You do not have to be a “jewelry person” to be drawn to shiny objects. According to scientists, it is human nature.
One theory holds that our prehistoric ancestors developed this attraction as they searched for water sources in the wilderness. Today, when we see the flash of metal or the flicker of diamonds, it evokes on some level the sparkle of a drinking pool in sunlight. We move toward it in response.
Throughout history, people have also turned to this precious metal whenever the going got tough. So, as we face inflation, multiple democracies in crisis and the lingering effects of a pandemic, is it really any surprise that there seems to be a modern-day gold rush?
“In these troubled times, gold provides reassurance,” Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter, an art historian, wrote in an email. “It has always been a safe haven, and hoarding is a way of overcoming anxieties.” (Ms. Geoffroy-Schneiter is also the author of “Gold: The Impossible Collection,” a book celebrating the metal’s role in art, architecture and fine jewelry, to be published by Assouline this summer.)
Another manifestation of this anxiety: buying bijoux. The management consultants Bain & Company estimated global jewelry sales at 22 billion euros (about $23.2 billion) last year, a shopping trend that has benefited several designers who specialize in gold.
“I’m busier now than I’ve ever been,” said Pat Flynn, a highly regarded jeweler and metalsmith based in High Falls, N.Y. A one-of-a-kind 18-karat gold beaker, a sort of minimalist chalice that he made in 1990, is on view in “Gold in America: Artistry, Memory, Power,” an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn.
Mr. Flynn’s 44-year career in the jewelry industry has involved hand-fabricating rustic bracelets, rings and pendants in a variety of metals, including steel, iron and silver, often pairing them with diamonds for contrast. (Prices range from $1,000 to $30,000.) But his techniques reflect a special affection for gold, rooted in the ease with which it responds to manipulation and its resistance to tarnishing over time.
“You can work more accurately and precisely with gold,” Mr. Flynn said. “When you learn the material, it’s like a baker learning how to work with bread dough, and it becomes second nature after a while. That’s one of the reasons why gold is such a pleasure to work with.
“And I’ve had people wear my gold pieces every day for years and years and years, and the material holds up,” he added.
For Loren Teetelli, who founded her line Loren Nicole in 2016 (its prices run from $1,500 to $500,000), gold offers a portal to ancient civilizations — a perennial inspiration for her work, which she makes by hand in her Los Angeles studio. After a brief career in archaeology, she has gained considerable attention in the jewelry world in recent years and plans to introduce her latest collection at Bergdorf Goodman this fall.
She attributes part of her success to her use of 22-karat gold, which has a higher content of the precious metal than the standard, more common 18-karat or 14-karat gold.
“The alloy that I typically work in is a historical alloy combining pure gold with copper and silver,” Ms. Teetelli said. The recipe she favors is an exact match to that used in ancient Greek, Egyptian and Eurasian cultures, several examples of which can be found in museums the world over, she said. (A catalog from the 1994 “Greek Gold” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of her favorite references.)
The color of 22-karat gold is also distinctive — rich, warm and gorgeous, according to Ms. Teetelli. “And it looks so good on so many different people,” she said. “We had a trunk show just this past weekend, and one of the sales associates said that high-karat gold makes everyone look like they have a tan.”
Ms. Teetelli said her pieces were “bound to ancient mythologies and ancient techniques,” like granulation, chasing and repoussé, as well as a hammered texture from the Roman era that has become one of her most recognizable signatures. “My designs really wouldn’t exist without these histories,” she said. “I see it as a way of celebrating and respecting the history of gold work and goldsmithing. I’m making it my own by reinventing some of the techniques and making them more modern and wearable. And I love this idea that I’m preserving history for the future.”
The British designer Melanie Eddy echoed these sentiments. “In a way, working with gold is almost primordial,” she said over the phone from her studio at the Goldsmiths’ Centre in the Clerkenwell area of London. “You’re reaching back to generations of people working in gold for thousands and thousands of years.”
Originally from Bermuda, Ms. Eddy holds a graduate degree in jewelry design from Central St. Martins, where she has worked as an instructor, and has been creating her fine jewelry line for 15 years. (The prices range from $500 to $40,000.) “You have to respect the material,” she said. “There’s a legacy to it. I think, too, because it’s expensive, you don’t want to be frivolous with it.”
The permanence of gold and its inherent sentimental value have been a comfort to Ms. Eddy’s clients during the pandemic, she added. “They’d say, ‘I’m in my tracksuit and I’m working remotely, and it’s horrible, and I’m trying to home-school, but your ring’s sitting on my finger, sparkling away, and it’s just making me so happy,’” she said. “Or they’d say, ‘I get your earrings out, and it makes me feel dressed up.’”
