Gold has been the stuff of beauty for millennia. And for proof, we can now visit "Gold," the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition.
As in the AMNH’s previous investigations on amber, diamonds and pearls, "Gold" begins with the science behind the splendor, introducing gold through shining nuggets (less than two percent of naturally occurring gold) while reminding viewers that only five atoms of gold are typically found amid five billion atoms of other substances in the earth’s crust. This results in huge rock-crushing operations with caustic chemical leaching to extract most gold today, 78 percent of which goes into jewelry.
Several panels covered in gold-leaf create a mini-room from the amount of gold in a few coins. It’s an excellent way of demonstrating gold’s malleability and how thin gold leaf can be. Considering how very little gold it takes to create gold leaf, I couldn’t help thinking that the bare spots in the ceiling of the Metropolitan Opera should have been redone a long time ago!
For art lovers, the beautiful objects, about 150 small figurines and ornaments from around the globe, the majority of them Pre-Columbian, are found in a large room filled with vitrines.
The head of a mouflon (wild sheep) from Iran (ca. 2500-2000 BC) formed from sheet gold is among the earliest pieces in the show, although the first examples of worked gold discovered to date have come from Thrace -- present-day Bulgaria -- around 4000 BC.
Small pieces from Egypt, Greece and Byzantium are joined by a whole case of things made by the Asante of Ghana, master gold-workers and influential controllers of the trade in gold, textiles and slaves in Africa by the 1700s. From the early 1900s comes an impressive linguist’s staff with a figure holding a severed head, carrying a royal sword and wearing the king’s sandals, covered in gold leaf.
Among the many interesting facts I picked up along the way is that India is the leading user of gold today, where gold is frequently a part of dowries. A pair of geometric earrings of gold over a lac core from Tamil Nadu in the 1800s could be a stylish addition to current ensembles.
More dramatic is a "keris" (pronounced "crease") -- a dagger, to be sure, but one made in Central Java, Indonesia (late 1800s-early 1900s) for ceremonial purposes, one would suppose, considering its extravagant dragon motif and decoration in silver alloy, gold and diamonds.
A spectacular devotional plaque from Nepal from around 1800 seems positively to radiate, made as it is of copper alloy and gold with rock crystal and semi-precious gems. The gold inlay of various Japanese sword hilts, or "tsubas," is sedate in comparison, for all their sophisticated design.
In the Western Hemisphere, Peruvians were working gold around 800 BC. From about that time comes a hammered gold sheet stirrup-spout bottle from the Chavin culture, with geometric designs.
Gold was found in northern South America providing several cultures in Peru and Columbia with material for lots of ornaments to be worn in life and death. One common form was the "kero," or drinking cup for corn beer, but ear spools, nose ornaments, pendants, plumes, mummy ornaments, staff finials and a penis-shield are also on view.
While most of the Inca’s gold was melted down and sent to Spain, a small gold sacrificial figurine (1450-1532 AD) gives us an idea of what was lost.
Gold-work extended northward from South America to Central America and Mexico. A gold crocodile is one of a famous series of gold items from the Coclé culture of Panama (ca. 700-900 AD), found in a grave in the early 20th century. A cast gold ornament with twin anthropomorphic figures from Costa Rica (ca. 1200) is another standout.
Mexico had many cultures that worked gold, perhaps the most important being the Mixtec from the Oaxaca area. Many Mixtec objects had movable parts such as suspended gold bells. Animal and bird forms, like an ornament in the shape of a frog, are common.
Jumping to a case with objects from the Gilded Age, a Fabergé Easter egg in malachite with gold is gorgeous even if it’s not an Imperial Easter egg. Among several pieces from Tiffany, a child’s rattle (ca. 1890) in 18-karat gold with a mother-of-pearl handle was obviously the property of a very special baby.
Moving on to present-day glamour, who could resist seeing the wonderfully chunky bangle and pin that Ginger Rogers wore to the 1946 Academy Awards? Huge emeralds and diamonds are set in 18-karat gold, the work of Paul Flato (by the time you reach this point in "Gold," you will be a pro at understanding what a karat is!)
Other more recent items are a 1959 Cartier tank wristwatch that belonged to Elizabeth Taylor in gold, crystal, enamel and sapphire, and a circa 1980 "Coin" necklace by Bulgari.
A collection of gold trophies has a gold record by Buddy Holly and the gold Kentucky Derby Trophy for the 1960 winner Venetian Way.
And yet still ahead are 450 historical and rare coins and gold bars. Numismatists will spend a long time on this section, while some viewers may prefer just ogling shelves full of gold bars borrowed from the Federal Reserve.
"Gold" is an excellent way to learn about gold, the metal, and gold, the status symbol, both in far-flung cultures and our own. It may not be encyclopedic, but it’s broad enough to have something -- no, probably lots of things -- to interest everyone.
The show was organized by the American Museum of Natural History’s chair and curator in the Division of Earth and Planetary Science, James D. Webster. Charles Spencer, curator in the Division of Anthropology, acted as advisor.
"Gold" is at the American Museum of Natural History, Nov. 18, 2006-Aug. 19, 2007. Admission -- a hefty $21 -- is by ticketed timed entry.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.