Ancient Gold Jewelry and the People Who Made It

Goldsmiths have always been a special category of craftsmen who worked for the wealthiest and most powerful members of society.

Historically, goldsmiths often lived in their own communities, which in many instances were attached to or associated with temples or palaces, as they were in the ancient Near East and Egypt. In Rome, temples sometimes provided sites for gold stalls. From Hellenistic times on, there were also independent workshops with stalls within the market places of the cities. Medieval monasteries were an important source of patronage for goldsmiths and up to the early 13th century some goldsmiths were also monks living within the monastery. However, as cities grew in the 11th & 12th centuries, so did the population of urban goldsmiths. Shops were often located on bridges to catch passers by and the smiths were organized into guilds.

Guilds controlled quality, production techniques and apprenticeship. In Europe, communities of smiths flourished in Bruges, Utrecht, Lubeck, Florence, Strasbourg, London, Paris and Cologne. They continued to grow except during periods of the Black Death. Meso American goldsmiths were also organized into fraternities. They inhabited particular areas and were placed under the protection of specific deities.

In general, goldsmith communities were not particularly well off. Clients provided the gold and the smith worked it, passing on skills and trade secrets from one generation to the next. It is much more common for us to know the name of the owner than that of the crafter of gold jewelry.

Goldsmiths migrated throughout the ancient world as kingdoms rose and fell. When Darius’ palace was built at Susa in Iran, the goldsmiths were Egyptian and Medes, while the gold itself came from Asia Minor and Afghanistan. An inscription from Alexandria tells of a goldsmith migrating from Egypt to Italy in the 1st Century AD. This may have been a trend since jewelry of this period is similar in both places. A revival of the Gold smithing art in Greece from 900-700 BC is thought to be due to an influx of Phoenician craftsmen who had kept the Mycenaen Greek traditions alive for five centuries and then reintroduced them to Greece where they had all but disappeared.

As the Roman Empire expanded, many goldsmiths migrated from the Greek East to Alexandria, Antioch and Rome where they began to organize guilds. In medieval times, goldsmiths migrated throughout Europe from one center of gold work to another seeking the most favorable circumstances. The city of Cologne alone sent smiths to Spain, the Baltics, Venice, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Gold smiths were also uprooted by war, often forced to move to new kingdoms as the captives of invading armies. This was the case when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and took all the goldsmiths with him back to Babylon.

Goldsmiths were so sought after that kings and princes would do anything to keep them at court, and would sometimes cripple them to keep them from fleeing. Perhaps that is one reason that smiths in mythology are often lame. The Greek God and goldsmith Hephaistos had two broken legs and walked with gold crutches. His Roman counterpart, Vulcan, was also lame.