying gold from the King of France's treasury to his workshop when he was attacked by four bandits, all of whom he put to flight single-handed.


    Cellini, like so many Renaissance artists, started out in a goldsmith's workshop in Florence at the age of 13 and learned his craft with various masters over the next six years. In 1519 he moved to Rome and by 1524 had his own workshop. His clients were bishops and cardinals and a wealthy physician who chanced by his shop one day and was so taken with the spirit of his work that he became a patron. Cellini always saw his role as expressing noble and beautiful ideas. He wanted to transform Nature into a form that was "bella e graziosa" - beautiful and gracious.

    Goldsmiths of the Renaissance were not so much concerned with making jewellery as such, but rather sculpting or engraving gold and silver. With a new abundance of silver becoming available after 1500 from new mines in Germany and then from Spanish conquests in the New World, making silverware (and sometimes goldware) for the tables of the wealthy was the major part of production. Clients wanted salt cellars, pepper pots, bowls, sauceboats, candlesticks and table fountains in precious metals. Goldsmiths obliged. Among these 'Virtuoso Goldsmiths', as the author J. F. Hayward christened them in a book (see gold library/jewellery), Cellini had several great competitors. Tobia da Camerino in Rome was an early rival, as were Manno di Sbarri and Antonio Gentile. In the German city of Nürnberg, the leading goldsmiths' centre north of the Alps, Wenzel Jamnitzer was a contemporary of Cellini, with a reputation for a great sense of perspective and scale. Yet Cellini's explosive talent somehow got him the great commissions (for which he then spent years trying to get paid).

    Sadly much of what he and other goldsmiths wrought in precious metals has not survived; it went into the melting pot as fashions changed or patrons went broke. Cellini himself is remembered for his solid gold salt cellar, based on a design he proposed originally to the cardinal of Ferrara in italy, who found it too lavish, but nevertheless recommended him to Francis I of France. The king summoned Cellini to the palace of Fontainbleu outside Paris in 1540; a convenient invitation because it got him out of prison after some brawl or escapade. He spent five years in France completing his salt cellar - the most ambitious piece he ever made. In his autobiography, Cellini later explained what he set out to do. "It was oval in form, standing about two-thirds of a cubit (12 inches/30 centimetres), wrought of solid gold and worked entirely with the chisel."

    The salt cellar, he went on to explain, depicts the intermingling of land and ocean with two figures seated with their legs interlaced. "The sea was a man," wrote Cellini, "and in his hand I placed a ship ... well adapted to hold a quantity of salt. Beneath him I grouped the four sea horses and in his right hand he held his trident. The earth I fashioned like a woman, with all its beauty of form ... She had a richly decorated temple firmly based upon the ground on one side and here her hand rested. This I intended to receive the pepper. In her other hand I put a cornucopia overflowing with all the natural treasures I could think of. Below this goddess in the part that represented the earth, I collected the fairest animals that populate our globe. In that quarter presided over by the deity of the ocean, I fashioned such choice kinds of fishes and shells as could properly be displayed in that small space."

    This unique salt cellar, the only surviving testament to Cellini's work with gold, is now in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches museum. In the history of gold it is the finest sculpture in the metal ever created and a fitting reminder of the talent which was unleashed by the Renaissance. Cellini's reputation, however, has also been preserved by his egotistical autobiography. The German poet Goethe much later enhanced Cellini's reputation by translating the memoir into German and dubbing him a true Renaissance man. "Typical of his age and perhaps typical of all humanity," wrote Goethe, "such personalities can be considered spiritual pivots." On a more practical level, Cellini is remembered, too, for the goldsmiths' technical manual that he wrote in 1568, "Upon which," observed jewellery historian Graham Hughes, "any modern workshop could base its activity". Now that is a compliment by one professional to another over four hundred years later.

