History of gold in decorative arts

A panorama of decorative uses of gold

 

Introduction - What is gold?

In turn associated with the sacred, the divine, with supernatural powers and even immortality, gold has been recognized since ancient times as a noble material. Most civilizations have fed the symbolic function, made a monetary value of it and sometimes even worshipped it.

 

Properties of gold

 

It is probably because pure gold is unalterable that it acquired both symbolic and monetary value. But gold is primarily a metal in the periodic table between platinum and mercury, under the name 79AU. Its main features are malleability and resistance to corrosion, which simultaneously allow easy manufacture and important sustainability. Its ductility is such that a gram of gold can make a thread of two kilometers, while 10 grams of gold suffice to produce a gold leaf measuring 10m2. This is because gold is easy to work and it was the first metal in nature to be worked by the hand of man.

 

Deposits and extraction of gold

 

In nature, gold occurs in many forms. It can be found in mineral form, called gold vein in the bedrock or soil and as dust in the beds of rivers.

 

gold vein

gold vein in the bedrock or soil

It is also found in the form of nuggets, more or less large, of polymorphic and irregular shape when found underground or more rounded when found in water.

 

gold nugget

Gold nuggets

The gold content varies depending on the geology of the land, with an estimated average in the earth's crust at 6 000 tons of gold to 1000 cubic kilometers.

There are therefore two extraction methods. Prospectors settle on land rich in gold ore and the digging mines are sometimes vast. With modern mechanical methods, mines take on the appearance of quarries.

 

gold mines apperance of quarries

gold mines take on the appearance of quarries

They find mineral encrusted with gold particles that are separated using several chemical methods (cyanide, mercury, etc.) This large-scale operation enables relatively massive extraction. Panning for gold, which is the second method requires more patience and is practiced in the open air in the beds of rivers. Using a pan (a kind of graduated bowl), the prospector collects gravel from the stream and separates the sediment to extract the hidden gold dust in seed form.

 

gold dust in seed form

gold dust in seed form

This method, which is also a very popular leisure activity today is practiced both by professionals and by amateurs. However, it takes a lot of luck to happen upon a nugget, and more to find a great deal. Most nuggets weigh only a few grams. In Switzerland, the largest nugget ever discovered weighs just over 120 grams, while the largest in the world, discovered in 1980, weighs 27.2 kg.

 

largest gold nugget in the world 27.2 kg

largest gold nugget inthe world 27.2 kg

 

Gold Uses

The value of gold as money is a tradition that dates back to ancient times, more specifically in Lydia. The value of money even now remains connected to the value that civilizations have given to this metal: melted into gold bar of one kilo, in banking it is stored as a store of value.

 

gold bar of one kilo

gold bar of one kilo

It is very popular especially in times of crisis where it is used as a safe investment.

Gold is also found in modern industry  in specific applications. It is well tolerated by the human body, and has become an important material in dentistry (gold teeth fillings, crowns). Given its rate of biocompatibility it is also used in medicine in the manufacture of pacemakers and to treat rheumatoid. In electronics, thanks to its good conductivity and unalterability, it has become essential to the reliability of computing. It is used, for example, in the digital jack connector (USB, VGA, etc..) and the heart of the processor. A laptop contains an average of 0.2 grams of gold.

But gold - a symbol of wealth and power - has also found a place in the fields of art, design, watchmaking, jewelry and luxury goods since ancient times. This tradition is where the products DeLafée International fit in.

 

Part I - Gold in Antiquity

Gold and religion have maintained a symbolic link since time immemorial. Many civilizations, despite having no trade or exchange, adopted gold as a symbol of divinity. Two properties of this metal explain this: its yellow color and light, which are reminiscent of the sun’s rays, while its inalterability seems to make it a materialization of immortality. It is therefore not surprising to see that gold mining in ancient civilizations is closely linked to the practice of a cult or ritual.

Gold in Egypt

In ancient times, the Egyptians considered gold as the flesh of the gods. They used gold in specific divination or funeral rituals, crafting such funerary masks that would fix the image of the deceased for eternity and identify him with the stars. Thus we have found huge amounts of pure gold in the tombs of pharaohs. The tomb of Tutankhamun alone is said to have contained over a ton of gold, and  it is one of the lesser tombs of the great Valley of the Kings.

Tutankhamun's mummy was preserved in several sarcophagi of various sizes, which were placed one into the other like Russian dolls.

 

sarcophagus made of solid gold

sarcophagus is made of solid gold

Each sarcophagus is made of solid gold, engraved and sometimes set with precious stones. Only persons of high social rank were buried in sarcophagi (and depending on the rank, the sarcophagus was made of wood, stone, silver or gold in the case of sovereigns). The outer sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, made of solid gold, is inlaid with semi-precious stones and glass paste. It represents the pharaoh in the posture of Osiris (arms crossed on his chest, with his attributes – the scepter and the whip). The gold mask alone consists of eleven kilograms of solid gold.

