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ornaments, jewelry, and vessels created from gold. Such works have figured in almost every stage of civilization as symbols of wealth and power.

The Ancient World

The earliest-known fine goldwork is from Ur in Mesopotamia. Dating from c.3000 B.C. to 2340 B.C., it was executed with great technical proficiency. Egyptian goldwork dating from the Middle Kingdom, including gold jewelry with inlaid gems, and the objects found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, are examples of the fine work done by Egypt's goldsmiths.

Goldwork of the Aegean civilization shows the many metalworking techniques—openwork, repoussérepoussé
, the process or the product of ornamenting metallic surfaces with designs in relief hammered out from the back by hand. Gold and silver are most commonly used today for fine work, but copper and tin are suitable for the purpose, and bronze was extensively used
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, embossingembossing,
process of producing upon various materials designs or patterns in relief by mechanical means. The material is pressed between a pair of dies especially adapted to its hardness and the depth of the design needed.
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, and inlayinginlaying,
process of ornamenting a surface by setting into it material of different color or substance, usually in such a manner as to preserve a continuous plane. Inlay is employed in connection with a great variety of objects, both of major architectural character and of minor
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—used by artisans of that time. The Vaphio cupsVaphio cups
, pair of gold cups of Minoan workmanship, probably dating from c.1500–1400 B.C. Shaped like teacups and about 3 1-2 in. (8.9 cm) high, they were formed by fastening together two plates of gold, the inner one smooth, the outer in low-relief repoussé.
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 are the most outstanding treasures to survive this period, although many fine examples of goldwork (jewelry, death masks, drinking cups, vases, weapons, and dress ornaments) have been found at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns. The goldwork of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia (6th–4th cent. B.C.) is noted for its extreme opulence and for the technical skill with which it was executed; examples of these treasures are in the British Museum and the Louvre.

Archaic Greek and Etruscan goldwork dating from c.700 B.C. to 500 B.C. was strongly influenced by Middle Eastern artisans. With its rich and barbaric design, Etruscan goldwork was among the finest in the ancient world. Later Greek work developed exquisite filigreefiligree
, ornamental work of fine gold or silver wire, often wrought into an openwork design and joined with matching solder and borax under the flame of the blowpipe. Filigree is used as a decorative treatment for jewelry or other fine metalwork.
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 and combined delicate geometric ornament with mythological figures. Roman goldwork followed Greek forms but placed greater emphasis on massive proportion and over-elaborate detail. Greek forms also influenced the goldsmiths of the Byzantine Empire.

The Middle Ages

During the early Middle Ages the best European goldwork was produced by the Celts, particularly in Ireland—the Tara brooch (National Mus., Dublin) is characteristic of their intricate design and fine workmanship. The Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian schools employed spiral, animal, and interlacing ornament, with a splendid display of color and inlaid jewels. In the later Middle Ages a wealth of golden ecclesiastical crosses, reliquaries, sacred vessels, and altar fronts were produced throughout Europe in a diversity of styles and techniques but consistently with greater emphasis on gem setting and ornamentation.

The Renaissance

During the Italian Renaissance the rediscovery of classical forms gave fresh spirit to representational figure work, and the art of the goldsmith was in great demand for both secular and sacred ornament. Renaissance goldsmiths, the most celebrated of whom was CelliniCellini, Benvenuto
, 1500–1571, Italian sculptor, metalsmith, and author. His remarkable autobiography (written 1558–62), which reads like a picaresque novel, is one of the most important documents of the 16th cent.
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, produced works of great refinement and detail. Later European goldwork tended to repeat Renaissance forms until the classic revivalclassic revival,
widely diffused phase of taste (known as neoclassic) which influenced architecture and the arts in Europe and the United States during the last years of the 18th and the first half of the 19th cent.
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 of the early 19th cent., when the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum revived interest in classical antiquity.

Goldwork of Asia and the Americas

Goldwork was just as important in many parts of Asia as it was in the West. India had many centers noted for ornate goldwork and other metalwork. Tibetan goldsmiths created figures having a religious significance. Chinese goldwork is rare because of the scarcity of the metal in China; the examples that survive are exquisite. Central and South America had excellent goldsmiths, and Aztec, Panamanian, and especially IncaInca
, pre-Columbian empire, W South America. The name Inca may specifically refer to the emperor, but is generally used to mean the empire or the people. Extent and Organization of the Empire
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 goldwork is of extremely high quality.

Modern Goldwork

During the craft revival of the 1960s and 70s in the United States the techniques of gold working that were developed in the past were used to create complex, innovative designs, principally in jewelry making. More recently, new techniques, including electroforming, have been added to the traditional means of producing goldwork.


See T. Wigley, The Art of the Goldsmith and Jeweler (1977); A. G. Grimwade, London Goldsmiths, 1697–1837 (3d ed. 1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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