  • Pre-Columbian gold is the broad description for gold ornaments made in Central and South America prior to Columbus' discovery of the New World in 1492. Actually, it embraces the work of many cultures in the region over a period of almost three thousand years from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. Thus, the Chavin, Nasca, Sican, Chimú and Inca cultures in Peru, the Canar in Ecuador, the Calima, Tolima, Muisca and Zenu in Colombia, the Cocle in Panama and the Diquis in Costa Rica, all produced gold treasures at different or overlapping dates. Even the Mixtec people in Mexico, although not always listed with Pre-Columbian, made wonderful ornaments. Everywhere they were made with reverence for the metal; gold was 'the sweat of the sun', while silver was 'the tears of the moon'. The craftsmanship of working gold was highly valued.


    What unites Pre-Columbian ornaments is the distinctive verve and style with which they were made by the ancient goldsmiths of the Americas. They fashioned birds (delightful owls with hooded eyes), fish, frogs, turtles, alligators, shells, lizards, armadillos, monkeys, deer, jaguars, mosquitoes, and flowers. Their human figures were of musicians or women with children in their arms or a man with a drum in one hand and what might be the tail of a snake clenched between his teeth. Head-dresses had golden feathers to which real birds' plumage was attached. Gold masks of great expressiveness were sculpted. The goldsmiths' understanding of a sophisticated metal-working embraced the technologies of alloys, filigree, granulation, lost-wax casting and gold plating, all developed independently in almost parallel timescale with the Mediterranean world and Asia. Indeed, what Pre-Columbian gold demonstrates is how goldsmiths on different continents, with no knowledge of each other, evolved the same techniques for working gold.

    The tragedy is that much of the gold went into the melting pot once the Spanish conquered the region after 1500, for they had little concern for ornaments of what they saw as pagan people. But enough treasures have survived, and are still excavated from ancient graves even today, to give us a glimpse of the way it was.

    The first evidence comes from Waywaka in the south-central Andes of Peru where a goldworker's tool kit, along with small pieces of gold foil, probably dating before 1500 BC, has been discovered. Placer gold was plentiful in the rivers coming down from the high Andes to the coastal plains of Peru, but much of it had a relatively high silver and/or copper content (the mixture still mined in Peru and Chile today). So the goldsmiths learned to work with this combination of metals; gold was often 40-60%, silver 25-40% and copper 15-20%. The real skill of these early craftsmen, first among the Chavin, then the Naca and Sican people, was hammering gold into sheet, from which they fashioned diadems, which could be embossed, with faces. The Sican culture on the northern peru coast after 750 AD had more abundant gold (it is located near today's Yanacocha mine). In one Sican tomb 328 gold objects were found, including a mantle made up from 2,000 gold foil squares. The fashion was also for ear spools, plugged through the ear lobe, rather than earrings. They were often highly decorated; one set showing a noble travelling on a litter, another pair portraying divers from a raft picking up shells.

    Master goldsmiths achieved social prestige with gold regarded as the medium through which the highest artistic and technical achievements of Sican society could be reflected. This tradition was continued by the neighbouring Chimú culture, which flourished from 1000 AD to 1470. Their capital, Chan Chan, is thought to have housed 7000 artists and craftsmen. The goldsmiths by now were accomplished sheet-metal workers, hammering and annealing, then soldering a hundred pieces or more into a complex ornament that swayed and shimmered. Curiously, the Chimú goldsmiths did not adopt the lost-wax casting technique, widely used elsewhere in the Americas and in the Mediterranean world; this may be because the stingless bee, from which wax was taken, did not live on that side of the Andes. Yet the Chimú achievement was so substantial that, when they were conquered by the Incas in 1470, many of their goldsmiths were moved to Cusco, the Inca capital in the central Andes. Thus, when Francisco Pizarre conquered Peru sixty years later and ransomed the Inca emperor Atahualpa for gold, it was the finest treasures of the Chimú and the Incas that were melted to enrich Spain. The ransom alone yielded five tonnes (150,000 troy oz) of gold. And it virtually ended almost 3000 years of gold-working in Peru.