 

Tutankhamun gold mask

Tutankhamun gold mask

But gold remains in the Egyptian civilization closely linked to the history of the pharaohs and their sacred relationship with the gods whose skin, in the imagination of the time, was gold. It is probably because of its symbolic power and divinity that gold was not used as money in ancient Egypt. All known gold deposits were under the monopoly of the state at the time. Gold was either extracted from mines (Wadi Hammamat, Namibia, Ethiopia, Arabia, Syria, Mesopotamia, etc..) or from gravel in the Nile. The Turin Papyrus is a document rich in information, as it shows the location of more than one thousand gold mines and is the oldest known geological map.

 

Turin Papyrus

Turin Papyrus

Egyptians were also the first to have developed an expertise in the crafting of gold. Some reliefs and wall paintings of the Old Kingdom tombs illustrate the process, from the weighing of the metal to the presentation of the finished object.

 

egyptians crafting of gold

egyptians crafting of gold

The gross consumption of gold during this time remained, despite the large amounts found, quite moderate and is estimated at a ton of gold per year (against 1400 tons / year by the Romans).

In addition to the funeral masks, there are small statues of gods, which were probably used in religious ceremonies, jewelry, gold vases for offerings and various objects that belonged exclusively to the State. Gold, indeed, was not used in everyday life, neither as currency nor as material. It was the divine symbol par excellence and a mark of spiritual power.

 

egypt gold statues of gods

egypt gold statues of gods

egypt gold jewelry

egypt gold jewelry

 

Gold in ancient Greece

The use of gold as money originates in ancient Greece. In fact, the oldest gold coins found so far circulated in Lydia in the sixth century before Christ. The proverbial wealth of Lydian dynasties that marked their contemporaries by their opulent offerings in major shrines (Delphi, Ephesus, etc..), is such that the ancient authors (Herodotus, Plutarch) speak of "creseids" to designate the coins minted under Croesus (561-546 BC.).

 

gold coins minted under Croesus

gold coins minted under Croesus

This is also the origin of the french expression "rich like Croesus". The creseids are the oldest known coins. Even though they are not actually part of the history of decorative gold, they are no less fundamental to it in that they initiated a monetary tradition that was refined in ancient Rome, enabled a wide dissemination of an image and made possible the political unity of an empire as vast as Ceasar’s.

The currency of Greece also had its part in the funeral arts - or in rituals - as the custom was to put an obol in the mouth of the deceased to enable him to pay Charon, who ferried the boat across the river Styx and reach the world of the dead (the Greek underworld). Obols, however, were struck in silver or bronze.

If during the Greek Golden Age (fifth-third century BC) gold had become an important element in trade between communities and empires, it was because it inspired trust. This economic reality slowed down the decorative and artistic use of gold dramatically. During this period the use of glass, bronze, silver or gold jewelery became common, even on a daily basis. The dead were buried with their jewelery and utensils of everday life so that they could continue to "live" in the world of the dead. The most important figures were buried in sarcophagi in large tombs that imitated inside their home. It is in such a set of tombs that in 1876, the famous death mask of Agamemnon was found.

 

death mask of Agamemnon

death mask of Agamemnon

In reality, this is a false attribution. The mask is part of a five-piece set and the burial site seems to have been meant for kings. The masks belonged to  Achaean lords (ancestors of the Greeks) buried there in the sixteenth century BC. This mask demonstrates the commitment during the emerging phase of the Mycenaean civilization, to establish a practice similar to the funeral rites of the Pharaohs, in which the monarch was given a substitute face to perpetuate his appearance over time. But this ritual was not taken over by the Greeks.

So the mask of Agamemnon is an exception in art and funerary practices of the ancient Greeks, which marks a first step towards a monetary value of gold. It remains closely linked to power, for control of mining became a major issue for empires and a family’s nobility still appeared in the possession of richly crafted gold ornaments.

 

Gold in Rome

The Roman Empire was responsible for the introduction of massive exploitation techniques in gold mining. In Spain, in the mine of Las Medulas, the Romans, under the auspices of the Emperor Augustus, massive aqueducts in the mountains were constructed so as to relentlessly exploit the resources of the region (they extracted no less 30 million ounces of gold). The health of the roman economy depended heavily Roman discoveries, mines and decline in production of gold deposits throughout the empire. Under Julius Caesar, gold became the center of the Roman monetary system. The emperors minted coins in their own image, which was a major revolution in the management of an empire and enabled such a large extension.

