A Valentine with the Midas Touch

Okay, fellas, it’s time to think about making an impression on Valentine’s Day. You can do like every other guy in town and take the love of your life flowers. Or, you can score lots of brownie points by offering her a gift of the gods that’s 18 karat gold.

If ever one earthly item has seduced mankind (and womankind) at first sight, it is this yellow metal cloaked in mystery and legend. For something like 7,000 years, the insatiable quest for gold has incited humans to discover the world about them and to find endless uses for the precious metal, from eating utensils and religious reliquaries to dental fillings, computer circuitry and linings for atomic reactors.

Economies have been built on this metal since ancient Egypt, where an abundance of gold was found on the bottom of the Nile and in the desert highlands. Gold fever swept through Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the Mediterranean, western Asia, Crete, the British Isles, the Americas. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Hungary, Russia and the United States were experiencing prosperity and rapid expansion as new veins were discovered and mines established. In California, for example, the gold rush resulted in a population explosion, from 14,000 in 1848 to 100,000 in 1850, 250,000 in late 1852 and 380,000 in 1860, as not only fortune hunters but also merchants, artisans and farmers flowed to the American West. This boom, in turn, encouraged construction of wagon trails and railroads and attracted essential outside capital.

Gold has usually brought out the worst in humans. Egypt colonized Nubia and Ethiopia, the Romans subjugated the Gauls and Iberians, the conquistadors exterminated entire civilizations in the New World and modern “civilized” peoples still victimize their neighbors, all because of lust for gold.

For thousands of years, gold has been the metal of choice for jewelry, not only for its value but because it retains its luster. It represents riches for the person who owns it, happiness for the person who finds it, pride for the person who wears it. The earliest surviving gold jewelry is Egyptian, dating from 3000 BC, though excavations at Ur in modern-day Iraq suggest that the Sumerians, some 500 years later, were the first real goldsmiths, working the metal in more sophisticated ways. During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2065-1785 BC), metalworkers attained a high degree of skill, using techniques still employed today: repoussé, ajouré, chasing and engraving, granulation, wirework, enameling and lapidary work. By 2000 BC, advanced techniques of filigree work and granulation were known to Minoan goldsmiths in Crete, whose work was ultimately derived from Asia. Casting, bar twisting and wire making appeared in Europe and western Asia in 1400-600 BC and became popular with the creation of brooches.

In fact, many pieces of jewelry common today have very early beginnings. Signet rings, used to stamp seals, can be traced back to western Asia in 5000 BC, and fancy betrothal rings to the ancient Romans. (The plain gold wedding band is a relatively modern invention, not appearing before the 19th century in England.) Earrings and ear plugs, worn by both men and women, appeared in Egypt’s New Kingdom (1580-1085 BC).

Not until medieval times did rings and other jewelry begin to be created specifically for lovers. Some items bore inscriptions, or “posies,” invented by the jeweler, like “Vous avez mon coeur” (you have my heart), “Sans de partier” (without any division) or “A ma vie de coeur entier” (You have my whole heart for life). Other romantic gold jewelry includes the “gimmal” ring created by Italian craftsmen in the 17th-18th centuries. It is essentially two rings that, joined together, form one. Each person wore one part until the wedding day, when they were joined on the bride’s hand. Italians also created the “fede” ring, a type of gimmal ring made in the shape of two interlocking hands.

In legend, gold is a sign of eternity possessed by those whose status exceeds that of simple mortals. The ancient Egyptians immortalized their gods in gold. In Homeric times, it was used on swords or shields to point out the status and exceptional power of heroes. Throughout much of history it remained a luxury, exclusive to the wealthy, until 18th century goldsmiths began to address the needs of both the palace and the middle class. Today, with South Africa producing 605.4 tons annually, the US 295 tons and Russia 260 tons, gold has become democratized. Though its price fluctuates wildly, it is within reach of almost everyone.

In Paris, prices range from a couple of hundred francs for a modest bauble from Monoprix’s “New Gold” counters or Tati’s “fine jewelry” boutique, to three times that at Galeries Lafayette, or 50 times that for the Cartier dream. What determines the cost? The commodity price isn’t the single determining factor. The cachet of a Place Vendôme house is worked into its fancy prices. There’s also the question of handmade vs. machine made, and how finely or crudely the item is crafted in terms of details, the clasp, etc. A three-gram, finely carved, perfectly balanced piece in 18K gold is worth considerably more than six grams of “nugget” jewelry.

With the popularity of gold, lots of shiny wannabes have flooded the market: gold-tone metal, gold plate and vermeil (gold-plated silver), in addition to several grades of more or less “real” gold. How to know if you’re buying the real thing? Get out your magnifying glass and look at the underside or inside of the object. In the US, the exact gold content (10K, 14K, 18K) must be stamped on. Since 1993, when the opening of the European market began forcing France to accept lesser grades of gold than 18K, 14K and 9K gold has begun to appear here, originating primarily in Germany and Italy. Verify what you’re buying, and be sure of the message you want to send. If the gold content is 375/1,000 (9K), you like her a little; 583/1,000 (14K), you like her a lot; and 750/1,000 (18K), you’re head over heels in love.


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