    While Peru showed the way, to the north in what is now Ecuador and Colombia, other cultures also learned to work with gold, which abounded in the rivers coming down from the Andes (in Colombia today much of the gold output is still from those same rivers). From 1000 BC the Calima, then the Tolima, Malagana and San Agustin cultures in the south-west of Colombia became increasingly adept with gold. Initially, they worked sheet metal; a recent find from Malagana is of a sheet-metal creature combining human, bird and crocodile features. But, unlike Peru, they had stingless bees around and so developed lost-wax casting. Indeed, they became so good at it in some areas that even gold wire was made by lost-wax casting instead of being drawn out as elsewhere in the world.

    The later Colombian cultures of Zenu after 500 AD and Muisca from 900 AD worked wonders with lost-wax casting and wire. The Zenu cast filigree ear and nose ornaments, cast gold animals for the heads of ceremonial staves and made a stunning breast plate embossed with jaguars and snakes. The Muisca constructed a model raft of gold wire with an elaborate investiture ceremony on board. Their achievements can be seen in the Museo del Oro in Bogota, which has the best collection of Pre-Columbian gold.

    With the Zenu and Muisca people, the gold tradition moved steadily north and, before 500 AD, crossed into Panama and later Costa Rica, where the Cocle and Diquis/Chirriqui cultures produced a huge range of ornaments, especially of birds, fish and animals. Eventually, Cost Rica got its name because the Spanish invaders labelled it 'Rich Coast'. The goldsmiths' skills kept migrating north, to reach Mexico by 1000 AD where the Mixtec people learned to make flexible cast gold chains and belts which were suspended from pendants free to jingle as the wearer moved. A reflection of what Pre-Columbian ornaments were about: while the objects often had deep religious significance, the people loved and valued them for the artists' talent they displayed and not in any sense as wealth or money. Thus their uncomprehending astonishment when Spanish invaders melted ornaments down, destroying instantly a heritage evolved over 3000 years.

    What remains of Pre-Columbian gold, however, is well displayed in museums, most notably at the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Museo del Oro at the Banco Central de Costa Rica in San Juan, Museo Nacional in San Juan, Costa Rica, Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador in Quito, Museo de Oro del Peru in Lima, Brooklyn Museum in New York, American Museum of Natural History in New York, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washing DC, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Jan Mitchell collection), New York, and the British Museum in London.

  • The gold of Africa has been a constant source of supply to goldsmiths around the Mediterranean world for over 3000 years. The Egyptians got gold from Sudan and Ethiopia and perhaps even Zimbabwe before 1500 BC. Gold from West Africa was carried by caravans across the Sahara desert to Egypt, Morocco and other North African countries at least by 400 AD, probably earlier.


    But what of the goldsmiths' art in Africa itself? Although gold was long regarded as precious for trade in exchange for salt and other goods, its relative abundance at home, especially in West Africa, also nourished the local goldsmiths' trade. The best known tradition is that of the Asante people in Ghana (long known as the 'Gold Coast') which reached its peak between 1700 and 1900 AD.

    The roots of their art, however, go back much earlier and embrace not just modern Ghana, but Mali, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal. The gold deposits of West Africa knew no boundaries; placer deposits in river gravels were dispersed throughout the whole region. Indeed, unofficial alluvial mining is still widely dispersed today, providing plenty of gold for local goldsmiths or export through the town of Bammako in Burkina Faso. The only modern difference is that the gold dust goes by plane instead of camel caravan. There are also now major gold mines in West Africa (see Mining Section: Ghana, Mali, Guinea), but the informal trade is as it has been for centuries.

    The origins are in Mali where the towns of Jenne-Jeno and Timbukto became commercial centres by 500 AD as the focus of trans-Sahara trade. Goldsmiths established themselves there for, although the caravans took mainly gold dust, ornaments went too. Not much remains of this work, although a delicate golden pendant earring dating from around 900 AD has been excavated at Jenne-Jeno. Most gold seems to have crossed the Sahara to the North African coast where local rulers minted it into dinars, which served widely as currency around the Mediterranean after 800 AD.

