A History of Gold
Gold has long been humanity’s favourite chemical element, with the most precious of metals being used for the finest jewellery and the most beautiful decorative items we have ever created. It has also been used as a standard to measure currency by, and actually directly enabled the invention of money itself!
So what is it exactly about this particular metal that has entranced and bedazzled us for so long?
Why Gold is So Valuable
Gold is obviously recognized for its rich and vibrant yellow hue. It stands gallantly above most other metals which tend towards grey and black shades, but it is not just the colour of Gold that is special. Gold’s unique chemical characteristics also make it one of the most malleable and ductile metals in existence, all of which make it ideal for fashioning into jewellery and other complex ornate items such as crowns, sceptres and other decorative items of significant value.
Like Silver, Platinum and Rhodium, Gold is a ‘noble metal’ and does not change or react to oxygen via oxidisation. However, Gold is superior to Silver as it still tarnishes in contact with minute particles of sulphur found in the air, whilst Gold does not tarnish at all.
Gold also has the highest corrosion resistance out of all the metals, which places additional value on the ornate pieces of jewellery and other finery that are made out of it.
Ancient Gold artefacts are some of the most valuable and sought after commodities on the market, with some bringing hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction. Some are secretly admired in private collections whilst other Gold items such as jewellery, masks, and relics of historical importance are kept behind guard in the most museums of the world, with some items being so precious they are priceless!
The Origins of Gold as Jewellery
Archaeologists have discovered evidence of Gold used in Paleolithic caves dated as far back as 40,000 years ago. They can’t say for sure what they were using it for back then, but it likely held some inherent fascination and perhaps even social status for those who possessed it.
Although evidence of Gold being held in high regard has been found all around the world and throughout recorded history, the first known civilisation to begin manipulating Gold into decorative items were the ancient Egyptians, approximately 5,000 years ago.
Ancient Egyptian Solid Gold Child's Bracelet, c.2650 BC, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Egyptian smiths took mined ores containing Gold and melted them down in order to separate the Gold into large amounts. This new supply of pure Gold in plentiful supply was used for jewellery and other decorative items for pharaohs, priests and other high-status members of ancient Egyptian society and created a spectacular, almost other-worldly effect.
The Mask of Tutankhamun, Source - Wikimedia Commons
One of the most prestigious examples of ancient Egyptian Gold must surely be the famous death mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun who died in 1323 BC, hailed as one of the finest examples of Egyptian Gold craftsmanship in existence.
Elsewhere, Gold has been discovered being used among many other ancient cultures, with the Shannongrove Gorget a notable example. Discovered around 150 years ago in Limerick, Ireland, it is believed to be a ceremonial collar with its creation dated between 800 and 700 BC.
The Shannongrove Gorget, c.800-700BC, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Origins of Gold as Currency
It was also the ancient Egyptians who first recognised Gold as a measurement of currency, weighing it as one piece being worth two and a half silver pieces. The world’s first proper international Gold currency would be instigated by the ancient Greeks in 564 BC after they improved the Gold refining techniques of that period. This allowed them to mint uniform Gold currency, known as Croesids after the ruler of the time, King Croesus of Lydia (in modern day Turkey).
Gold Coin of Aurues Hadrian, c.118AD, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
It would be well over 2,000 years later in 1717 that Great Britain would begin using a Gold standard to measure its currency, with the worth of the shillings and pennies of the time measured against an ounce of Gold. The United States would follow in 1792 when Congress passed the Mint and Coinage Act, which established Gold with a fixed value of dollars.
Less than sixty years later, a man by the name of James Marshall accidentally discovered flakes of Gold in Sacramento, California. This discovery inspired a flood of entrepreneurs who flooded to the region in search of riches (accounts state upwards of 40,000!), creating the most famous Gold Rush of all time.
Over the years, numerous other Gold rushes occurred in America and throughout the world, and more and more countries adopted Gold as the standard to measure their currency by. Nobody uses Gold as their currency marker anymore, though most countries maintain a large reserve of Gold as a protection against financial disaster. The Gold reserves of the United States are famously secured within Fort Knox!
Gold Jewellery Throughout Modern History
While it may have been useful for governments for currency measurement and financial protection, people, in general, continued to value Gold for its decorative qualities. It may have been the ancient Egyptians who began pairing Gold pieces with gemstones, but everyone who followed has added their own little flourish to the process.
Pectoral and Necklace of Sithathoryunet with the Name of Senwosret II, c.1887-1876 BC, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The golden jewellery of medieval high society between 500 and 800 years ago was especially known for being inlaid with all manner of precious gems, pearls and enamels, many of which were believed to provide protection against the likes of curses and evil spirits.
The gem craft of those times was poor compared to modern times though. Over the course of the last few hundred years, jewellers and goldsmiths have mastered the art of creating fantastic ornamental pieces combining Gold, gemstones and other materials. And even though the price of Gold continues to rise, new methods of mixing Gold with complimentary but less precious metals – along with far more efficient craftsmanship – means that fine Gold jewellery is no longer just for the elite ruling classes.
Vintage Golden Jewellery
Antique and vintage Gold jewellery of the early twentieth century remains very popular today and continues to be increasingly sought after, as the scarcity of quality specimens increase.
Much of early 20th Century jewellery was influenced by the Art Nouveau movement which made generous use of organic forms such as leaves, flowers and butterflies, then followed the paired back and feminine Edwardian jewellery which was plush with dainty floral motifs, feminine bows and delicate detailing.
As a remedy to this, the Art Deco movement swept forward! Inspired by minimalist architecture, geometry, and the discovery of King Tut's golden tomb in Egypt. We see in the Art Deco era even more fabulous and opulent jewellry designs with Diamonds, Emeralds and Sapphires galore, often paired with another noble metal, Platinum.
It comes as no surprise when you see some of the wonderful golden jewellery and other ornamental items we have created over the centuries and millennia, that Gold has always been with us, and will always have a special place in humanity’s collective heart.