Significant pieces of jewellery Basket Rings Buried more than 4,300 years ago when Stonehenge was still under construction, these basket rings are the oldest gold objects found in Britain to date. They were discovered at a grave in Amesbury in 2001 alongside a body that was accompanied by a bow, wristguard and flint arrowheads, which became known as the ‘Amesbury Archer’. He and a younger companion, possibly his son, were both interred with great ceremony, each with a pair of gold ‘basket rings’ which may have been worn round locks of hair, although their precise function is still unclear. It was said at the time to have been the richest Bronze Age grave found in Northern Europe. Analysis of the ‘archer’s’ tooth enamel reveals that he originated from the Alps region. A ‘cushion stone’ found in the grave, of the type used in metalworking, suggests that he may have been one of the early migrants who first brought Britain into contact with the continent of Europe, and with it the craft of gold working. Lunula Less than 200 of these crescents of fine sheet gold have been discovered to date. They represent some of the earliest examples of worked gold to be found in Great Britain, and it is possible that they were all the work of a handful of expert gold workers. They are found most commonly in Ireland, although a few others have been found in England and Europe. The function of the lunulae remains a mystery. They could have had a ritual purpose, or been used as badges of authority, but none have been found amongst the grave goods of people buried at the time. Even how they were worn, on the head or around the neck, remains uncertain. This lunula was found on the Irish estate of the Worshipful Company of Drapers’, near to Draperstown in around 1845, and was exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1846. It was re-discovered during research for the Gold exhibition, when a call out to all the London livery companies revealed its existence. The Kingston Brooch Measuring a diameter of 8.5 cm, this is the largest and finest brooch of its kind to have been found. It was excavated in 1771 by the famous barrow digger Rev. Bryan Faussett (1720-76) and his son at Kingston Down, near Canterbury in Kent. It was discovered in what was thought to be a female grave, and incorporates over 830 separate pieces. With its zoomorphic filigree, twisted wire decoration and cloisonné garnet work it is an item of superlative Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. The finds at Kingston Down, including the brooch, were published by James Douglas in 1793 in his Nenia Britannica, the first in which artefacts discovered through excavation were systematically illustrated. The Faussett collection was sold in 1853 to Joseph Mayer, who left it to the City of Liverpool. About a third of the objects were destroyed in the Second World War. Canterbury Pendant It is somewhat ironic that the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ should have produced some of the finest gold work ever made in Britain. The technique, which epitomises Anglo-Saxon gold working is cloisonné garnet work, which appears in this pendant. Pendants of various kinds emerged in the 7th century as a native adaption of Byzantine fashion. They quickly took over from brooches as the main form of female jewellery. This version incorporates an expressly Christian motif of the cross. It belongs to the first third of 7th century, probably around 620 AD, as it is similar to brooches made at that time. It was probably buried several decades later as there is evidence of wear and alteration to the pendant. It was found near Canterbury City Walls in 1982 in what may have been a grave that was robbed in antiquity, but there were no traces of a body. This possibly shows a Saxon re-use of an old Roman cemetery on the site. A coin found near the graves dates the site to circa 700 AD. This pendant is an exquisitely crafted jewel for a wealthy or noble lady, and considered the most important of its kind since the Sutton Hoo finds. The Middleham Jewel This jewel was discovered by metal detector near Middleham Castle in North Yorkshire in 1985. It hit the headlines when it subsequently sold for £1.3 million at Sotheby’s in London. Engraved with images of the Trinity on the front and the Nativity of Christ on the back, it is designed as a reliquary. The back slides out and contained, on discovery, three and a half roundels of silk thread wound around with gold foil. The inscription on the front consists of a well-known passage from the Gospel of St John, ‘Behold the Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us’, followed by two magical words tetragrammaton representing the unwritable word of God and amanyzapta, a charm against epilepsy. In the medieval language of gemstones the sapphire is associated with loyalty and fidelity. It has been suggested that the jewel was made for an aristocratic lady concerned about her pregnancies, her health, her religious devotion and the redemption of her soul. The Stapleford Cup Standing cups and covers had the highest status of any item of precious metal in Tudor and early Stuart England. They were frequently given as marriage or diplomatic gifts, or were especially commissioned as evidence of wealth or social status. This is the earliest surviving example of English wrought secular gold. Known as the ‘Acorn’ cup after its shape, the upper portion of the bowl forms a detachable cover, the stem is in the form of a twisted tree-trunk. The acorn was considered to be an emblem of luck, prosperity, youthfulness and power. This cup has been dated via its similarity to others made in silver that are hallmarked. It appears to have survived because it was taken out of secular use. The cover is engraved ‘This Cup left to ye Church of Stapleford by ye Rt.Honble. Bennet Earl of Harborough who departed this life Octr.16, 1732.’ The Sherard family were descended from Geoffrey Sherard, of Stapleford, Leicestershire. The oldest memorial in St Mary Magdalene Church is a brass dated 1490, dedicated to him and his wife. The cup was sold by the parish of Stapleford in 1956 for £4,500. Ampulla In the past, concepts of royalty and deity were often inexorably linked. Coronations were once a direct visual expression of these alleged connections – gold as an ancient symbol of purity and incorruptibility lies at the heart of this the most important royal ceremony, where sacred and secular power join. The ampulla, the vessel for containing the holy oil, is of particular importance. Regal authority stemmed from being the anointed of the Lord, as Israel’s King David had been, and unction, the act of anointment, is at the heart of the coronation ritual. The medieval regalia was melted down after the Civil War (1642-51) and of the earlier ecclesiastical items only this plain gold ampulla survives. It was made for the Scottish coronation of Charles I at Holyrood House, Edinburgh on 18th June 1633. It is the earliest surviving piece of Scottish gold. Cromwell trial plate The Trial of the Pyx dates back to the 12th century. Its purpose is to check that coins produced at the Royal Mint are within the statutory limits for metallic composition, weight and size. It is named after the pyx - from the Latin pyxis for box or chest - in which the coins are transported. It derives from the Pyx chamber in Westminster Abbey, where historically the chests were kept. The Trial was a public demonstration to show that the coinage was pure and samples of coins were ‘tried’ by being melted down and the gold and silver content measured. The benchmark against which coins are tested is called a Trial Plate. Members of the Goldsmiths’ Company were called upon to provide the Trial Plates made in precise accordance with the prescribed standard of the coinage. They are made in the form of a sheet, which was cut into several portions, and only a few like this one survive. The standard of gold had been raised in 1576 from 18 karat (introduced in 1478) to 22 karat, where it remained until 1793 when 18 karat was reintroduced as an additional standard. King’s Prize Leith Horse racing developed under the Tudors in the first half of the sixteenth century, and became the ‘sport of kings’. From the 1660s onwards the races held at Leith, north of the city of Edinburgh, became the most important sporting event in Scotland. In 1726 a royal initiative re-introduced gold prizes at Leith, thereby inaugurating the King’s One Hundred Guineas Plate, the most prestigious and valuable Edinburgh race prize. It took various forms: a cup, a quaich, a dish, and the earliest that survives, this gold teapot. Allan Ramsay’s poem ‘Inscription on a Gold Teapot’ written in 1721 suggests that this form of prize pre-dates the royal initiative. This teapot, and the one for 1738 which also survives, is engraved with the Scottish royal arms, while the fretting inside where the spout joins the body is cut in the form of a crown and thistle. Olympic gold medal The olive wreath was the prize for the winner at the ancient Olympic Games, which began in 776 BC. When the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 silver medals and an olive branch were given to successful competitors. Only four Olympiads have used solid gold medals: Paris 1900, St Louis 1904 - when the custom of presenting the sequence of gold, silver, and bronze medals for the first three places was introduced - London 1908 and Stockholm 1912. Today’s gold medals are silver covered with about six grams of 24 karat gold. Pure gold Olympic medals are therefore extremely rare. The story connected with this 1908 Olympic medal is extraordinary, involving three different members of a family over three Olympic games. Charles Burnell won this medal for rowing in the Leander Club Eights in 1908. His cousin Stanley Garton won gold in 1912, and Charles’ son Richard ‘Dickie’ Burnell won gold in the ‘austerity’ Olympics of 1948 for the double sculls. Babetto gold cuff Giampaolo Babetto’s striking cuff presents gold in a futuristic light. Skilfully reduced to pure planes and angles, the minimalism of this piece has more in common with the audacity of modernist architecture than the conventions of traditional jewellery. The design and manufacture graphically illustrate the versatile, tactile nature of gold as the brilliance of this bracelet lies in its desirability and wearability; the piece only truly comes to life when worn, as its angularity interacts with the softness of the human body. One of the masters of the Padua school, Babetto prefers to work in gold because of its malleability and the softness of its sheen. In his hands, gold proves that less can indeed be