Tag Archives: gold

Gold before the Conquest

Tairona, X-XVI C. Columbia A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Tairona, X-XVI C.
Columbia – A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

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.

Zapotec, XVI C. Oaxaca, Mexico Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

Zapotec, XVI C.
Oaxaca, Mexico
Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

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.

Spain, XVI C. Goldwork at the beginning of the conquest

Spain, XVI C.
Ring – Gold, enamel, Columbian emerald.  Produced with materials from the conquest.

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.

International Style Panama, V-VII C.

International Style
Panama, V-VII C.

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.

Peru Chavin V-II BC

Chavin, V-II BC
Peru

Nazca II BCE - V CE Peru

Nazca
II BCE – V CE
Peru

Zenu, II BCE-X CE Columbia

Zenu, II BCE-X CE
Columbia

Peru Moche Headhunters I-III C

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Headhunters and Severed Heads

Moche, I-III C. Peru

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Condors

Tolima II C. Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

Tolima
II C.
Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

 

Panama, IV-V C.

Panama, IV-V C.

International Style, V-VII C. Panama

International Style, V-VII C.
Panama

Darien or Venado Beach V-VII C. Panama

Darien or Venado Beach
Deer God, II-VII C.
Panama

Yotoco or Calima VII C. Columbia

Yotoco or Calima
VII C.
Columbia

Wari VII-X C. Peru

Wari
VII-X C.
Peru
Refined silver embossing

Coclé  VIII-XV C. Panama

Coclé
VIII-XV C.
Panama

Nariño  VIII-XV C. Columbia

Nariño
Hummingbirds, VIII-XV C.
Columbia

Coclé Alligator Necklace Panama

Coclé
Alligator Necklace
Panama

Coclé Jade Nose Ring Panama

Coclé
Jade Nose Ring
Panama

Popoyan IX-XVI C. Columbia

Popoyan
IX-XVI C.
Columbia

 

Tairona Butterfly X-XVI C. Columbia

Tairona
Butterfly X-XVI C.
Columbia

Veraguas X-XVI C. Panama

Veraguas
X-XVI C.
Panama

Chiriquí XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Chiriquí
XI-XVI C.
Costa Rica

Diquis Lobster XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
Lobster XI-XVI C.
Clay casting, Costa Rica

Diquis XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
XI-XVI C.
Employment of varied sand grit to create texture. Costa Rica

Tumbaga Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI Columbia

Tumbaga
Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI
Columbia

 

Inca, XII C. Peru

Inca, XII C.
Peru

Inca, XII-XV C. Peru

Inca, XII-XV C.
Peru
Masterwork of Repousse and Fusing

 

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth XII-XVI Panama

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth
XII-XVI
Panama

Mixtec Lip Plugs 3 Mixtec Lip Plugs 2

Mixtec Lip Plugs, XVI C. Mexico

Mixtec
Lip Plugs, XVI C.
Mexico

Aztec Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C. Mexico

Aztec
Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C.
Mexico

 

The Signet

Seal of Roman Emperor Augustus (the Imperial “Whelping Sphinx”)

One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity.  They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses.  Like a stone fingerprint, or the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, they were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax.  Their designs were usually carved intaglio into a gemstone, so their impressions left a raised relief design.  Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the carved stones tossed aside having little practical value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world.  Throughout the later middle ages they became prized treasures of nobility, reset and collected, maintaining a reputation with their lost languages and mysterious figures to be magical.

These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring.  The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic.  Signet rings still retain the suggestion of a claim to some kind of authority (if only the spectre of masculine authority), whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest,  or at its most minimal, a heavy ring with a large flat and undecorated stone.

Minoan Signet Ring

The origins of signature seals are very ancient, dating back thousand of years.
In Mohenjo Daro, the neatly planned city on the Indus River sophisticated clay seals with writing have been found dating back nearly 5,000 years.  Ancient Mesopotamians sometimes preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates.  Ancient historians describe a Babylon where not a person was without a seal hanging around their neck.

Assortment of early seals.

In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose.  The scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, while the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat.  Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – the rotating scarab-heart might have served to ‘cover’ the name.  The hole drilled for the purpose of making these rotatable led to a popularity, and continued production today, of using them as beads.  These are so abundant, typically in the sky blue faience color with crude approximations of hieroglyphs stamped on the back, that each of us has likely seen at least one in gift shops around the world.  The ancient form are so common that a person can find the real thing in virtually any art history museum’s collections.  

Egyptian Scarab Rings

The scaraboid gem form of a ring seal was spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the long trade rule of the Phoenicians, and became the business standard.  For non-Egyptians the rotating stone had no significance, and we find the seals mounted in fixed settings that did not move.  Signet rings became widespread among many cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, and deep into Central Asia, while seals in general are found in use throughout the world.  

Their function in business affairs created specialty shops in every trading port and city, the gem carver being a discussed occupation in the literary Classics.  A skilled carver’s quality and style enhanced security by being easier to authenticate visually, much the way engravers were physically responsible for the level of security in printed banknotes in more recent times.  The best seals were elaborate works of art usually cut in fine grained, quartz based gemstones, such as agates and jaspers, more inexpensive ones cut into softer scratch-able stones like hematite or calcite.   Many were also cut into glass.  Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic signs and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade.  Some gems served as signatory objects in a different way, as devotional objects, inscribed with a donor’s name, with the purpose of leaving one’s name at temples and shrines, others were bought pre-made with the temple’s image, to take away as a commemorative souvenir and a source of income.

Assorted Roman gold signet rings.

