THE ART & CULTURE OF GOLDKNOWLEDGE IS PRECIOUS

  • Playwrights, poets and novelists have long found invaluable the two words 'gold' and 'golden'. Thus Shakespeare set the scene of Cleopatra drifting down the river Nile with her lover Antony:

    The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, Burn'd on the water; the poop was beaten gold, ..... ..... For her own person, It beggar'd all description; she did lie In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue - - (Antony and Cleopatra, act II, scene 2)

    The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations chooses over one hundred quotations on gold and almost fifty for golden. From the Bible's "The city was pure gold, like unto clear glass" (Revelation, chapter 21, verse 18) to Milton's "Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold" (Hymn: On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, line 135), the word suggests a special image, not least to those in love. The poet John Donne evoked:

    Come live with me, and be my love, And we will some new pleasures prove Of golden sands, and crystal brooks With silken lines, and silver hooks. - (John Donne, The Bait)

    In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, as the lovers are finally re-united in the final act, we hear:

    Sit, Jessica; look, how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold ... - (Merchant of Venice, act 5, scene 1)

    The poet Robert Browning simply asked:

    Is she not pure gold, my mistress?

    "The literature of so many ages has applied the adjective 'golden' in a certain way," observed the historian C. H. V. Sutherland in Gold: Its beauty, power and allure (gold library/history), "its foremost and constant connotation has been that of something which is naturally loved, naturally desirable, naturally pre-eminent". Perhaps he had been reading the poet George Meredith who wrote:

    .... Let us breathe the air of the Enchanted Island. Golden lie the meadows; golden run the streams; red gold is on the pine-stems .... The sun is coming down to earth, and the fields and the waters shout to him golden shouts. - (The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, chapter 19)

    The evocation of gold can sometimes give us historic insights into the use of the metal. Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus vows:

    I'll have them fly to India for gold, Ransack the ocean for Orient pearl. - (Christopher Marlowe: Dr Faustus, lines 110/111)

    The lines, written about 1604, cast a fascinating sidelight on the fact that four centuries ago India was already famous as a market for gold. And Marlowe's contemporary John Donne appreciated gold's unique malleability and ductility, which enables it to be transformed into gold leaf seventy-five millionths of a millimetre (three-millionths of an inch) thick, when he wrote, "Like gold to airy thinness beat" (A Valediction Forbidding Morning).

    Lack of gold can, of course, be a cause for wry comment. Geoffrey Chaucer remarks in his description of the Clerk of Oxford in his Canterbury Tales:

    But al be that he was a philisophre, Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre.

    A sideswipe at 13th century alchemy and those who sought the 'stone of philosophers', the agent that would transmute base metals into gold. Rudyard Kipling, on the other hand, had a pragmatic view of gold's role in a later industrial age:

    Gold is for the mistress - silver for the maid - Copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade. 'Good!' said the Baron, sitting in his hall, But Iron - Cold Iron - is master of them all. - (Rudyard Kipling, Cold Iron)

    For novelists, gold offers adventure and cautionary tales. To Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island the lure is buried pirate gold, for Jack London in Call of the Wild and White Fang the harsh life of the goldfields provides the setting - and the call of the wilderness is almost as much as the call of gold. More moving is George Eliot's Silas Marner, the story of a linen-weaver in a small English village, a lonely man but brilliant at his work, who liked to be paid in gold guineas, which he hoarded beneath the floor of his cottage. One day the gold was stolen, leaving him desolate; a desolation resolved one winter evening when a lost child, whose mother had died in the snow, wandered into his home and fell asleep before his fire. When he first saw her, it seemed to Silas Marner "as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth". It was not his own gold returned, but a child with soft yellow ringlets of hair all over her head.

    Last word might go to George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright and gadfly, who wittily coined the maxim, "The golden rule is that there are no golden rules".

  • The ancient affiliations for gold tell it all. To the Egyptians the yellow blaze of gold was a symbol of the sun god Ra. To the Inca people gold was the sweat of the sun (and silver the tears of the moon). The Trojan war may indirectly have been caused by a golden apple given by Paris, Prince of Troy, to Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and goddess of love and beauty, who in turn permitted Paris to kidnap Helen, the wife of the Greek hero Menelaus, thereby causing the war. The golden apples, by the way, grew far away in the west on a tree near the sea, guarded by the Hesperides, the 'daughters of the evening', and a dragon. Various heroes from Heracles (Hercules) to Atlas (taking a break from holding up the world on his shoulders) did battle with the dragon in pursuit of the apples. The story does not end there for golden apples, as the giver of life, are plucked throughout the centuries in myth and legend. In German mythology, the goddess Idun possessed such apples which conferred eternal youth on the gods. And gold apples turn up in a magical setting in Wagner's great opera Das Rheingold. From the beginning gold was caught up in myths, legends and fairy tales about gods, goddesses, princesses, magicians and heroes.


