From its uses as adornments for Egyptian royalty to the standard for international currency, no metal has quite the storied past of this natural element, which is now making a serious fashion comeback in today’s jewelry market.
When looking at its properties, gold is easily distinguished. It’s one of the transition elements on the periodic table, specified with the symbol Au from the Latin aurum, meaning “shining dawn.” Located at atomic No. 79, it’s soft, dense and often found in nature alloyed with other metals. It’s the most malleable metal, chemically inactive and unaffected by oxygen, moisture and ordinary acids.
Although it can be plainly described, the reality is that gold has had a profound effect on world issues ranging from cultural identity to global money markets. Upon closer inspection, these facts reveal gold’s prehistoric beginnings and its important presence in the 21st century.
Gold has been a defining part of culture dating back to ancient times and has been highly valued from its earliest appearances in the Etruscan, Minoan, Assyrian and Egyptian civilizations.
Its beauty was obvious but the discoverers of gold also noticed its lack of corrosion and unusual pliability. In addition, gold was easier to obtain in pure form than any other metal: Simple panning separated the pure particles from the gravel.
All of these qualities plus the relative rarity of the shimmering metal helped to make it the basis for international monetary transactions, the gold standard.
Because gold is used in the world mostly for coinage and jewelry, it is usually alloyed with other metals to increase its hardness. To create green gold for jewelry, gold is alloyed with both copper and silver. To create white gold, gold is alloyed with zinc and either nickel or platinum metals. The content of gold in alloys associated with jewelry is expressed in karats.
Gold Jewelry Through the Ages
Gold jewelry, as we know it today, has a direct link to the past. The ancient Egyptians, in particular, used gold adornments as status symbols and decoration.
Relying on techniques strikingly similar to those of today, the Egyptians became extremely skilled at processes such as engraving, soldering, chasing, repousse and inlaying, integrating semiprecious stones such as jasper, amethyst, lapis lazuli and turquoise into their designs.
In the 3rd and 2nd millenia B.C., Middle Eastern civilizations such as the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians produced a great amount of gold, silver and gemladen jewelry, many of which were found in ancient tombs. Techniques like granulation (covering a surface with tiny grains of gold), cloisonne (surface decoration formed by different colors of enamel separated by thin strips of metal) and filigree were also undertaken by these civilizations.
Later, Greek and Roman jewelry progressed even further. From approximately 2500 B.C. to 400 B.C., thin coils and wire metals were linked in chain form, and enameling and stamping became commonplace. The major motif in the Minoan period, for instance, centered upon the natural: Starfish and butterfly patterns were intermixed with spiral patterns set in gold.
Gold at this time also became more than basic necklaces or rings; in fact, jewelry found at Mycenae and Crete included small gold disks with perforations to attach the ornaments to clothing.
Not much later, the period of classical Greek art (479-323 B.C.) turned toward the delicate. Filigree came into fashion, and necklaces were covered in flowers or dropped to form tassels. Gold hoop earrings were also the rage, often decorated in filigreed disks or rosettes.
As the Roman Empire unraveled at the close of the 3rd century A.D., currency became an inspiration as gold coins were used to create necklaces and bracelets.
In 6th century Byzantine jewelry, ornate accessorizing was taken to the limit. Set with pearls, rubies and emeralds, gold jewelry was large and obvious. Signs of Christianity were popular, especially in crosses and jeweled pendants.
As the centuries wore on, jewelry became more a part of everyday dressing. Previously reserved only for royalty or the very wealthy, improved techniques and distribution allowed accessorizing to become obtainable for the general population.
Brooches were an integral piece of style, especially beginning in the 11th century. By the middle of the millennium, jewelry was even beginning to be sewn into clothing and worn on hairnets.
In the following centuries, jewelry and art became inextricably linked. Jewelry reflected the changes of the artistic periods, through naturalism, impressionism and modernism. In the 17th and 18th centuries, gold was still the standard setting even as diamonds came into dominance. It was not until after World War I that more lightweight metals such as platinum, iridium and palladium came into fashion because of their durability and reliability during the war years.
As the 20th century progressed, materials varied even further. But gold still held on as the mainstay in fashion jewelry in both the United States and in Europe.
Gold in the 21st Century
According to Rick Bannerot, advertising and marketing manager of the World Gold Council (WGC) USA, gold’s popularity and availability in the past should not cause it to be overlooked in today’s fashion.
“We thought we’d see a 1% to 2% growth in 2000 [in gold sales] but now it’s looking closer to 4%,” says Bannerot. “We are very serious and careful that these numbers are not inflated, because people look to us as a resource.”
The WGC has a right to be excited about an increase in gold sales–a raise in 2000 means its 12th consecutive year of growth.
