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Good As Gold

The Metal That Put California and South Africa on the Map Is Still a Hot Commodity Around the World
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 3)

Of all the uses to which gold is put, jewelry outweighs the lot. From the time of the pharaohs to the era of the CEOs, from the Incas to the Indians, the Scythians to the Syrians, gold jewelry has been a sign of wealth, beauty, status, religion and excellence.

Expressing one's cultural beliefs and ideas in gold is as old as a seventh century b.c. hair comb showing two gilded fighters, one on a horse, both with swords. The nomadic Scythians, migrating out of Asia, found master goldsmiths, probably Greeks living around the Black Sea, to make their golden treasures.

In the ancient world, the greatest skills were exhibited by the goldsmiths who labored to fill King Tutankhamun's tomb with gold objects to ease his way into the hereafter. Unearthed nearly three millennia later, the gold objects dazzled and dazed the team that found the tomb in 1922, led by Howard Carter.

From that day to our own, goldsmiths have employed virtually the same techniques to make their magic. Thanks to gold's unparalleled virtues of malleability, the infinite ways it lends itself to shaping, molding, stamping, casting, etching, hammering, drawing, heating and chasing, designers have always been drawn to gold. Ninety percent of the jewelry worn in the United States is made by the same lost wax casting technique used thousands of years ago. Only electricity separates the modern maker from his ancient counterpart. Even the pharaoh's goldsmith would feel at home sitting on a jeweler's bench in New York City's jewelry district, centered around 47th Street. It is in that neighborhood that we see the techniques being played out, every day.

In the workshop there of Henry Dunay, the tools and methods used are dictated by the desired look. If hundreds of similar pieces are needed for one necklace, they can be cast for efficiency and uniformity. But finishing the piece with exactly the right texture--the look, for example, of a strand of hair reproduced in gold--requires the deftest of hands, the keenest of eyes, the right tools and patience. For top goldsmiths, everything is in the details.

The casting method used here, cuttlebone casting, differs from mass-production casting in nearly every respect. Casting is favored by goldsmiths because the gold faithfully follows the shape of the model. But conventional casting introduces air and gases into the piece, making it spongy or porous. The porosity can only be seen under high-power magnification, but the relative softness of the piece reveals itself in its somewhat duller look and a tendency to wear more quickly. On the plus side, it makes the piece lighter, and therefore, cheaper. In cuttlebone casting, the gases escape into the surrounding mold, made of the bones of cuttlefish (a form of mollusk). The casting is more dense; it contains more gold per volume than other cast pieces. It wears better, takes a better polish and feels more substantial to the touch.

Tools employed to achieve the various textures used on gold bear an uncanny similarity to those the dentist pokes in your mouth: those little spinning wheels push the gold around with beautiful results. The surface is made to look like fish scales or satin, like animal fur or pebbles. Countless thousands of strokes are used on each piece. Every link of a necklace is textured individually before it is assembled; every part of the link is beautiful. Fine jewelers always work this way; each element is polished before the piece is assembled. No matter that certain parts will be hidden from view; there is no sweeping under the rug here to speed things up.

Contemporary goldsmiths who work almost entirely by hand employ such ancient and mysterious techniques as granulation as part of their stock in trade. Granulation, the placement of tiny granules of pure gold on a gold surface, was once a lost art. Known to the Etruscans (seventh to fifth century b.c.), who covered gold surfaces with minute gold balls, the technique they used remained a mystery to others. Leap ahead some 25 centuries when it was recovered, in an equally unknown fashion, by the nineteenth century Italian jeweler Castellani. Parts of the puzzle were worked on during the ensuing century, but the secret was largely lost to jewelers until our time. Through trial and error, and sharing of information, the technique re-emerged in the 1970s, largely through the efforts of Jean Stark, Bob Kulicke and Cornelia Rothel. Today, anyone with reasonable hand skills and the patience of a candidate for beatification can enroll in the Jewelry Arts Institute in New York and learn granulation.

While 14 karat gold is standard in most mass-produced jewelry, contemporary goldsmiths prefer to spend their time on gold of higher purity: 18 karat, 22 karat, even 24 karat. The peculiar measurement of gold purity, based on the number 24, is said to derive from a medieval coin called a "mark" that weighed 24 carats, referring to the seeds of a certain tree. In any event, the term stuck, and we're stuck with it. Fourteen karat gold (58 percent gold) is an alloy of 14 parts of gold and 10 parts of other metal, usually silver, nickel or copper. Eighteen karat gold has 18 parts of gold to six parts of alloy; it is 75 percent gold. Twenty-two karat gold is nearly 92 percent gold.

Contemporary goldsmiths often alloy their own gold to get just the right color and purity they need for their work. Although gold is always gold color, gold alloys can vary from pink to green to white. There is even blue gold and purple gold, although these tend to be brittle and seem to defeat the whole point of using gold. Multicolors of gold, along with other metals, are layered in sandwiches to form the material called mokumé, a Japanese word that means wood-grained. George Sawyer of Minneapolis is one of the premier exponents of this style. His wedding rings have the individual look that is well suited to what should be a unique event in one's life. Marne Ryan of Newark, Delaware, also specializes in wedding rings, working various "karatages" of gold into complex and unique little sculptures.

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