 

roman emperors gold coins

roman emperors gold coins

Indeed, the reproduction of the portrait of the emperor, seen as a kind of incarnation of him in the collective imagination of the time, gave him a sort of ubiquity. He was everywhere, in everyone's pocket. It was a founding act of political propaganda. Miniature portraits in gold of the emperor seem to have circulated in various governmental buildings throughout the empire.

 

Miniature portraits in gold of roman emperor

Miniature portraits in gold of roman emperor

These effigies were probably produced in several identical copies, as suggested by the bust of Marcus Aurelius, of larger dimensions and solid gold which is now kept in Avenches (Switzerland) and of which there are several other copies, one of them being conserved Tunisia.

 

bust of Marcus Aurelius

 

bust of Marcus Aurelius

gold bust of Marcus Aurelius

The Romans consumed large amounts of gold (estimated at 1,400 tons of gold per year), but did not make major artistic or decorative use of it. The use of gold by Roman goldsmiths was widespread and women wore jewelry made of rope, stone or metal on a daily basis. Bracelets, earrings and pendants form the bulk of this production.

 

roman gold jewelry

roman gold jewelry

Even at the court of the Emperor, there was no strong interest in gold as a decorative element. But it is in the Roman Empire, Alexandria, that a new technique for the manufacture of glass was developed, using gold for aesthetic purposes this time. 


The Alexandrian glassmakers, renowned as the best glass manufacturers in the Roman Empire, developed the technique of "the gold-glass sandwich." It involved placing an engraved gold leaf between two layers of glass which, depending on how the glass is worked thereafter, remained more or less in place. The glass could then be used to make bottles, glasses, vases of varying translucency, decorated with gold shimmer.

 

Gold in Pre-Columbian Americas

Latin America experienced a significant use of gold. In pre-Columbian civilizations, gold enjoyed great prestige but still did not have market value. By association with solar deities, the indigenous populations considered that gold retained the rays of the sun. It follows that the main uses for gold were in a religious or decorative context. The Incas, the Mayas, the Aztecs, and even small regional civilizations throughout all Latin America had a great mastery of gold-working techniques. Thus the most important traditions of gold crafting were to be found in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Among them, the three most famous civilizations: the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas.
However, it is very important to keep in mind that these three civilizations are not representative of a whole, the political organization of the pre-Columbian Americas having been highly fragmented. Indeed, every civilization coexisted with other chiefdoms and alliances, so that hundreds of different civilizations lived in areas that were often not extensive. For example, the Aztecs settled in the region of Mexico between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although other groups lived there in a sort of confederation of chiefdoms. Traditions in craftsmanship, customs and religious practices varied from one group to another, whilst being generally similar. There was not, as in Europe, a succession of dynasties, but a cohabitation of several successive dynasties often (nearly) in the same place.

 

The Aztecs and gold (at least the sixth century A.D. - sixteenth century A.D., northern Mesoamerica) and the Mayas ( 2600 B.C. - sixteenth century A.D., Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean).

 

The Aztecs, who are undoubtedly the most sophisticated of Latin America’s pre-Columbian civilizations, mastered writing, manufactured paper and knew astrology and mathematics. Aztec artisans were gifted at carving stone, which they used in funerary or religious contexts. The chiefs had gold objects in their own image and that of their gods. A fine example is the golden statuette of the Emperor Tizoc or the two discs which measure 2.1m in diameter, in gold and silver which Cortés brought back to Europe and were given to Charles Quint.

 

golden statuette of the Emperor Tizoc

golden statuette of the Emperor Tizoc

The Aztecs established a large urban network and built temples (Templo Mayor) of great importance that were probably decorated with gold coins. Contemporary Mayas also worked in gold in great quantities to craft objects of worship.

 

maya objects of worship in gold

maya objects of worship in gold

The Mayas, who lived around the same time, but further east in the area of the Gulf of Mexico, maintained a wide trade network (Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean) with relatively distant cities and mastered navigation at sea (port of Tulum). In their economic system, cocoa beans and copper bells formed the bulk of their money. Copper, but also gold, silver and jade were materials they used in the decorative arts. Weapons, jewelry, ornaments and statuettes, form the bulk of their production. The use of gold was intimately linked, as in all other Amerindian civilizations to religion and funerary rites. Mayan artisans also wove cotton.

 

The Incas and gold (thirteenth-sixteenth century A.D., west coast of South America).

