The Enduring Allure of Gold
Gold has been in use for millennia – from the earliest jewels of Varnia, Mesopotamia and Egypt through to the modern day, it has been desired and acquired as both ornament and currency.
Why has gold cast such an enduring spell on us?
We have always held gold in high regard – to the extent that it has become symbolic of the best. Our athletes compete for the gold medal, we hold others to the gold standard as we look for our own golden opportunities, and our understanding of beauty is intrinsically tied to the golden section.
Man has always quested for gold – from the early Alchemists looking for the Philosopher’s Stone to the prospectors of the first Gold Rush of 1849. Treasure hunters and admirers alike, we are all looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But why is gold so in demand?
First of all, it is beautiful. A rich, lustrous metal with a deep yellow colour when pure, it may be alloyed (mixed) with other metals to give a lovely range of tones from the pinkish-red of rose gold to the greyish-white of white gold. Even more unusual colours such as blues, greens and purples may be created through careful mixture of certain metals.
Gold is one of the noble metals, meaning that it cannot be altered by time or the elements. It does not rust or oxidise and is not easily affected by other chemicals such as acids. It is also a precious metal – being relatively rare, naturally occurring and of high economic value.
It is soft and malleable, meaning that it may be beaten to the thickness of a piece of paper or worked into a sculpture. It is strong enough to be drawn into wires fine enough to be used for miniature electronics. In its pure state, gold may be cut with a knife, given its hardness of 2.5-3 on the Mohs scale. It increases in hardness by being mixed with other metals.
It is these properties that ensure the survival of gold pieces through the centuries. Even after being buried for millennia, when excavated, gold artefacts are as lustrous, bright and well formed as they were at the time of their burial.
So how early are we talking?
The oldest known gold jewellery in the world was discovered in the Varna Necropolis – a burial site 4km from Bulgaria. The treasure dates from 4,600-4,200BC, and consisted of 3000 gold artefacts that include gold bracelets, arm bands and necklaces, not to mention rings, beads, pectorals and diadems. More gold was discovered in just one of these burial pits than was found in the entire world for that period of history. The Varnians truly were the bling kings of the early world.
Almost 1500 years later we see Mesopotamian jewellery come to light, with the earliest gold jewels being excavated from the Royal Cemetery of Ur (modern-day Iraq). These exquisite pieces, including fluted beads created from thin sheets of metal, date to as early as 2900BC. Despite the riches unearthed, gold was relatively rare in Mesopotamia, so they were dependent on trade routes and imports. What is remarkable about Mesopotamian culture is the fact that every member of society wore some kind of jewel – regardless of class or status.
It was the Egyptians who really took goldsmithing into an art form, leaving behind the sense of naivety found in the jewels of the earlier civilisations. We see this huge advance in technique and style in the treasures taken from Tutankhamen’s tomb. He was laid to rest in 1352BC, and the wonderful pieces from this collection are made with the same levels of precision and artistry as we would expect to see today.
One of the Egyptians’ greatest gods was Ra – the sun god. It is unsurprising that gold was associated with this being, and with his manifestation on earth – the Pharaoh. Throughout history it has been associated with royalty and high status, wealth and glamour.
So what about now?
Today’s society is more similar to that of the Mesopotamians than the Egyptians – thank goodness! With a more egalitarian, democratic structure than ever before, anyone and everyone can and will wear gold. It still carries with it that sense of status, of being ornamented with something precious and rare; but now there seems to be more focus on design and maker as signifiers of wealth and status than the metal itself.
At the end of 2016 it was announced that the most Googled piece of jewellery in the world was the Cartier Love Bangle. This slim gold bracelet with its classic screw head motif was designed by Aldo Cipullo in 1969 as a reaction to his wife’s departure from their 3 year marriage. It was a symbol of commitment, a re-interpretation of the medieval chastity belt in what came to be known as the Summer of Love. In his own words, Cipullo “wanted something no-one could take away from me”. *1
The Love Bracelet is a subtle and clever piece of design that has stood the test of time. It is nearly 50 years since it was first made, and Cipullo’s belief that “design should represent the time we live in [and our] more casual lifestyles” *2 could be interpreted as one of the reasons for his bangle’s wide spread appeal.
How abundant is gold in the world?
Gold is found in nearly every continent of the world, often in association with quartz. It may either be mined from rock formations, or extracted from rivers and watercourses with simple panning techniques. It may even be found in the human body. *3 Today, the Witwatersrand basin in South Africa is considered to be the world’s largest source of gold.
Although gold may be located everywhere, at the end of 2009 the National Geographic found that more than half of all the gold we currently have in circulation had been extracted in just the last 50 years. Nowadays, “most of the gold left to mine exists as traces buried in remote and fragile corners of the globe. It’s an invitation to destruction.” *4
The rise of Fairtrade Gold and ethics in the industry
With the hazards of low-tech artisanal mining, recovery methods including the use of poisonous mercury to separate the precious material from its rocky host, and the environmental impact of large-scale mining corporations, it is no wonder that there is more focus than ever on an ethical way to bring gold to the consumer.
Customers today are becoming ever more knowledgeable and concerned about the impact of their consumer choices, so it is unsurprising that there has been an upsurge in gold marketed as Fairtrade or recycled. Given that we already have a huge amount of this lovely material in circulation in the form of vintage and estate jewels, perhaps a pre-loved piece might be considered the most environmentally friendly of them all.
*1 Toledo Blade – End of a Romance, Beginning of a Bracelet – Barbara Schuler September 4th 1983
*2 Montreal Gazette – Jewelry Designer Crazy about Love – Patricia Shelton April 3rd, 1975
*3 The Elements Third Edition – John Emsley, published by Clarendon Press, Oxford 1998 – A person weighing 70kg will have a total mass of 0.2mg of gold in their body – enough to create a solid cube of pure gold measuring 0.22mm on each side. Not really enough to be considered worth refining for…
*4 National Geographic – The Real Price of Gold - Brook Larmer 2009
Gold Traders for a helpful hallmark guide along with a huge amount of information on precious metals.
Gold: An Illustrated History – Vincent Buranelli
Jewels & Jewellery – Clare Phillips
7000 Years of Jewellery – Hugh Tait
Interpreting the Past: Ancient Jewellery – Jack Ogden