 

Silver Roman signet ring

Signet rings can give a more personal glimpse of economic activity than coins can provide.  They show that during periods of heightened trade where they will appear in greater number, the variety of similar amulet stones also increases, and this is where the story grows interesting.  During the particularly syncretic time period (300 BC-300 CE) of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, centered around Alexandria, many cultures lived side by side, where familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to merge and also form new colloquial, magical and cult themes.  We see fine examples of inventive figures alongside numerous rough replicas of them, peak examples of the gem carver’s craft alongside soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, psuedo-writing, magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes.  There were symbols of newly forming religions, hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity.  It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, an emblem of relocated  authority, or a statement of membership in a group, perhaps a kind of continuation of the Egyptian culture’s reverence over the wearing and display of one’s identity.

Typical Greek-Egyptian fusion, here of Anubis and Hermes with incantations.

Early Christian Intaglio

One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘Abrasax’.  The meaning of the name remains unclear, though the letters add up to 365 (they did not have numbers yet) and it may simply mean ‘everything’.  These gems frequently depict an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any established religious context.  These appear with a variety of different figures that have in common only an appearance of being invented, or combined, as though the results of an effort to form a sort of catch-all multicultural figure of devotion.  The frequent inscription may be the reason the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers today, carrying with it the magical connotation of these gems. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.

An anguipede, unique  to its specific region and time.

Signet stones continued to be in use for a few centuries after the decline of Rome.  At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving.  Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from North Africa to Mughal India.  The Mughals took gemstone carving like all arts quite seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.  

 

The Moghul Emerald

The Moghul Emerald

 

Solomon Iran XV Glory to He who does not die

Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but the use of gemstones in regular trade use, and signet rings in general declined.  Beginning in the Renaissance ancient intaglios, widely collected as curiosities, resurged as an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets.  Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets to expand their collections.

Intaglio collection remounted

Even as professional habits and modes of expression have changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, or pedigree, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use.  It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.

Contemporary Onyx Signet by Stephen Einhorn

The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry, today the black stone is the most typical for a modern signet ring, though in history not much evidence of its use appears before this time.

All in all, the signet is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year sense of meaning as its place among ornament endures.  When an actual insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.

Adone T Pozzobon hand engraved masonic caduceus ring

Into The Brooch

Everyone knows what a brooch pin is.  But what is it?  For the jeweler, it’s the closest one can come to making a free-standing sculptural piece.  It can be shallow relief or three dimensions, and is often the fate of any object that is created without a clear idea of its use beforehand.  All it requires is a pin of some kind to affix it to the front of a wearer’s garment.

Truth be told, the brooch has come pretty far, from its purely ornamental role today the namesake describes a typically hefty style of pin used to fasten one’s cloak or robe.  A few thousand years ago, these were more common than a pair of shoes. Not to be mistaken with a fibula, which is the exact same thing, but describes a slightly different mechanism that was favored by the Romans.  The brooch was popular among the other tribes, the Celts and such, and curiously we have opposing names for cloak pins between old enemies – empire and tribe.  We don’t use either word today for ‘fastener’, but the brooch pin does survive in a symbolic sense.  Jewelers will also be familiar with the word broach, which is a sharpened needle-like tool used to bore out the inside of rings and tubing.  It comes from the Old (Celt) French word for pin.

Here are a few images of the original brooch pins; to the sympathetic eye they provide rarified glimpses at a long and continent wide vocabulary of ornament that was largely chopped up (hacksilver is an archaeological term) and melted down by empires, invaders and inheritors.  From the looks of it, the brooches are distinct, personal items, perhaps once known for different tribal touches, or clan marks that are long gone.  At the same time, for design enthusiasts there is something peculiarly uniform,  a cultural aesthetic, that distinguishes the Celtic remnants – something like a philosophy that keeps the common thread of ornament informed, from Anatolia to Ireland. Fans of history are familiar with the mystery of this culture, who gave us many of the place-names of Europe, stories of King Arthur and Merlin, and legends of the bards travelling from tribe to tribe spreading the news in song, and the incredible survival of some of the language within the reaches of the British Isles. The old culture that used no writing left almost no record except their obsessive aesthetic of spirals and knots, an intent to abstraction that makes them all the more compelling.

The Treasure of Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo Burial Ground

This is a story about humility.   And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes.  I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information.  This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture.  Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.

Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem.  Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another.  It was unbelievable.   Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs.  I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.

Herbert Maryon Metalwork & Enamelling

 

In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice.  Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling.  I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels.  I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential.  Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral –  as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Ship Burial - Not Much Stuff, All of it Excellent

This wasn’t far from the truth.  Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered.  The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned.  One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth.  Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them.  Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith.  The gold work is expertly enameled  in a champleve manner.  In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.

Sword

Sword, signed "Scott"

This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing.  As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how.  Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work.  In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp.  It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own.  Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer.  Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools.  And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.

Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches.  Barbarians?  Hardly.

The Great Buckle

Shoulder Clasp

 How about the fineness of that enameled knotwork?

Purse

How about that checkerboard enamel inlay effect?

Philippe Wolfers

Philippe Wolfers

Enamel and Gold Choker - Click to Zoom

Born into a prominent Belgian silversmithing family, Philippe entered his father’s shop to apprentice at 17.  He clearly was a rebel son, embracing the “new art” that resulted from the revitalizing impact of Japanese aesthetic on European culture.  Pieces that he created outside the family shop’s aesthetic are fairly rare, and clearly imitating the master Lalique.  His early works in jewelry and smithing do not quite possess the harmony of other artists, but in these mature works the result of his enterprise are plain.

"Japanese Style"