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Medieval Jewelry: Fashion and Status




Both monastic and secular goldsmiths worked in workshops. The famous 9th-century plan of an ideal monastery, preserved in the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland, includes rooms for the aurifices, goldsmiths, in the annex to the main workshop, next to the blacksmiths and fullers. The famous Benedictine abbey of St Albans in Hertfordshire, England—where Matthew Paris, historian, illuminator, and goldsmith, was a monk in the thirteenth century—also had a goldsmiths’ workshop from the twelfth century. Although monasteries always had a great demand for goldsmiths to provide the gold and silver objects necessary for church service, by no means did all monasteries have workshops. It seems that only the larger ones did, and even those sometimes employed outsiders for goldsmiths’ work.

Secular goldsmiths worked either in courts or in urban workshops. The largest cities in Europe, especially London and Paris, had a growing number of goldsmiths from the twelfth century. Their shops were situated in busy areas (in London, around Cheapside, east of St. Paul’s cathedral), often on bridges (the Grand-Pont in Paris and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence), so as to be in the main line of traffic. Jean de Garlande describes such a workshop in his Dictionary, written in the 1220s:

The goldsmiths sit before their furnaces and tables on the Grand-Pont and make hanaps of gold and silver and brooches and pins and buttons, and chose garnets and jasper, sapphires and emeralds for rings. The skill of the goldsmiths hammers out gold and silver sheets with slender hammers on iron anvils. It sets precious gems in the bezels of rings that barons and noblemen wear. The craftsmen who are called hanapiers sheath vessels [of wood] in sheets of gold and silver and put feet under bowls, which they crown with circles [rims of precious stones] so that they may be lovelier, stronger, more durable and more saleable. Another description, dating from the late 12th c. and written by Alexander of Neckham, an Englishman who taught in Paris (1157-1217), describes the actual procedure of the goldsmiths’ work in more detail: The goldsmith should have a furnace with a hole at the top so that the smoke can get out. One hand should govern the bellows with light pressure and with the greatest care so that the air pressed through the nozzle may blow upon the coals and feed the fire. Let him have an anvil of extreme hardness on which the iron or gold may be laid and softened and may take the required form. They can be stretched and pulled with the tongs and the hammer. There should also be a hammer for making gold leaf, as well as sheet of silver, tin, brass, iron or copper. The goldsmith must have a very sharp chisel with which he can engrave figures of many kinds on amber, hard stone, marble, emerald, sapphire and pearl. He should have a touchstone for testing, and one for distinguishing steel from iron. He must also have a rabbit’s foot for smoothing, polishing and wiping the surface of gold and silver. The small particles of metal should be collected in a leather apron. He must have small pottery vessels and cruets, and a toothed saw and file for gold as well as gold and silver wire with which broken objects can be mended or properly constructed. He must also be as skilled in engraving as well as in bas relief, in casting and as well as in hammering. His apprentice must have a waxed table, or one covered with clay, for portraying little flowers and drawing in various ways. He must know how to distinguish pure gold from latten and copper, lest he buy latten for pure gold. Medieval representations of goldsmiths’ workshops, usually showing the two patron saints of goldsmiths, St. Eloy (Eligius) or St. Dunstan, at work, are important visual sources for the procedures, objects of art, and tools mentioned in the description above. In the Mendelschen Hausbuch from Nuremberg, dated 1469, a goldsmith is seated on a stool and hammers the rim of a bowl on an anvil. On his table is also a ring set with a large jewel. The Swiss Niclaus Manuel’s painting (1515), ordered by the guild of painters and goldsmiths of Bern, portrays St. Eloy as an apprentice in a goldsmith’s workshop. The master, on the right, is engaged in engraving the bezel of a gold ring. He holds the ring in a soft white cloth in his left hand, and executes the design with a sharp tool in his right. Many other types of tools—files, tongs, chisels, dividers—are scattered on the low bench. There is also a box of weights, essential for determining the value of the products. An apprentice in the back works the bellows for the furnace.  Petrus Christus’ famous St. Eloy at his workshop, dated 1449, shows the saint weighing rings for a couple of lovers. In the background there is whole array of the raw materials and the finished products of the goldsmith: polished and cut stones, a heap of diamonds, pieces of coral and rock crystal, rings neatly arranged in a box, elaborate brooches, a purse, and shining vessels (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Coll.) 

Numerous other representations, including engravings such as a late fifteenth-century work by the Master of Balaam showing St. Eloy in his workshop or two engravings by Etienne Delaune of Augsburg, dated 1576, depicting silversmiths’ workshops, illustrate the furnishings and activities in the late medieval metalworkers’ workshops in great detail. In these representations, countless tools—tongs, files, rasps, dividers, anvils, hammers— hang on the walls. The Augsburg prints also contain furnaces and devices used for creating wires. In this process, a crudely hammered, elongated metal piece was repeatedly pulled through a drawplate, each time through a smaller hole, with the help of a four-handled lever. 

Some medieval technical manuals, such as the De Diversibus Artibus (On the different arts) written around 1120 by the monk Theophilus, who himself must have been well-trained in the craft of metalworking, give detailed accounts on the tools and equipment used for the goldsmiths’ work. In the third chapter of the manual, Theophilus gives detailed instructions on metalworking techniques. He explains how the workshop itself should be set up, then describes a variety of anvils used for different purposes, various sorts of hammers, rasps and files, chisels, pincers, chasing tools, scorpers, drawplates for making wire, and a special device called organarium for making beaded wire.  Theophilus also explains how gold, silver, precious stones, and special decorative substances such as niello should be worked. Although this description dates from the twelfth century, most of the described techniques must have been still employed in the late Middle Ages. Unfortunately, no similar descriptions survive from later periods.