    The reputation of Mali was enhanced by a famous pilgrimage in 1324 by Sultan Mansa Mas of Mali to Mecca by way of Egypt, who took along a treasure trove of ornaments and gold dust for his expenses. Few early ornaments, however, have survived, not least because there was a tradition of melting old ornaments for new that goes back hundreds of years. And if one local ruler overthrew another, he had fresh ornaments made from any looted gold.

    Mali's status faded after 1400 to be replaced by more flourishing gold economies on the 'Gold Coast', Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal, stimulated by the first Portuguese voyage around West Africa, not least in search of direct gold supplies. Soon, the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English, were taking gold dust and ornaments directly back to Europe, bypassing the historic Sahara overland route. The traders were amazed by the ornaments, especially among the Akan people on the south coast of Ghana, where gold mining expanded from the 14th century. A Portuguese expedition in 1482 was met by an Akan chief whose arms, legs and neck were "covered with chains and trinkets of gold in many shapes, and countless bells and large beads of gold were hanging from the hair of his beard and his head". An English trader, John Lok, in 1554, found Akan women "laden with collars, bracelets, hoops and chains ... some ... wear on their bare arms certain foresleeves made of plates of beaten gold and on their fingers rings made of golden wires with a knot or wreath".

    Within the Akan culture was the small kingdom of the Asante, somewhat inland but much closer to the richest gold mines controlled by the Denkyira kingdom. In 1701 the Asante defeated the Denkyira and put together a loose confederation of mini-kingdoms who pledged allegiance to the Asante king, styled as Asantehene. For the next 200 years the Asante empire ruled the gold trade, even requiring all goldsmiths to work in their capital, Kumasi, so that their activities could be closely monitored. They produced some spectacular gold objects from the gold supplied to them by the Asantehene, normally using the lost-wax casting method which had been known in West Africa for centuries. The wearing of these ornaments and the accompanying regalia of a golden throne or stool, multi-coloured umbrellas with gold handles, gold helmets and sandals was very much the prerogative of the Asante king and local chiefs. Gold was the symbol of status and wealth, which meant power. The gold objects could also be a source of revenue, because at least for a while the kings required old ornaments to be melted for new before a great festival each year - and then levied a tax on the goldsmiths' earnings. For that reason, older objects tend not to have survived.

    What was on show at ceremonies or to greet foreign visitors was dazzling. A British envoy, T. E. Bowditch, who visited Kumasi in 1817, reported "The sun was reflected ... from the massy gold ornaments ... some wore necklaces reaching to the navel entirely of aggry beads; a band of gold and beads encircled the knee, from which several strings of the same depended; small circles of gold like guineas, rings and casts of animals were strung round their ankles". He also observed that the Asantehen "Wore a pair of gold castanets on his finger and thumb, which he clapped to enforce silence ... the belts of the guards were cased in gold and covered in small jaw bones of the same metal". Bowditch collected a number of gold objects, which now form the basis of the Brtish Museum's collection of Asante gold.

    Further Asante gold treasures came to London in 1874, when a British military force attacked Kumasi after threats to trading posts on the coast and demanded 50,000 ounces (1.55 tonnes) indemnity, which was largely in gold beads and ornaments, of which some of the best are now in the Brtish Museum. Gold indemnity was demanded by the British again in 1896 after more confrontations. This imperial 'looting' of Asante's finest gold made the Asante more cautious in the use of solid gold. Although they resiliently re-made much of the regalia in the late 19th century and maintained it through the 20th century, thin gold sheet or foil was increasingly used over wood carving. Such objects still look splendid when displayed on ceremonial occasions in Ghana today and are a reminder of the skills of Africa's goldsmiths that stretch back nearly 2000 years.