    Moreover, until modern archeology began unveiling the lost worlds of Sumer and Babylon, of the Minoans and Mycenæ and even Troy itself, no one knew what was myth and what was reality. How much of Homer's great epic The Iliad had a basis in fact? "There was no proof that the Trojan Wars had been anything other than legends of long-lost epic heroes sung by bards," observed Caroline Moorhead in her biography of Heinrich Schliemann, the German archeologist who excavated both Troy and Mycenæ. When Schliemann found a wonderful gold death mask at Mycenæ, he reportedly telegraphed the King of Greece, "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon". Actually, the mask may not be of Agamemnon, but an ancient legend gained legitimacy. What about the myths surrounding King Minos on Crete and the fierce Minotaur in the labyrinth of his palace which Theseus finally slew? In 1900 the English archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, found the palace of Knossos with its labyrinth of hundreds of rooms and frescos depicting the sacred and perilous sport of bull dancing before a fashionable crowd decked in gold jewellery. Even the epic tale of Jason and his Argonauts sailing off to find the mythical Golden Fleece has substance. They were probably seeking gold itself, having heard stories that in the swiftly flowing streams coming down to the Black Sea from central Russia local gold prospectors used sheep skins in the water to trap specks of gold in the wool. Men rushed off to the California gold rush in just the same way.

    In these early civilisations, gold was also an important provision for the after-life. In the tomb of Princess Pu-abi among the Royal Tombs at Ur in Sumer dating from around 2500 BC were not only the bodies of female attendants to serve her, but gold cups and vessels to enable them to do so in style on her journey to another world. While Tutankhamun, the boy-king of Egypt, who died in 1352 BC, rested in a golden shrine, equipped for his voyage to the after-life with gold sandals on his feet, a dagger with a blade of hardened gold and gold drinking vessels, rings and ornaments. "Clearly, under this golden edifice," wrote the French archeologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, "the sovereign was granted a new lease of life: Tutankhamun was promised immortality by his father Ra, the sun god".

    Gods themselves embellish ornaments. A Cretan god, Master of Animals, is depicted by a Minoan gold pendant in the British Museum standing in a field of lotus flowers, each hand holding a goose by the neck. Not only the gods, but the humble scarab, the dung beetle which pushes a large ball of dung before it to its lair, was a symbol for the Egyptians of new life and resurrection. They saw the sun's passage each day across the heavens from east to west as if it was being pushed by this black beetle; their gold rings and seals abounded with scarabs as a lucky token.

    The myths of early civilisations are perpetuated in the fairy tales of western Europe recalling exploits involving the sun or moon, bold princes, forlorn princesses, or wise shepherds. A Hungarian fairy tale relates how a little king and his younger brother retrieve the sun, moon and stars after an age of darkness; the king fights for the moon with a dragon in a golden wood near a golden bridge. A Bulgarian story tells of a shepherd saving the sun from a threatening monster and then calling on the sun's father for a reward. The father's palace was made entirely of gold and the sun's father offered him as much as he could carry. The shepherd, however, preferred a magic horse and rode off to marry the Sea Queen. And in the delightful Romanian fairy tale of Tarandafiru, a princess seeks her long-lost husband with the help of personified days of the week. Mother Wednesday gives her a distaff with which she can spin pure gold, Mother Friday offers a golden bobbin which winds gold thread and Mother Sunday presents her with a golden hen and five chicks which lay six golden eggs. Finally, the princess finds her husband and bears him two golden children.

    Gold prospectors from Jason onwards, have always found it hard not to chase a legend. El Dorado, the fabled, but elusive land somewhere in South America, which was supposedly the source of the gold looted by Spanish conquistadors, has kept expeditions on the trail for centuries. Money and lives have been lost paddling up rivers, trekking through jungles, climbing mountains, but El Dorado was always just over the horizon. Actually, it does exist but, like the Golden Fleece, it is not quite what they sought. The world's lowest cost gold mines today are in Peru, where massive low grade deposits of gold are being excavated from open pits by international mining companies, not humble prospectors. So, like many myths and legends, there is a grain of truth, just as the discovery of the great palace of Knossos on Crete in 1900 revealed the wonderful Minoan civilisation, with its contribution to the history of gold. The gold treasures of the Minoans and of Mycenæ can mainly be seen in the National Archeological Museum in Athens and the Archeological Museum of Herakleion on Crete. The so-called Priam's Treasure that Schliemann found at Troy disappeared from Berlin in 1945, but is thought to be in the basement of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