more. And in his hands, and those of other goldsmiths around the world, the future history of gold in jewellery will be made. Clasps from Tillya Tepe Tillya Tepe literally translates as ‘Golden Hill’ or ‘Golden Mound’ – an archaeological site in Northern Afghanistan. A burial treasure, this pair of clasps is intricate in detail, portraying reflexive warriors bordered by segments of frond or flower-like structures and accompanied by fabulous birds and beasts. Apart from being utilitarian, though obviously costly and prized, these clasps clearly show the mode of male dress at the time, displaying similarities with the garb of many ancient cultures both near and far. The influence of Greece in the tunic and Persia or Assyria in the kilt-like skirt seems apparent. Designed as a closure for a cloak, the pugilistic nature of the pieces might hint at bravery and protection for the wearer. Crown from Tillya Tepe This open-work, hammered gold crown is a clever merging of naturalistic and almost architectural shapes. Clustered with gold discs of varying sizes, some hang down to dance on the brow of the wearer. The gleam of the pure gold is partnered by the gentle movement of the whole – a sort of ancient take on en tremblant, perhaps, where the crown becomes more noticeable because of its kinetic quality. Crowns are always the centrepiece of official royal garb, denoting in this case the status of the woman who wore it in life, and symbolising a people’s identity and loyalty. The delicacy and lightness of the whole is also partnered neatly by cutwork or ‘pierced’ shapes including stylised hearts and crescents. The flower shapes which stand proud of the surface have solid centrepieces of beaded gold circles. Despite at first glance being artistically ‘chaotic’, the crown is also a work of balance and symmetry. Bracelets from Tillya Tepe These delicately wrought bracelets, accented by pieces of turquoise, are a gleaming reminder of ancient Afghanistan craftsmanship – the simplicity belying the immediate beauty. Redolent instantly of power, status and perhaps protection, the lion - a celebrated creature throughout the ancient world - is rendered artistically here with a definite sculptural aspect. The bracelets are surprisingly modern, and examples like them surely may have influenced designers, particularly Verdura or Cartier. The lions’ heads are circled by stylised leaves suggesting, perhaps, neat collars which, in turn, reflect the fluidity and flow of the whole shape. Byzantine marriage ring This wedding ring was given almost 900 years before the first diamond engagement ring was recorded. It is solid and simple in design, prefiguring the modest authority of the classic gold band of today. This comparative lack of ornamentation makes the eye focus upon a single image; the ring is deeply engraved with a portrayal of the nimbate - floating, as on a cloud - figure of Christ joining the hands of a man and woman in marriage. It also bears one word, OMONIA, which translates as ‘harmony’ or ‘unity’. The Byzantines were expert and enthusiastic goldsmiths, using intricate techniques to enhance their jewellery. This ring is a fine example of ‘niello’ work, which darkens the engraving with a separate alloy of silver, sulphur, copper and lead. This contrasting material makes the touching inscription even more visible to the eye, enhancing the beauty of the piece and the clarity of its message. Cellini salt cellar Benvenuto Cellini created this spectacular salt cellar in Paris, working to a commission from François I of France. This is universally regarded as one of the greatest of all Renaissance artefacts, a triumph of the imagination wrought in gold. It is Cellini’s only fully authenticated work in the metal. Despite its extravagance, this was an item intended for practical use. Salt had been a highly prized commodity since Ancient Rome. Cellini’s masterpiece celebrates salt’s scarcity as well as the magnificence of its owner and the talent of its creator, though perhaps his priorities are debatable. The fame of this object multiplied further in 2003 when a thief, no doubt tempted by its contemporary valuation of US$50 million, stole the salt cellar from a display case in Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum. Happily, investigators retrieved the piece three years later. Egyptian revival In 1922, Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings sparked an unprecedented curiosity in the West for all things Egyptian. Carter’s famous first words, “Everywhere, the glint of gold”, alerted the world’s greatest jewellers to the potential of a revival. Created just three years after Carter’s discovery, this exquisite piece by Alfredo Castellani takes direct inspiration from Egyptian mythology and the jewels of the after-life. The central motif of the scarab conjures up the dung beetle God, Khepera, who was thought to roll the sun across the sky. Beautifully wrought gold wirework and granulation adorn this bracelet, recalling the glories of the ancient world but using modern techniques. This piece’s playful reworking of ancient symbols demonstrates not just a modern culture’s fascination with the past, but jewellery’s unique ability to make that history tangible and electrifying. Griffin Armlet Persian jewellers were masters of modelling in gold and this graphic armlet