The opening of the new Gold exhibition in Buckingham Palace has caused a pause for thought concerning the nature of this material. How has the desirability of gold endured across the ages, controlled the world’s markets and created global networks of trade, travel and taste?
This belt, in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection, made c. 1650, is a fantastic example of the ability of the gold workers of the 17th century to create a worke of wearable art. Its story highlights the truly global networks that were in place and the dangers that the men who travelled these routes faced to transport this precious commodity.
So great was the value of gold that many nations attempted to control its supply. From the mid 16th century until 1790, the Spanish Empire used a convoy system of ships to heavily control and protect trade with the New World. High volumes of precious material could be carried by these fleets; during this period around 2.5 billion pesos (62 billion grams) of gold was transported to Europe by the Spanish, of which a further 500 million were then shipped to Africa and Asia; Spain largely controlled the world’s gold market. Not only was it the raw materials which were being transported, it was also finished items. There is a suggestion that finished pieces were shipped from Manila across the Pacific Ocean to South America and then further on to Europe.
This beautifully worked section of chain belt was part of the large amount of treasure retrieved from the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon, Nuestra Senora de Esperanza. In 1655 the ship formed part of one of these convoy fleets, sent specifically to collect gold and emeralds from Colombia. Reputedly she was carrying in excess of one million pesos in gold and silver bullion, as well as other “worked” items of gold and silver, such as this belt. En route to Havana she ran aground near Cartagena in Colombia, and the rest of the fleet sailed on without her. Whilst eventually managing to continue her voyage, two weeks later the underside of the ship was again struck causing extensive damage. The captain and part of the crew embarked in the ship’s only longboat in search of rescue, reaching the Isle of Pines in less than a day. By the time they had mustered enough help for the return, the Nuestra Senora De Esperanza, with her precious cargo, had disintegrated and sunk without trace.
Ironically this shipwreck may be the reason the belt has survived (relatively) intact; if it had made it across the long voyage to Spain, the likelihood is that at a later date it would have been melted down to realise its fiscal value or altered to follow the fashion of the period.
The belt itself is very finely wrought and was intended to be worn either as a belt or as a chain. It fuses New World material with European designs and needs, reflecting the global supply and demand markets for gold in this period. For example, in Spain during this period, sumptuary laws and restrictions on ornamentation meant chains became very important as a way of showcasing wealth. Each of these floriated links contains plain gold pyramids in place of precious stones, which is reminiscent of the natural shape of diamonds that would have been used in older styles of jewellery. This may have been a way of referencing the status and value of the diamond without contravening the sumptuary laws.
By the 17th century a change in the style of jewellery occurred in Europe, conditioned mainly by a great vogue for the cultivation of flowers. Subsequently, floral and vegetable decoration became the most fashionable theme for jewellery designers, and this popularity spread throughout Europe. This fashion was initially carried out in openwork gold jewellery exactly like this belt. This object therefore displays in dazzling detail the exchange of ideas happening along 17th century trade routes.
From November 2014 through to February 2015, Buckingham Palace is holding an exhibition of gold pieces drawn from across the royal collections to celebrate the medium, which has endured in popularity and reverence across the ages.
Alice Bailey and Stephanie Aspin
Marx, Robert: Treasure lost at sea: diving to the world’s great shipwrecks. Firefly Books, 2004, p.66  Danbom, David B., Borin in the Country: a history of rural America, John Hopkins University Press, 2006, p.20  http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/LotDetailsPrintable.aspx?intObjectID=2455842  Christies, Sale 5217, Lot 192, South Kensington, 6th November 2007 (http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/jewelry/a-17th-century-spanish-gold-and-emerald-4988434-details.aspx) Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘Jewelry: 17th Century’ (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303500/jewelry/14092/17th-century) Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘Jewelry: 17th Century’ (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303500/jewelry/14092/17th-century)