The Inca civilization emerged in Cuzco, in the early thirteenth century, and gave birth to the Inca Empire, which at its peak, extended from Colombia to Chile, through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and part of Argentina. At the head of the empire was the Sapa Inca, who was considered the son of the sun.
While the Inca civilization developed late in South America and only had two hundred and fifty years to consolidate its power until Pizzaro conquered it, archaeological remains are numerous and include a large number of objects. With knowledg neither of the wheel nor writing, the Incas had developed a complex culture and devoted their worship to the sun and stars, but also to nature and idols.
The direct descendants of Manco Capac were called Sapa Inca. They ruled as emperor and were revered as demigods. It is around this sovereign all of Inca culture was built. The Incas erected temples, mostly dedicated to the sun, where gold found it place due to its brilliance. The two most famous temples are Corincancha (the gold pen) and the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, the capital of the Empire. In Bolivia, the natives went as far as to build a temple to the Sun on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca. In Caranqui, Ecuador, a temple once contained jars filled with gold and silver. There are now only a few descriptions of the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco and some walls that reflect the breadth and grandeur of the building. Its perimeter meausred more than 365 metres and its interior housed a golden disc representing the sun and a sacred garden, where each element of nature was represented by a statue in pure gold.

 

incas golden disc representing the sun

incas golden disc representing the sun

 

incas element of nature statue in pure gold

incas element of nature statue in pure gold

The Incas also made jewelry, masks and objects of pure gold they wore or used during sacred rituals.



On the fringes of the great civilizations

inca gold mask

inca gold mask

In less well-known civilisations, there was also a production of the highest quality. In Costa Rica, for example, in the region of Diquis, significant sets of jewelry made of solid gold were found, which led to the birth of the Gold Museum (San Jose) like the ones in Peru and Colombia, whose collections are owned by the National Bank. These objects have specific and precise symbolic meanings.

 

gold museum san jose

gold museum san jose

The frog is a symbol of fertility and the eagle represents foresight and spirit.

 

gold frog incas

gold frog incas

In some tribes, gold was worn everyday, including by warriors in the form of bracelets, necklaces, headbands and earrings.

 

inca warrior with gold ornaments

inca warrior with gold ornaments

The fact that this type of object is massively present in the native burial places gave rise to many clandestine excavations and looting as a result of the El Dorado myth that existed in South America, a land of gold. It was one of the main reasons for the colonization of Latin America.

 

 

Part II - Uses of gold during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance


The Middle Ages, which are often thought of as a dark period in our history, mark the transition between the classical age of Antiquity and Renaissance humanism, and are actually a turning point, much richer than frequently believed, which saw Christianity settle in Europe, and with it a new form of worship of gold. Other religions which had their peak between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Italian cities, wore gold as a symbol of the divine, particularly in the Far East.

 

 

Uses of gold in the Far East

 

The Far East has such a wealth of beliefs that gold has seen many uses, almost exclusively in the context of a divine symbol, and sometimes power. The most significant monuments of the region, which are mostly expressons of buddhist culture, are the Golden Pavilion and the Golden Buddha.

 

 

Uses of decorative gold in Japan

Japanese temples are in essence, a room used for worship (the Kondo), which is entirely decorated in gold and houses the cult statue. The arrangement is similar to that of the cella in the Ancient Greek world. The temple in Nara Horyujli is a good example; entirely constructed of wood, it was destroyed by lightning in 670 and rebuilt in 711. Over time, several other ancillary buildings (pavilion, bell pavilion, sacred texts, reading room for these texts, etc..) were added.

 

nara horyujili temple

nara horyujili temple

The Kondo Nara takes the form of a house, square in plan, and is based on a platform. A double roof is the covers the entire building, enabling one to walk all  around it under the protection of its eaves. From the beginning, it was a place meant for the conservation of Buddhist statuary, so that there are many statues, among which the famous Kudara-Kannon.

 

Kudara-Kannon

Kudara-Kannon

 

Another monument of Japan is the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion).

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

This temple, probably built in the thirteenth century, is completely covered with gold, with the exception of the ground floor, which earned it its name. Its turbulent history is marked by destruction, especially during the Onin War (fifteenth century) and only the Golden Pavilion survived. In 1950 a monk burned the place and by doing so gave a topic to the writer Yukio Mishima, author of The Golden Pavilion. It was rebuilt identically in 1955 and fully renovated in 1987 to ensure the sustainability of gold leaves that cover it. Registered since 1994 as World Heritage by UNESCO, the Golden Pavilion is topped by a sculpture of Fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix, made entirely of gold.

 

sculpture of Fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix in gold

sculpture of Fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix in gold

 

Indonesia and its uses of gold

Between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, Indonesia witnessed the construction of many places of worship, sometimes quite close to each other. These monuments are dedicated to Buddhism or Hinduism, or sometimes both religions at once. In the plain of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, the temple of Prambanan is situated next to Buddhist monuments.

 

prambanan temple

prambanan temple

There is evidence that the two religions have coexisted in Indonesia since the fifth century, which is why historians have called the Indonesian classical period, the Hindu-Buddhist period. It is from this period that the charming figurines produced gold artisans who were devoted to the cult date.