Archaeological evidence provides further information on medieval working procedures. Sites with traces of the process of parting base metal from precious or gold from silver are sometimes found during excavations. Working tools and equipment, for example, hammers, moulds, crucibles, or the special vessel for separating gold from silver have also come to light. The workshops themselves rarely leave traces, as they were usually found within houses.

Close examination of the surviving pieces, along with physical examination such as analysis of content, adds to our understanding of working techniques. Because of their small size, jewels were usually cast into shape with the cire perdue or lost wax technique. In this process, the shape of the future jewel was formed in wax, with wax channels added, then covered with kneaded clay. When the whole was fired, the clay hardened, and the wax ran out through the channels. The melted gold or silver was poured into the form through some channels, while other channels allowed the air to leave. In the end, the clay mould was broken and the joints were filed away. For multiple production, reusable, open moulds or piece moulds (consisting of several pieces) of metal were employed. Besides the lost wax technique, some pieces were worked into a three-dimensional shape by beating from the back (repoussé technique). For the preparation of applied decoration, such as brooches or dress fittings sewn unto clothing, often metal dies of copper alloy were used. A metal sheet was laid over the relief motifs of the die, and covered with a piece of lead. When the lead was struck with a hammer, the metal sheet in between took on the shape of the die below. Dies and moulds were often used by the same workshop for a considerable period of time.

The different parts of jewelry were often joined by riveting or soldering (this latter done either at a temperature below 250°C with a tin solder or over 700°C with a hard solder of copper alloyed with gold or silver). The surface was also often decorated with techniques such as embossing (raising the metal from the back by beating), chasing (raising the metal from the front), engraving or punched decoration of varying fineness.

A cheaper alternative was making the jewel out of some other kind of metal and covering it with silver or gold leaf. The process by which this was achieved is called mercury gilding. First an amalgam of mercury and gold was applied to the parts of the jewel to be gilded, then the object was heated and the mercury evaporated, leaving just the gold or silver, which was burnished at the end with a rabbit’s foot.

The silver or gold core of the jewel was often further enriched by applications made of the same material. Designs were formed from gold or silver beads, beaded wire (granulation) or twisted wire (filigree) decoration.

The real beauty of medieval jewels lay in the carefully designed contrast between the shining silver or gold and the decoration of the surface with niello, enamel, gems, and coloured glass paste. The addition of various coloured materials greatly enriched the surface of the jewel. Engraved designs were often filled with niello, a black paste-like mixture consisting of copper sulphide or silver sulphide, then the surface was smoothed and fired. The result was a stark contrast between the matt black niello and the shining precious metal. Coloured surfaces could be achieved by the application of either transparent of solid enamel. Enamel is coloured glass fired onto the metal base. Medieval goldsmiths used enamel in a variety of ways. Enamel cloissoné and filigree enamel consisted of multi-coloured designs, where the various colours were in small compartments separated by strips (in the case of filigree enamel, twisted wires) soldered onto the base. A peculiar type of enamel cloissoné practised in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is the émail de plique technique that introduced translucent cloisonné enamel on gold. In the case of a very frequently used technique, enamel champlevé, the enamel is contained in beds gouged into the metal. Basse-taille enamel was translucent, added over a design engraved into the groundplate. A special technique used from the fourteenth century was called ronde bosse or painted enamel. The enamel was applied to previously roughened surfaces in high relief or even completely in the round. The so-called Dunstable Swan Jewel, a pendant of unknown function made in London around 1400, is among the most famous examples of the use of ronde bosse enamelling (British Museum, London). The body of the gold swan is fully covered with opaque white enamelOccasionally, the enamelled surface of a jewel was further embellished with gold leaf. An exceptionally delicate heart-shaped brooch from the so-called Fishpool find is a good example for this technique (British Museum, London).  The many types of enamelling all required specialised technical abilities on the part of the craftsman. In the great centre of enamelling, Paris, there were separate artisans, esmailleurs, for enamelling only.

The working of gems and pearls also required a special technique. In the early and high Middle Ages, gems were usually either used as gems en cabochon, rubbed and polished until they gained a radiant, shiny, and smooth surface. The art of stone engraving has been practised in western art at least since the ninth century, when Metz became a centre for crystal engraving for a short time. Some gems, like sapphires, were also decorated with engraved design in fourteenth-century Paris. In the later Middle Ages, gems were also cut into planes to give them a brilliant and radiating effect. Simple patterns of diamond cutting, such as the oblong, rosette, and lozenge shapes, developed by the fifteenth century. The cutting of stones gradually became a separate craft done by jewellers and not the goldsmiths themselves. In late medieval representations of goldsmiths’ workshops, the goldsmith is shown in possession of large quantities of already cut stones, probably acquired from the jeweller (Petrus Christus: St. Eloy in his Workshop). Pearls, gained from fresh-water mussels, were pierced and used for necklace strings or sewn onto textiles for decoration. When applied to jewels, they were mounted on metal pins the end of which was sealed with a drop of gold. Highly polished amber and jet was also used for decoration. The natural shapes of corals and pearls were often exploited in the design of jewels, especially from the sixteenth century onwards.

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