Although gold is now trading at more than $1,850 an ounce, compared with $1,260 just five years ago — “Some of my earliest gold pieces have increased in value over six times, just in gold value alone,” Ms. Eddy said — she described a trend toward bigger, bolder pieces, a style for which she is known.
After the forced restraints of the past couple of years, she said, “people are not afraid to showcase their personalities, invite some joy into their life and celebrate themselves.”
Museums have also catered to the public’s preferences. “People just cannot get enough of it,” said Jeannine Falino, a New York-based curator whose career has included organizing several exhibitions centered on jewelry and the decorative arts, including the 2013 show “Gilded New York” at the Museum of the City of New York and, in 1989, “Realms of Gold” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Gold has always been one of these natural inclinations of man to covet.”
Over the past 30 years, the gold-centric exhibitions in New York alone have included the Met’s “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” in 2018; “Gold” at the American Museum of Natural History, in 2006; and the traveling show “Gold of the Nomads: Scythian Treasures from Ancient Ukraine,” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2001.
“Now it seems like every year there’s a major jewelry exhibition, and gold remains a persistent feature of all of them,” Ms. Falino said.
For Ms. Geoffroy-Schneiter, who is based in Paris, work on her “Gold” book coincided with an exhibition she curated at the Paris Mint. That show, “Monnaies & Merveilles” (“Currencies & Wonders”), which opened this month and runs through Sept. 25, features more than 200 artifacts illustrating how various forms of money have been used and ritualized across cultures and civilizations.
Among the gold exhibits are a Baoulé necklace from the Ivory Coast region of Africa, a necklace from southern India and a marangga pectoral from Indonesia, a photograph of which is to appear in the “Gold” book.
“One of the pieces that fascinates me the most is a Bulgari necklace, which highlights a coin bearing the likeness of the Emperor Augustus,” Ms. Geoffroy-Schneiter wrote in her email. “It looks like it comes straight out of Roman antiquity. For me, the most fascinating objects in the exhibition are simultaneously archaic and contemporary.”
At Yale, visiting the “Gold in America” exhibition that features Mr. Flynn’s vessel seems to offer the same kind of luxury contact high as watching HBO’s “The Gilded Age” or Netflix’s “Bridgerton.” Mounted on walls of a stately blue, the show, which runs through July 10, has been publicized as representing two years of research as it collectively traces the role of gold in American culture across 400 years.
“Gold has driven wars, avarice, love, passion, conquest and technology for centuries,” said John Stuart Gordon, the Yale gallery’s curator of American Decorative Arts.
In selecting such treasures as a toy whistle dangling coral charms (a baby gift created by the noted silversmith Daniel Christian Fueter in the 1760s), an 18-karat gold Tiffany & Company coffee service from 1910 and a 1960s charm bracelet, “I realized gold intersected with three moments of the life cycle: birth, courtship and death,” Mr. Gordon said. “So the exhibition is really about the stories of the people who owned the material and engaged with it. These are objects of the deepest sentimental value, rare and beautiful, but they’re also extensions of the kind of iniquitous world that is driving commerce in the 17th through 19th centuries, up to today.”
On one wall of the show is a collection of gold spoons made in the 1720s and believed to have been owned by Hugh Hall, a Massachusetts merchant who made his fortune in molasses, sugar and enslaved people. “He’s actually one of the biggest sellers of enslaved people in Boston during this period,” Mr. Gordon said. “In 1727, the same year he buys these spoons, he sells off 74 of his slaves — all identified by name in his account books. So these spoons become a vivid reminder that Hall’s wealth came at the expense of human freedom.”
Even as some jewelry collectors and museumgoers remain enthralled by gold, many acknowledge the environmental harm and sociopolitical problems of gold mining.
Mr. Gordon said he gave careful thought to these issues as he curated “Gold in America.” And when he conducts tours, he concludes by inviting guests to linger on a final image: a photograph of the Fort Knox gold mine in Fairbanks, Alaska, taken by Victoria Sambunaris in 2003.
“One could easily see this image as a celebration of human ingenuity, or the beauty of the landscape, whereas others may see this as evidence of human destruction of the natural world in quest of finite resources,” he said. “I think that ambivalence is crucial — and a summation of much of the exhibition.
“Gold has great historical weight as a material of beauty and artistry, but also one of power and bloodshed, of emotional as well as financial value,” he added. “It is hard to disentangle those seemingly opposite views, and I think Victoria is putting a really great visual on this idea.”
That conflict may also be behind the mixed reaction some jewelry collectors have to seeing and wearing gold. But despite the ambivalence, “we’re still going to be drawn to it,” Ms. Falino, the independent curator, said. “There’s really nothing quite like it on earth.”