is a jewel of enormous character as well as technical prowess. The mythical griffin was a fabled creature that incorporated multiple animal and human features into its form; the detail of every part of the beast is breathtaking here. The armlet also demonstrates the beauty of symmetry in jewellery. This piece forms part of the Oxus Treasure, widely considered to be the most important collection of gold and silver to have survived from the Achaemenid Empire. The status of its first owner is communicated emphatically by the fantastical nature of the subject. However, the griffin may also be designed to enhance its wearer’s power, as a talisman of esoteric knowledge or magical protection. Lalique Swallow René Lalique is renowned as one of the main protagonists of Art Nouveau. His designs in glass may have become more familiar, but his jewellery defines his art. This distinctive pendant-brooch reflects the elegance, grace and fluidity that are the hallmarks of his work in gold. The brooch takes the form of a swallow – ‘l’hirondelle’ in French. This tiny bird has a strong symbolism in jewellery – swallows return home with every new summer, and so a gift of a swallow in gold represents a promise of faithfulness and constancy. Whilst this piece also seems to recall jewels of the 16th century, the modelling of the waves adds a contemporary sensuality to the design, as purposefully asymmetrical as the perfectly misshapen baroque pearl. Mesopotamian Headdress Historians view Mesopotamia - modern day Iraq - as the world’s first truly urbanised society. Fortunately, its gold treasures survive as testament to the ability of its goldsmiths and their very public craft. This funerary headdress offers us a glimpse into this early civilisation, where the intrinsic qualities of purity, durability and sheer beauty imbued gold with a particular importance in burial ceremony. Eight intricately-hammered leaves, possibly models of Indian rosewood, form a recurring natural motif; the number of leaves would have held a special meaning for this ancient people, as the infinite loop of the number eight symbolises the soul’s journey into eternity. But this treasure also represents evidence of the beginnings of trade; the carnelians and lapis lazuli would have been especially imported from the region we now call Afghanistan. The Mold Gold Cape This finely-worked cape of beaten gold is still shrouded in mystery. Archaeologists are unsure whether it is a cape, a pectoral decoration, or even a breastplate for a horse. Symbolically powerful, a cape or cloak is certainly known to have been a mark of authority in this region at the time; the fact that this ceremonial piece was made in pure gold adds an obvious connotation of royalty or religious status. Yet we still know virtually nothing about the individual who wore this in death; the cape carried many of its secrets to the grave. Despite acquiring the fragments of this work in the 19th century, it took the British Museum until the 1960s to develop the skills and techniques necessary to attempt its restoration. Renaissance gold chain Today, the riches of the Atocha would be valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. For 363 years, this sunken Spanish galleon languished beneath the waters of Key West in Florida. A famous salvage expert, Mel Fisher, discovered the wreck in 1971 and brought this piece to the surface shortly thereafter. This treasure describes just how people all over the world have regarded gold as beautiful and valuable at the same time, defining what ‘precious’ means. Measuring a full four feet in length (1.292 metres), this heavy serpentine chain would have been worn as a badge of considerable status whilst functioning as a ready wallet; the chain comprises unsoldered links of very high karat gold (23 to 24 karat) which could have been prised apart by the wearer. In an instant, jewellery became currency in a form universally understood by the entire trading world. Roman serpent ring Snakes have been feared and revered across culture and time. They have been honoured as deities, as symbols of strength and virility, even as ciphers of eternity when swallowing their own tails. Whilst some are venomous in reality, others have been turned into images of healing and medicine. The Egyptian goddess Isis and Asclepios, the Greek god of medicine, are traditionally depicted with snakes. When worn in jewellery form, the snake is believed to ward off danger. This chased gold serpent ring takes the form of a spiral coiled tightly around the finger, terminating in a head at each end. The piece begins a tradition of design in gold which carries on until the present day, of jewels that strive for preciousness through power rather than mere prettiness. Passe-Partout This supreme jewel by Van Cleef and Arpels is typical of that house’s vision and talent. Created during the Second World War, when scarcity prompted even greater innovation, the piece creates the ultimate in utility wear, as it can be worn in many forms; as a short necklace or one of opera length, as a bracelet, even as a belt. In the 1940s, flowers became a dominant motif in jewellery, their simplicity and joy perhaps contrasting with the severe times. Here, stylised petal clips in rubies and sapphires of yellow, blue and pink, complement the innovative gold tubagaz chain.