 

gold artisans indonesia

Indonesia gold artisans

 

Decorative gold in China

The Forbidden City lies at the heart of the Imperial City of Beijing. The imposing palace is full of molded and painted decorations, many of which are worked with gold leaf.

 

forbidden city

Forbidden City

Decorative motifs were carved into the walls and then painted. Each pavilion of the palace complex is guarded by huge gilded bronze lions that are still in place today. Chinese rulers who stayed in this palace gave rise to a legend of wealth and important power, marked by the extensive use of gold in ornaments, furniture, accessories, draperies and clothing.

 

Forbidden City

Construction began in 1406 and continued for fourteen years, employing more than two hundred thousand workers. It is one of the most majestic palaces in World Heritage. Stretching over an area of more than seventy acres, it is also one of the best preserved palaces in China, even though the entire structure is made of wood. Now a museum, which it is not unreasonable to compare the Louvre, it houses the imperial treasures of ancient times and a large part of the most significant works of Chinese art, paintings, bronzes, ceramics , lacquers ...
The palace was home to the Ming and Qing dynasties, whose emperors only left the walls of the Forbidden City on very rare occasions. Legend has it that the city has 9,999 rooms, but in reality it has "only" 8704. The symbolism of 9999 aims to show how the Emperors approach a divine character, which in the Chinese collective imagination, is represented by the number 10000.
Consisting of several pavilions, an outer courtyard, which formed the public part of the palace, houses the pavillions of Supreme Harmony, Perfect and Preserved and Military Prowess.

The inner courtyard, which was private, houses the workroom of the emperor and the apartments of the imperial family. This section also includes several buildings, including those of Heavenly Purity, the Union and Peace Land.

courtyard forbidden city

inner courtyard forbidden city

The decoration of the city followes a complex iconographic program. On the outside, large and heavy gilt bronze sculptures, wall decorations and gold leaf, friezes and moldings in porcelain and clay can be seen. Inside, the life of the Emperor took place in an extravagant pomp, which would have made Louis XIV blush, where all everyday objects were luxuriously manufactured in bronze, gold, silver, etc...

 

forbidden city gold statue

Forbidden city gold statue

The film, Forbidden City, shot in 2007, highlights the stylistic richness in which the Chinese imperial dynasties lived.

 

forbidden city and gold

forbidden city and gold

 

Thailand, buddhism and gold

The history of the Golden Buddha in Bangkok is undoubtedly one of the most edifying of Buddhist culture. It is the largest statue in solid gold in the world and it is 3 meters high and weighs 5.5 tons. Despite being worked in the Sukhothai style, researchers believe it was produced later, probably between 1600 and 1750.

 

gold buddha thailand

gold buddha thailand

With the Buddha in the traditional posture, the statue was once cased in wood so as to be concealed, and it was only thanks to a manoeuvering accident that the casing was broken and it was discovered to be made of solid gold.
The Pagoda of the Bois de Vincennes - which is the headquarters of the International Buddhist Association – also houses a great Buddha, the largest in Europe, measuring no less than nine meters high and completely covered in gold leaf.

 

pagoda bois de vincennes  gold buddha

pagoda bois de vincennes  gold buddha

 

Gold and its place in European craftsmanship



In Europe during the Middle Ages, the use of gold, associated with the image of God and the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem, was almost exclusively in the decoration of churches, ecclesiastical furniture and religious artefacts (crucifix, cross procession, reliquaries, etc..). Gold in fact occupies a central place in Christian worship and is very present in the Temple of Jerusalem (menorah, cups, ark of the covenant), while in the New Testament, the Magi brought gold to Jesus. In the Book of Revelations, Jesus appears to John surrounded by seven gold menorahs. In Christian art, saints, angels and even some clerics are represented with a golden halo. Gold also symbolizes the light of God in icons and golden mosaic backgrounds, as found in Ravenna and Palermo and Rome.
One of the most striking examples is the Zeno Chapel (twelfth century), in the Santa Prassede  in Rome, whose walls and vaulted ceiling are covered with mosaics in tesserae of gold.

 

zeno chapel gold mosaic

Gold mosaics in the Zeno Chapel

 

Mosaic in tesserae of gold

Mosaic using gold tesserae

The decor is a Christ Pantocrator in the mandorla, carried by four angels (fig. 43).

Christ Pantocrator in gold

Christ Pantocrator in gold

This mosaic, which draws on the Byzantine style, was made by Greek craftsmen in Rome in the tenth century. This particular technique consists of an irregular assembling of tiles, so that the mosaic shines and comes much more alive than if the tiles were arranged neatly. In addition to the mosaics, reused columns are topped with Corinthian capitals and guilded consoles. Several other examples are still preserved, especially in Rome, in the mosaics of the apse of the great churches and basilicas, such as the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Other buildings, such as the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe, feature golden ornaments. Orthodox iconography is at least as rich as the Catholic iconography of the Middle Ages. Various applications cover  the altars as well as the buildings themselves and the icons.