As a result of conversations with manufacturers, retailers and representatives in the industry, Bannerot can attest to success across the board.
“There really was a cross-channel, cross-carat shift last year,” he says. “There are more people working in gold than ever before. There is fresh design, and fashion and lifestyle magazines are leading toward this trend and color of metal. People are just so pleased to have gold back in the spotlight.”
This shift toward gold was a dominant theme in the industry over the past year. The opulent, glam look of decadence harks back to the bold gold of less than two decades ago.
Elizabeth Florence, director of the Jewelry Information Center (JIC), agrees that a 1980s revival is in full swing.
“Bold, multilayered gold chains in shiny finishes accompanied the ubiquitous oversized gold hoops and 1980s rock-star attitude on some of the spring runways,” Florence says. “Go for the gold–yellow, please–in piled-on bracelets from skinny bangles to wide cuffs.”
Luckily for the consumer, there are many incarnations of this gold look from ultracouture to relatively affordable.
“The staple for stores such as Target, Wal-Mart and Service Merchandise is 10-karat gold,” says Bannerot. “Because of the huge interest in the return of yellow gold in fashion, it has really boosted the 10-karat sales. Hoops and bangles are perfect for this karatage because it allows the customer to stack and mix-and-match to create that over-the-top look without spending a fortune.”
In addition, customers are starting to head more toward high-end, going the way of their European counterparts.
“Eighteen-karat held its own very nicely,” says Bannerot. “You’re never wrong giving 18-karat, and there’s a lot of good-looking, fresh designs that caused it to become a natural go-to in fine jewelry.”
The WGC Mounts Support
As a member of the gold industry’s support and information system, the WGC has recently found a place in fashion’s good graces due to financial backing and diligent marketing and advertising efforts.
“We’ve really been helping the trade wrap its brain around [the trend],” Bannerot says. “It would be extremely presumptuous to say that we started the trend, but we do hope that we have helped to create the avalanche effect.”
One major factor in this revival may have been the successful “Gold Fashion Girls” ad campaign promoted by the WGC. Marrying the image of Darcy Bussell, principal dancer at the London Royal Ballet, with designers such as Robert Lee Morris, Chimento, Roberto Coin and Tissot, the WGC succeeded in reintroducing gold jewelry as both high-end and fashion-forward.
Now, the WGC will roll out a brand new campaign for the third and fourth quarters of 2001. Relating to people’s emotional connection with the metal, the new ads will acknowledge the different responses that people have toward gold that makes it special.
“Not only does gold have a holy significance with religious iconography and statuary, but there is the other end of the extreme–a store of wealth-that relates to a bar of gold or currency,” says Bannerot.
He points out that gold is neither one nor the other, rather, it embodies an idea somewhere in between an adornment and monetary value of its worth.
Although the ads are not fully developed at this time, Bannerot explains that a long, arduous branding study will reflect the findings of how people feel about gold, which will then be worked into the campaign.
“The key words we’ve found so far have been an embodiment of desire, sensuality, intriguing, a source of delight–that gold is a reflection of the person and vice-versa,” he says.
These ads, partnered with co-ops, will be joined with vigorous PR support, enabling the designers to bring the emotional elements of the campaign right down to the store counter.
Designs of the New Millennium
Although it may seem that there aren’t many new design challenges in gold to conquer, Bannerot makes a claim for the creative.
The individual expression is key–gold is so versatile,” he says. “Now there are so many changes in finish, and designers are having so much fun doing interesting things in gold.”
This statement rang true at the Basel Show in March, when designers took gold to the limit using techniques and looks ranging from embossed to mesh.
“It’s clear that the younger designers are thinking in 3-D,” reports Bannerot, “and that they are taking advantage of the new manufacturing processes available to them. They can create big and bold pieces that are still comfortable and have a lot of utility. Plus, there is that attention to detail that focuses on design elements like toggles and clasps.”
Conquering a World Market
But all is not total serenity on the gold front. Gold stocks in March were trading near their 20-year low due to an over whelming supply for the demand.
In response to the bottomed-out stock, the WGC persuaded members to raise their membership fee from $1 to $2 an ounce, allowing the marketing budget for 2001 to more than double, from $14 million to $32 million.
“If this funding can show good results, we can create a good five-year plan to fund the Council’s efforts for raising gold’s awareness among consumers,” Bannerot says. “If we can reduce overhang by increasing consumption, the prices will move back into better profit margins for miners.”
Bannerot insists the WGC’s strategy is long-term and not just based on the fickle fashion fads of the past year.
“This is not just a quarterly game, it is really a year-long selling season,” he states. “The primary function is to use more ounces of gold, while making the point that people can buy ‘better’ as well. We want people to be smart consumers, thereby helping them. have a good experience with their gold. By insisting on quality, we will keep the consumers coming back for more.”