Pure gold is an element that has incredible working properties. Even a small quantity can be put to use creatively, it can be hammered thinner than tissue paper, into a foil, and draped over wood forms. Unlike copper and bronze, it is a dream for casting, naturally free from oxidation means successful pours without the discovery of flux or other special technology. It can be melted again and again without degrading, giving it a reputation of purity. It never tarnishes, retaining its polish, and because it is highly ductile, one part of an artwork can be fused with focused heat without damaging other areas of the work, allowing complex forms to be built up with ease.
At the same time, the unalloyed metal is too soft to be used a tool or weapon. Between its workability, beauty, and lack of usefulness, gold’s chiefly sensible employment through much of history has been as a creative medium, producing delicate objects that require gentle handling – really only useful for pleasant gifts, offerings, ceremonial cups, religious objects, and jewelry. As a result, the earliest appearances of civilization are accompanied by gold working to some degree, where trade made it available, and its earliest disposable, symbolic character meant it went into graves and other places where at times it survives, often as virtually the only artistic record of a culture.
From a raw material that circulates widely in tribal cultures, weighted for the value of its beauty alone, gold’s value changes when more organized, more imperial culture develops, and it becomes a unit of money. As a culture grows more sophisticated, we see more gold concentrated in palaces and temples, and ultimately we see wars fought over it, and with it.
In addition to distinct regional styles that reflect expansive cultures with visual vocabularies all their own, there is an International Style, works that have a simplified, trade oriented appearance to them. There are also gold objects made as tribute, such as Mixtec and Zapotec works produced as payment to the Aztecs in their own themes. Much like the ball-courts indicate the international popularity of the games and identify centers of tournaments, gold-work was clearly traded and had centers of production. One of the greatest was in modern day Central America, especially Panama and Costa Rica, where various styles were produced for trade with neighboring cultures. Centers with the longest known continuous production were in modern day Columbia and Peru, where the Incas obtained the discovery that gold could be burnished to a razor fine edge, and was being employed in surgery.
What follows is a visual sampling of major gold working cultures in the Americas. The work is sorted by centuries, to give a scope for develop over time.