History of Gold in Civilisations - An Overview

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.


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.