  • Gold and the movies were made for each other. The prospector seeking it, the robber stealing it, the beautiful woman wearing it (or hoping to). Charlie Chaplin paved the way in The Gold Rush in 1925 as the Lone Prospector threatened by blizzards and bandits in the Klondike gold rush of 1898 and surviving by eating an old boot and laces. The movie was ranked among the Top 100 films during the first centenary celebrations of the silver screen in 1995. So was the great John Huston picture, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart searching for gold in the Mexican wilderness, along with Huston's father, Walter Houston; they find gold, but lose it and their lives over the inevitable squabbling. Another fine band of actors, Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson and Lee J. Cobb got together in J. Lee Thompson's 1968 MacKenna's Gold; Peck was the sheriff with The Map of where the gold lay; everyone else was after him and it.

    El Dorado, the legendary source of South America's gold, that became an obsession with successive expeditions from the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century onwards, provided natural movie inspiration. The best was Aguirre, Wrath of God, German director Werner Herzog's 1972 film of the conquistadors ruthless search for an elusive goal. It was a beautifully photographed odyssey through mountain peaks and valleys shrouded in mist. While the Spanish Cinemascope epic El Dorado (director Carlos Saura, 1988), the most expensive Spanish film ever made was, according to one critic, "a fascinating attempt to get to the heart of myths, men and history".

    The pursuit of gold had its lighter moments. An ebullient Mae West sang "I'm an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love" in the 1936 picture Klondike Annie, promoted with the slogan, "She made the Frozen North Red Hot". The same froth came from a trio of Gold Diggers, musicals in the 1930s, one directed by Busby Berkeley, and featuring such stars as Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell, singing and dancing their way through numbers like "We're in the Money". In The Wizard of Oz in 1939, Judy Garland sang her way into fame along "The Yellow Brick Road", en route to finding the Wizard. In the same vein, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope followed The Road to Utopia in 1945 as Dorothy Lamour sought to win from each the two halves of the map to her private gold mine. But for sheer fun, Crosby and Hope's road movies may have been outdone by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in their 1937 Way Out West in which these sparkling comedians headed for Brushwood Gulch to deliver the deeds of a gold mine to the daughter of a dead prospector. Chaos ensued and some critics rated it Laurel and Hardy's best movie.

    For straight forward action, however, the gold standard was set by Goldfinger in 1964, one of the best James Bond movies made from the novels of Ian Fleming. Not only was Sean Connery in his prime as Bond, out to thwart Goldfinger's raid on the gold of Fort Knox, but Honor Blackman is still remembered as Pussy Galore with her all-girls flying troupe and Shirley Eaton as Goldfinger's assistant, who died after being covered entirely in gold paint for betraying him. The movie, made before the Bond films took on too many flights of fancy, had real insights into the black market in gold at the time, with Goldfinger getting recycled scrap gold out of England as panels of his Rolls Royce was based on actual tricks of the trade. As was Alec Guiness' and Stanley Holloway's strategy in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) for slipping stolen bullion out of Britain to France by remelting it into souvenir replicas of the Eiffel Tower. This technique was widely used in the late 1940s for unofficial gold exports. The gold was officially allocated as for manufacture into 'artistic' objects which, once exported, were remelted into gold bars for smuggling to India.

    Gold market manipulation was the motive behind Gold, a 1974 film starring Roger Moore, at a time when South Africa produced almost 80 per cent of the world's gold and the price was rising. Moore outwitted a plot to flood a South African gold mine, thus causing a sudden rise in the price of gold in which the villains had already bought a large position.

    The film industry, of course, makes its own acknowledgement to gold in its annual prizes. Le Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival is one of the most coveted for international movies, while the Golden Globe is one of Hollywood's top trophies. In turn, the Berlin Film Festival awards the Golden Bear and the Venice Film Festival presents The Golden Lion.

    (Source: Goldavenue acknowledges Time Out Film Guide, published by Penguin Books, ISBN 0 14 026564, for background information for this article. The guide reviews nearly 12,000 movies.)

  • Each year close to 500,000 gold watches are made, most of them in Switzerland; the watch cases and their bracelets consume close to 30 tonnes (almost one million troy ounces) of gold. The gold case-makers follow a tradition going back centuries. A famous inventory of the jewellery of Queen Elizabeth I of England, drawn up around 1600, includes: "Item: a litle watche of gold enamled with sundry colours on both sides alike. Item: a litle watche of christall slightly garnished with golde, with her Ma'ties picture on it".