 

Altars decorated with gold

Altars decorated with gold

 

Golden domes

Golden domes

 

Icon on gold background

Icon on gold background

 

Other uses of gold appeared in the Middle Ages, especially in the art of miniature and illumination, where the gold leaf is commonly found.

 

Miniature using gold

Miniature using gold


If the Middle Ages gave religion a central place in every-day life, gold also continued to serve the government's image, as can be seen in the attributes (staffs, boxes, etc.) of kings, emperors and popes.

 

Gold sceptre

Gold sceptre

 

Pope's attributes in gold

Pope's attributes in gold

It was also during the Middle Ages that three new uses for gold were first attested.

The golden dress of Queen Margaret of Denmark is a masterpiece of medieval clothing, sewn and embroidered with gold thread so densely that it seems at first sight to be worked entirely in gold.

 

Golden dress of Queen Margaret of Denmark

Golden dress of Queen Margaret of Denmark

 

The garment opened new uses for gold in tailoring and dressmaking and was the start of a long tradition of costumes de cour as seen in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The invention of painting on canvas, in Venice, to counteract the dampness of the walls, created the new profession of frame-making. Once again, the history of frame-making is a long one. Adorned with fine gold from early on, frames have seen a marked change throughout history and are one of the most widespread fields for techniques in gold leaf application.

 

Golden frame

Golden frame

 

This craft is still practiced today and some art restorers specialize in the restoration of antique frames, such as those that can be seen around the works of the great masters of the Renaissance and Classicism.
A third type of use, culinary this time, is attested in the Milanese Chronicles. Bernardino Corio describes the wedding feast of Violante Visconsi and Lionel Plantagenet, in 1368, when the guests (including Petrarch) were served entire animals covered in pure gold leaf. Gold, which had probably been used in ancient times, was a hallmark of the cuisine of European courts, especially in Italy.



Part Three - Classicism and Modernity

After the Renaissance and the advent of major Italian cities, Classicism prevailed throughout Europe in the form of the French sense of aesthetics dictated by the arts, literature and fashion that the King of France celebrated at Versailles. Gradually, Baroque art, still steeped in religion and symbolic, slid into a thriving aesthetic, where ornaments, especially golden ornaments, found a place of first choice, as still visible today visible through the admirable splendor of the castles of Versailles and Sans Souci (Berlin).


France's legacy of gold


In Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the King of France and his court who made and unmade the aesthetic fashions and tastes. It was at the center of the world of the time, that is to say, the Louvre, the royal residence before Versailles, that shops selling fabrics, jewelery and other imported wares from Asia or articles made by the master craftsmen of Paris first opened. The aristocrats discovered Indian silks, Chinese porcelain, Japanese furniture, which they imported en masse to decorate the intriors of ther homes. Gold was present everywhere in the form of money of course, but also in its decorative form.
All rooms at Versailles, whose construction began at the end of the Renaissance, in 1623, such as galleries, the Hall of Mirrors and the gates of the park include gold elements. The gate of the main entrance, once solid and later looted and melted by the Revolutionaries of 1798 gold has been recently restored and gold plated to recreate its original appearance. The Hall of Mirrors whose majestic mirrors were made using the technique of glass-making discovered in the early seventeenth century, which consisted of casting glass in flat molds and unmolding it once cold, is richly decorated from walls to ceiling, including chandeliers and sculptures.

Hall of mirrors in Versailles

Hall of mirrors in Versailles

 

The whole decorative concept of the castle is centered on gold, which is both a symbol of power and the divine incarnation of the King of France, as he was then considered as the representative of God on earth.
The Queen's chamber gives an even better idea of the taste for gold and baroque, as hangings, woodwork, walls, moldings and the bed itself are lavishly covered with gold leaf decorations. The importance of this decor is crucial because it must be remembered that the Court could attend, allbeit in a very theatrical staging, the everyday life of its sovereigns (the rising and going to bed of the king, for example), which explains the gold railing that separates the public space from that of "representation."

Queen's chamber in Versailles

Queen's chamber in Versailles

 

In this extravagant decor, in which one could get lost easily, the presence of a curious invention which summarizes the vast tradition in both portrait and funeral customs of gold should be noted. Bernard Perrot, through the casting process used for the mirrors of the Hall of Mirrors, developed a new aesthetic of the medallion. He created slightly raised busts in profile of the personalities of his time, captured between two layers of glass.

