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The Goldsmith's Magic Metal

Throughout the old world where rivers empty into seas, archaeologists have found prehistoric camp sites of supermen or metal smiths, cousins of the blacksmith gods of Northern Europe, kin of Tubal Cain, famous smith of the Bible.

These metal smiths, or "prospectors," hunted over Europe and Asia for gold. They carried men's cultures and fashioned men's tools and ornaments. Few men would raise hand against them, even in battle, so valuable were their services.

These metal smiths beautified palaces, furniture, tools, jewelry and clothing of ancient king and merchant prince. They "overlaid" the interior of Solomon's temple with gold. They wrought the pure gold "mercy seat," the ten gold candelabra flanking the "Holy of Holies," and the golden bowls which Nebuchadnezzar took to Babylon and Belshazzar dishonored at his infamous feast.

The goldsmiths wrought statues, tables, and vessels of massive gold for the temple of Baal at Babylon. They wrought the massive gold couch on which the coffin of Cyrus rested in his garden tomb at Pasargada.

The smith carved the golden eagle standard and wrought the golden cidaris (girdle) that Darius wore when giving battle to Alexander. And the smith shaped crowns and bells for the 64 mules which drew the gold pavilion sheltering Alexander's beaten gold coffin under its purple and gold woven pall over the long miles back to Macedonia.


Pure gold is yellow, but ancient smiths varied its color by combining it with other metals or by heating. Yale University has a treatise from the 3rd century on coloring gold, some say.

Copper deepens gold to orange or russet. A film of brown iron ore heated, turns gold's surface to purple red, as in the purple gold sequins on some of Tutankhamen's clothes. Silver pales gold. Thirty to forty percent silver gives gold a greenish tinge. More silver makes "white gold."

Gold in glass, twice heated, gave Bohemia's ruby glass, the red portion of America's amberina glass, and with a trace of tin, gave pink, and with manganese gave the purple lusters of the East and Europe.

Gilding covered with gold, or put gold patterns, on wood, metal, plaster or parge work, ivory and bone, glass, china, leather and other fabrics. Our grandmothers loved gold gilded flowers for their mantels. Gold dust made Japan's "pear skin" lacquer so adored by collectors.

Gold was laid in metals (damascened), or inlaid with metals, enamels or jewels. Tamerlane's "seven gold flasks inlaid with pearls, turquoise and rubies" thrilled Europe's ambassadors.

Gold was pushed up into raised design (repousse) as in the 16th century B.C. Minoan Vaphio cups, or the gold jewelry of America's Mixtec graves, or in the gold plated table service Napoleon gave his sister, Pauline, on her wedding to Italy's Prince Camille Borghese. Gold was incised and chased as in grandmother's skirt buckle, "back and side combs" and wedding ring. In chased design the metal is pressed down, not incised or carved out.


Heavy rollers flattened gold into sheets for covering couches, thrones, shrines, altars, saints and gods. A small shrine in Tutankhamen's tomb was encased in gold sheets embossed with scenes of his life with his Queen.

Gold bands, four fingers in width., were cut to squares and set between sheets of vellum, paper, or leather and beaten with various weight hammers through several steps of spreading and re-dividing, till the gold sheet reached the wanted thinness of gold leaf. In Pliny's time an ounce of gold made 750 leaves four fingers wide. Today it spreads farther and thinner.

Gold leaf made gilt glass, and the gilding seme or aventurine glass of Europe. It stamped Florentine leather panels, boxes and book covers. It decorated the paper, vellum, and ivory fans, and the picture frames our grandmothers loved.

India anciently enriched her clothing with gold leaf. Today she fixes it to her batik cloth with egg white or other mixture. So do Bali, Java, and Sumatra, to the delight of tourists.


The Iliad and Odyssey tell of gold and embroidered cloth. Exodus records robe, broidered coat, mitre and girdle of gold, blue, purple, scarlet and fine twined linen for Aaron and his sons. The "ground" of history's most famous carpet, Spring of Chosroes, destroyed at Ctesiphon by the ravaging Saad in our 6th century, was "wrought in gold."

Early gold cloth was made of gold wire. A grain of gold would draw into 500 feet of gold wire. Later, gold, plated on silver, was pulled through a draw plate into gold plated wires which were flattened on an anvil, then woven.

India wove the famous Soniri tissue or cloth of gold. Her gold embroideries, including her elephant trappings, are famous. Her -gold lace, made with warp of silk, is used for lodge costumes, military braid, and church clothing. Cloth of gold covered the tent of Francis I and its cords of blue silk were twisted with gold from Cyprus when he met Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Ardres, France in 1520.

Flattened gold wires were generally wound about a cord of orange colored silk for the brocades of the East. Early travelers reported these kincobs (kinkhabs) which covered the couches of the shahs. Renaissance Europe imported quantities. After the first World War bits of gold brocade from Russia trickled out with the "jewels of the Tzar " China and Japan made fabrics of gold faced leather or paper strips, weaving the gold side uppermost.


The lure of gold in the Western world began when Columbus found the Indians wearing gold ornaments of lions, eagles and other beasts. Or maybe it was when Cortes received a gold plate large as a cart wheel, decorated with sun, moon and animals, from Montezuma, and saw him riding in a litter gleaming with gold.

It continued when Balboa, anxiously weighing up 4,000 ounces of gold in trinkets given him by a chief, was contemptuously told by the chief's son that people to the south made pots and pans of it. Pizarro killed Balboa and took his soldiers south for that gold. They got twenty seven wagon loads of gold objects from one temple.

At Cuzco the three foot wide cornice band surrounding the inner and outer wall of the temple, and the great gold plate from wall to wall, honoring the sun, were hid. The gold chain that had roped in the plaza and which took 200 Indians to carry, was thrown in the lake when the Indians learned the Spaniards had strangled their Inca king.

The Indians alloyed gold with silver and copper, and hammered it into religious, domestic and ornamental objects. They made repousse and punch work. They fashioned gold feathers for birds and scales for fish, bells of gold, tweezers, deep and handsome wrist cuffs, breastplates, necklets and armbands. By cire perdue a wax or resin model cased in charcoal melted out as molten gold was poured in. Cased in clay and baked, the wax leaked out, gold was poured in, the case cooled, was broken, and the object, freed, was filed to smooth it, then polished. Even filigree-like jewelry was so made.

California's gold fields produced grandma's locket, gold watch, and belt buckle, and grandpa's vest chain and horse shoe charm. Alaska's Klondike, the world's last great gold strike, paid for grandma's gold breast pins, rings, lorgnettts and thimbles, parasol and cane handles.

Today adventurers from over the world, armed with gasoline lanterns, flashlights, and machetes, enter the spider-webbed mouths of old caves and dig through the dust, hunting the golden treasures which Aztec and Inca hid to save themselves and their land from the worshipers of the magic metal.

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