    From the first development of watches soon after 1500, when suitable springs to drive them were devised, gold was regularly used. They were as much an adornment as a timepiece. Indeed, to begin with most watches did not keep time accurately and it was not until a Dutch physicist, Christiaan Huygens, invented the balance wheel and the hairspring in 1675 that they became really reliable.

    Meanwhile, watchmakers sought to dazzle their wealthy patrons. As the historian David Landes observed in his book Revolution in Time, "the development of the timepiece, especially the watch, as ornament or jewel ... absorbed the energies and imagination of some of the finest artists (art in the sense of 'arts and crafts')(1)".

    Actually, gold had already been used in the clock towers of churches and monasteries across Europe from the late 13th century, with gold leaf used to coat the numerals and hands, but watches offered a new challenge. As David Landes adds, "Primacy [was] given to the container rather than the contents". Your watch might not be precise in time but it looked wonderful. Gold cases were adorned with diamonds, rubies, pearls and semi-precious stones. The British Museum in London has an amazing collection of 17th century English, French and Swiss watches. An early English example has a delicate case of thin gold filigree, another an outer case of horn inlaid with gold and an inner case of gold decorated with a design as the sun shining on a castle gate. A French watch came with a neat gold crucifix housing the movement, while another's gold case was covered with pictures of Amazon warriors.

    The early watchmakers were mostly in Paris and Blois in France, in London and, increasingly, in Geneva in Switzerland. But a real turning point came after 1675 with Huygen's invention of the balance wheel and hair spring. "The precision of watches gained an order of magnitude," notes science writer Lucien Trueb. "They now became instruments, not just beautiful pieces of jewellery giving the approximate time.(2)" Although watches were less ornate, the role of gold was enhanced because a gold case complemented the quality of the movement within. Moreover, gold's resistance to tarnishing recommended it to watchmaker and buyer. The technical improvement also meant that watches, which had previously often looked like a drum or an onion, became slim and elegant (though they were still for the pocket or locket and not worn on the wrist). The 'onion' of 1700 with a thickness of nearly 40mm (1.56 inches) gave way to a case only 15mm (0.6 inches) by 1790 and a mere 3mm (0.12 inches) by 1830, reports Lucien Trueb. Swiss case-makers soon made thin gold plates that were only 0.15mm (0.006 inches) thick to house the new movements.

    This Swiss ingenuity won them an increasing share of the growing market for gold watches because they were cheaper with less gold used in each. The Swiss watch industry, evolving not just in Geneva but around La Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchatel, was gaining its world superiority. The precious metals specialists Metalor began as the gold smelters and watch case makers Martin de Pury & Cie in 1852, and still serve the local industry.

    Today, 90 per cent of the world's gold watches are made in Switzerland and most gold bracelets are made there or in Italy. Fifteen Swiss companies make gold watch cases, several of them also producing bracelets. The famous names include Girard-Perregaux, Patek Philippe, Michel Parmigiani and Rolex. Some still work as true craftsmen, turning out a few hundred or thousand gold watches a year; Rolex, by contrast, produces over 200,000 gold watches annually. The majority of gold cases are 18 carat, although 14 carat cases are made for Britain, Germany and the United States. Gold cases may weigh as little as eight grams (0.26 troy ounce) for women's watches, but Rolex cases (which account for a significant amount of the gold consumption) weigh usually 40 grams (1.29 troy ounces).

    Watch cases featuring gold coins and small bars have long intrigued watchmakers. The oldest known coin watch, on show at the Girard-Perregaux Museum at La Chaux-de-Fonds is a double ducat from Florence hollowed out to take an 1820 Lépine gold watch. Corum, also from La Chaux-de-Fonds, has featured an American Double Eagle on its 'Monnaie' watch. Pamp SA has pioneered the bullion watch with a Fortuna medal of 31.15 grams (one troy ounce) as the face and an 18 carat gold case; the price fluctuates daily according to the international gold price.

    The history of the watch can be studied in several museums and collections. In Switzerland, visit the Musée de l'Horlogerie et de l'Emaillerie in Geneva or the Musée International d'Horlogerie (l'Homme et le Temps) at La Chaux-de-Fonds. Also, see the Patek Philippe Collection in Geneva and the Girard-Perregaux Museum, La Chaux-de-Fonds. In London, the British Museum has a collection of over 4,200 watches, one of the most comprehensive in the world; there is a fine display of beautiful gold, silver and other ornate watches covering over 400 years, alongside a fascinating technical display of the evolution of the watch.

    1 David Landes, Revolution in Time, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 98-99. See library/history.
    2 Lucien F. Trueb, 'Gold in Watchmaking', Gold Bulletin 2000, 33(1), World Gold Council, London.