 

Gold profile encased in glass

Gold profile encased in glass

 

It thus combines the tradition of the portrait of Emperor struck on coins (image of power) with the deceased whose face is covered with a gold mask (image of God). This synthesis is very representative of the time and shows how one sought to produce works, even minor, with materials like gold, silver and precious wood.
The advent of the monarchy during this period is responsible in part in this competition of ornamentation: each kingdom wanting to distinguish itself from others by its wealth and symbols of power, created a competition almost without limits in the gigantic schemes put in place to be bigger, stronger and richer than one’s neighbor. It is interesting to note that this vying caused the loss of many art objects in solid gold brought to Spain by the conquistadors as the kings did not hesitate to melt down these works in order to recover the noble material.
In this power struggle furniture found a space of expression particularly conducive to the development of the classical and baroque styles and is undoubtedly the most extravagant ever produced. The Venetian throne preserved today at Versailles is a demonstration of this.

 

Venetian throne in Versailles

Venetian throne at Versailles

 

In addition to furniture, clothing of noblemen and noblewomen experienced a major stylistic development, with stitching in silver thread and gold, inlays of precious stones, etc.. which made the formal clothing of great personalities quite rigid, heavy and generally uncomfortable to wear. The robe of the King of Sweden is a great example of the decorative use of fine thread and precious stones in the making of his costume.

 

Golden robe of the King of Sweden

Golden robe of the King of Sweden

 

In the iconography of the Kings of France, if one takes a close look at the official portraits of their coronation one finds,  as in those of Louis XVI to Charles X, that the costumes all follow very studied and complex codes, complete with various symbolic attributes (crowns, sceptres, etc.) all richly adorned with gold and precious stones.

 

Royal sceptre in gold

Royal sceptre in gold

 

Thus one understands more fully how much care was taken so as to represent the situation and the power of monarchs. For French artisans, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were synonymous with great technical and aesthetic advances. The goldsmiths and clockmakers enjoyed an overal prosperous period and perfect setting for their development.

 

Fine gold jewellery

Fine gold jewellery

 

Gold clock I

Gold Clock I

 

Gold clock II

Gold clock II

 

The tradition of one or the other is perpetuated today by traditional brands and some recent makers who rework historic patterns and bring them up to date. But this flourishing period was crucial to all decorative arts in general.

 

Decorative bust in gold

Decorative bust in gold

 

Ornate gold candle-holder

Ornate gold candle-holder

 

There was also a taste for the exotic and especially the curiousity of the Courts towards oriental objects that led collectors and aristocrats to acquire furniture, jewelry and works of art from the Far East, such as, for example, Japanese lacquerwork. And in this quest also, gold was to find a central place.


A brief history of Gold in Japan

Lacquered items from Japan, which were exported to Europe from the Renaissance onwards, found resounding success in european classicism. Certain royal courts even accumulated important collections from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The impact of the technique of Japanese lacquer in the decorative arts was extensive and met a rather popular taste of the time for both the baroque aesthetic and the East, which travel literature was also able to relay with finesse.
It is also interesting to note that most of the subjects used by artisans to decorate objects made in this technique show scenes of Japanese literature. The technique of Japanese lacquer requires a lot of time, patience and dexterity. Generally used on pine or cypress, lacquer is applied in several layers, on which, according to the variations of the technique, the decorative elements are added. Two techniques differ from each other in their process: the technique called makie is to sprinkle or apply gold dust, silver or precious stones on the lacquer before it dries to create inlaid motifs. Guri is a technique that consists in applying several layers of differently pigmented paints (gold dust, pigments, silver, etc..) and then burning more or less deeply into the dry lacquer to find the colors that are between the layers. However the first of these techniques is the most widespread. Gold is also the most used element in the decoration of lacquerware.
The Mazarin Chest is an outstanding example of this technique, both in its size and the richness of its decoration.

 

The Mazarin chest

The Mazarin chest

 

Produced in Kyoto in order to be exported to Europe, it was purchased by a major collector before the Victoria and Albert Museum of London acquired it in 1882. The name is due to the coat of arms that appear on the key of the chest, which indicates that it belonged to a member of this French family.
Another good example is the lacquerd chest comissioned by the governor general of the Dutch East Indies, Anton van Diemen, which was made by the most famous craftsmen. This chest has on its cover an important scene of The Tale of Genji, one of the key works of Japanese literature.

 

Cover of the Mazarin chest depicting the Tale of Genji

Cover of the Mazarin chest depicting the Tale of Genji

 

The most representative pieces of the tradition of Japanese lacquer, however were not made to order, like this vanity box whose decorations are inspired by japanese mythology and similar to another piece found in Marie-Antoinette’s collections.

 

Japanese vantity box decorated with gold

Japanese vantity box decorated with gold


Household furniture has also been made using these techniques, such as, for example, screens.

