» History of Goldsmiths & Goldsmithing

History of Goldsmiths & Goldsmithing

History of Goldsmiths & Goldsmithing

Goldsmiths have existed ever since gold was found to be a coveted metal. Their craft, known as goldsmithing, is the practice of working gold and other precious metals into a wide range of objects, from goblets and other useful utensils to ceremonial and religious items, and of course, jewelry.

A master goldsmith’s skill set spans many types of metalworking, including forging, melting, casting, cutting, soldering, filing, engraving, enamelling, and the polishing of precious metals and gemstones. Not only does a goldsmith possess the ability to form metals, but he also has a deeper knowledge of the properties and working characteristics of the raw materials. These skills were passed down historically from father to son, or from master to apprentice, and at times were closely guarded secrets.

Earliest Goldsmithing

Gold from the Varna Necropolis
Gold from the Varna Necropolis

Some of the earliest known gold artifacts are from the Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria, and date back to the 5th millennia B.C.E. These pieces show that ancient goldsmiths possessed a remarkable level of craftsmanship and knowledge. To understand the expertise of these early goldsmiths, it’s necessary to consider gold itself.

Gold has always been rare, valued both for its luster and malleability. It does not corrode or tarnish, and is easily shaped, fused and melted. Gold is also easy to pressure-weld, and is a highly ductile metal: a single ounce of gold can be beaten into a thin sheet measuring approximately 300 square feet.

To examine the goldsmithing process, let’s look at a single hollow bangle from the Varna Necropolis, as it ehibits many of the basics techniques that are still employed today.

First of all, hammering the gold into a shape requires metal uniformity, so the metal had to be smelted first. Since it is highly unlikely that the ancient craftsmen could have refined gold to purity, the alloy obtained would have required annealing—heating the metal and allowing it to cool slowly in order to remove internal stresses and toughen it.

Once the annealed ingot was hammered out, it was cut to proper length and width—certainly no simple task for that time. The ends would then have to be soldered to form a ring. The use of solder required a knowledge of alloys and their varying melting points, and since the process of soldering probably involved heating the gold on a bed of coals, the ability to control the temperature was a gargantuan feat unto itself.

Finally, the shape of the bangle itself displays a further mastery of craft: it is a great example of anticlastic raising, a shape formed by compressing the center of a gold sheet and stretching its edges, forcing two sides to curl under and two sides to curve upward. To hammer the shape of the bangle required an awareness of the difference in circumference along the piece’s profile—no small feat by any standard.

Egyptian Goldsmiths

Gold from King Tutankhamun's Tomb
Gold from King Tutankhamun’s Tomb

The ancient Egyptians were renowned for their work with gold, and goldsmithing skills advanced rapidly, in part because of the widespread availability of the precious metal. They understood fire assaying to test the purity of gold, and mastered the art of alloying gold with other metals. The Egyptians also developed ways to cast gold, including the lost-wax technique—a method still used in jewelry making today.

The treasures from King Tutankhamun, who died in 1352 BCE, are iconic examples of expert goldsmith craftsmanship, from the great mask of beaten gold to the golden throne depicting delicately worked scenes of the young king’s anointment. Ancient Egyptian goldsmiths were also the first to use niello, a decorative technique that uses a black powder of copper, silver, lead, and sulphur to coat an engraved metal surface. Once coated, heat is applied and the niello melts into the engraved channels, producing a stark contrast for the engraving.

Greek and Etruscan Goldsmiths

A Gold Earring From the Etruscan Period
A Gold Earring From the Etruscan Period

Though there is little evidence of Greek jewelry before 1800 BCE, the rise of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations brought technical accomplishment in gold work, including the first cable chains. Etruscan jewelry was made in northern Italy from about 700 BCE, and though it flourished only for a brief time, it is well known for its fine detail and extensive use of granulation.

Granulation is the use of tiny gold balls, sometimes thousands of them, to produce patterns and designs. The technique was used in many areas and periods, but none matched the detail and minute precision of the Etruscan goldsmiths. By about 300 BCE, Greek jewelry styles prevailed over most of Italy, and the Etruscan mastery of granulation fell out of favor, only to be re-discovered by Europeans of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Roman and Byzantine Goldsmiths

An Early Roman Christian Reliqaury
An Early Roman Christian Reliquary

As the Roman Empire expanded, it inherited popular Greek and Celtic jewelry traditions. The Romans thus began to favor gems and colored stones, and goldsmiths turned their talents to setting and framing emeralds, sapphires, pearls and uncut diamonds. Gold jewelry became more and more ornate as the Roman period progressed. By the time Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 325 CE, ornate gold work was being produced regularly.

Goldsmiths of the day embossed repetitive motifs on gold with dies, and fine detail was achieved by chasing, or indentation, and delicate engraving with fine tipped tools. Cloisonné enamel, a technique of soldering metal strips to create raised compartments that are then filled with enamel and fired in a kiln, became a popular way to depict Christian saints.

Byzantine goldsmiths also perfected the technique of Opus Interrasile, a kind of openwork made by piercing a sheet of metal with a chisel or sharp tool so finely that the remaining gold resembles lace or a web of thin gold wires. With the rise of Christianity, goldsmiths were often commissioned to decorate illuminated manuscripts with gold leaf, and to create gold reliquaries and other ecclesiastical objects out of precious metals.

Renaissance Goldsmiths

Gold Renaissance Goldsmith Salt Cellar
Gold Renaissance Salt Cellar (Saliera)

While the Middle Ages saw goldsmiths organized into influential trade guilds and often acting as bankers, it was only with the Renaissance that the great art of the goldsmiths flourished. The convergence of cultural resources that gave rise to the exalted works of the Renaissance found their greatest expression through the hands of the goldsmiths. With expanding trade and the increased wealth of European nobility, goldsmiths often enjoyed the patronage of the elite, and their craft found expression beyond traditional metal work.

Many of the great artists and sculptors of the Renaissance began as goldsmiths, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sandro Botticelli, and Andrea del Verroccio. Goldsmiths became masters of particular techniques within their trade, and specialism became a virtue. It was not uncommon to have one piece designed by a one goldsmith, cast and shaped by another, engraved and enameled by a third goldsmith, and set with gemstones by yet another specialist.

Techniques employed by Renaissance goldsmiths are well understood, thanks to Benvenuto Cellini’s “Treatises on Goldsmithing and Sculpture.” This work covers the art of niello, filigree work, stone setting, enameling, foiling, diamond cutting, and casting methods. Styles influenced by classical and mythological themes spread throughout Europe, and goldsmithing techniques spread with them. Also, with the advent of the printing press in 1430, engraving became a specialized skill of goldsmiths.

Goldsmithing Today

Carl Blackburn Goldsmiths at Work
Carl Blackburn Goldsmiths at Work

The history of goldsmithing certainly didn’t end with the Renaissance, but the techniques developed by the ancients and perfected by the craftsmen of the Renaissance have really only been changed by technology, and perhaps not always for the best.

Very few modern goldsmiths will be found swinging a hammer at a gold ingot—casting has almost completely replaced hand fabrication. And lasers can now produce extremely fine welds, eliminating the need for fine soldering skills. Computers also are often used to produce 3D molds for casting, and thus mass produced pieces are the norm.

There are some artists, like Carl Blackburn, who still draw on the reservoir of knowledge from historical goldsmithing. Finely made hand-crafted jewelry is still prized for its craftsmanship by many with an eye for detail and an appreciation for the nearly lost art of the goldsmith.