 

Lacquered screen

Lacquered screen

 

These usually consist of four or six panels of decorated wood held together by hinges. The screen shown above made using the makie technique is particularly significant because it illustrates the dual function of this type of piece: protection against draughts while providing an intimate space and a decorative object. Thus, design became an important element in furniture the classic period. One finds themes such as historical battles, maps, allegories of the seasons, landscapes, literary illustrations, incorporated into furniture of this period.
The popularity of Japanese lacquerware was such that it still continued into the twentieth century, but it was during the Enlightenment that these objects found the most favor in the eyes of Europeans. In addition to decorative or utilitarian objects of various sizes, the technique of lacquerwork was also applied to furniture such as secretary desks, cabinets, and other elements, which all together form a catalog of applications of the technique.
In the eighteenth century, England became home to another type of chests, not lacquered as by the Japanese, but decorated with reliefs made of solid gold. Taking legendary or historical events of ancient history, they brought the old standards up to date in a world that was searching for a new identity. Thus we find chests with ornately carved lids, representing the wedding of Alexander and Roxane or Orpheus and Eurydice.



Wedding of Alexander the Great and Roxanne

Wedding of Alexander the Great and Roxanne

 

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

 

 

Conclusion – Present day with DeLafée International

From the twentieth century to today, gold has found a prime status in art, fashion, food, architecture as well as in society. Carrying a large cultural and economic symbolism, it is today one of the safest investments, but also one of the most noble materials for artistic creation.

 

Gold and clothing



The link between gold and garments dates back to the tradition of court apparel, which came into being towards the end of the Middle Ages, as we have seen, with the dress of Queen Margaret of Denmark. Court finery has maintained the tradition of use of gold, and in India the tradition to dress in garments containing gold thread on religious occasions is quite established to this day. Thus the traditional Hindu sari can be embroidered with patterns or simply woven with threads of gold or silver, and the type of thread called jari is often used for wedding sarees.

 

Sarees worked with gold thread

Sarees worked with gold-thread

 

Many designers have in recent years started to use gold in their creations, such as Michael Kors and Stella McCartney.

 

Designed by Michael Kors

Designed by Michael Kors

 

Designed by Stella McCartney

Designed by Stella McCartney

 

DeLafée International innovates by creating temporary tattoos in gold, which complement a tradition of dress or adornment through gold jewelery by the application of the precious metal itself.

 

Gold Tattoos by DeLafée

Gold Tattoos by DeLafée

 


Gold must be earned



In addition to symbolic political power or religious associations, gold is now also a symbol of merit. In our contemporary society, since the late nineteenth century, gold has found employment in symbolic rewards, mainly in sports. The Fifa Cup is of course made of solid gold, as is the golden ball which is given each season to the best player of the year.

 

Fifa Cup

Fifa Cup

 

Football award in gold

Football award in gold


Medals in competitions, whether Olympic or other, are an even better illustration of a hierarchy of metals, as gold, silver and bronze are used to distinguish, respectively, the first, second and third place.

 

Olympic Medals

Olympic Medals

 

Owning gold is therefore considered not only a sign of wealth and power, but as it was already in the Middle Ages, a sign of merit and dignity.



Eating gold



Known for its medicinal properties – one can even purchase it in the form of pills -, gold is also edible.

 

Pils containing edible gold

Pils containing edible gold

 

It was also frequently used in this form thoughought history, but often discreetly, among the affluent. Gold has probably been consumed since ancient times, however, it is attested only in the fourteenth century, in the Milanese Chronicles of Bernardino Corio: the reader will be surprised by his description of the marriage supper of Violante Visconsi and Lionel Plantagenet (1368) where illustrious guests (including Petrarch) were served many pieces of game covered with leaves of pure gold. Saffron was also used for its yellow color to give paintings - and later food - a resemblance to gold. This is how saffron risotto, as loved by the Milanese, was invented. The Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi upholds this legend by garnishing his saffron risotto with edible gold leaf.

 

Saffron risotto with gold leaf

Saffron risotto with gold leaf

 

In this area too, DeLafée International continues and renews this tradition by offering edible gold suitable for the culinary and aesthetic needs of today. Gold ice cubes sparkling with gold glitter, lollipops with strawberry and gold, chocolates and even cigars gilded with fine gold perpetuate a tradition of worship of gold which has marked all civilizations since the dawn of time.

 

Ice cubes containg edible gold by DeLafée

 

Ice cubes containg edible gold by DeLafée

 

DeLafée's gold lollipop

 

DeLafée's gold lollipop

 

Gold chocolates by DeLafée

 

Gold chocolates by DeLafée

 

DeLafée's gold-covered cigar

 

DeLafée's gold-covered cigar

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