Gold has long been a symbol of wealth, power, status and success — and it is rare. It is said that all the gold ever mined — from ancient Egypt to the present day — would fill no more than two Olympic-size swimming pools.
Gold is seen as a source of financial surety, its value increasing as the economy falters and it is prized for its beauty, colour and other physical properties. It is the softest, most malleable of metals. A single troy ounce can be drawn into wire stretching more than 60 miles and a gram of gold can be beaten into a sheet a metre square. It is the material of choice of metal-smiths throughout the centuries.
Now, in a stunning exhibition — Gold: Power and Allure — more than 400 golden treasures from 2500 BC to present day are on display to tell the story of Britain and gold (with free entry) at the Goldsmiths' Hall. "As a trading nation, a centre of inventions and an ambitious empire, gold has long been vital to this country's existence," says Dr Helen Clifford, the exhibition's curator. "Not just as an exploitable ore but as a symbol of power, a medium of exchange and an inspiration for master craftsmen."
The exhibition contains a nugget of Cornish gold and some exquisite British jewellery, the earliest being basket-shaped ornaments from 2300 BC found at Amesbury near Stonehenge. There is also a dazzling seventh-century pendant made of beaded and twisted gold wires; a ring taken from the hand of Elizabeth I after her death, and the Prince of Wales investiture coronet designed by Louis Osman in 1969.
Naturally, in the summer of 2012, the exhibition focuses on gold as a metaphor for success though, intriguingly, pure gold Olympic medals are extremely rare — only four Olympiads have been celebrated with solid gold medals, but two examples, from London 1908 and Stockholm's 1912 Games, both won by members of the same family, are in the exhibition.
Sporting trophies include the rare King's Prize gold teapot, awarded at the Leith Races in the mid-1730s. Horse races, such as Ascot's 100 Guineas, had trophies made of gold to the value of the race prize, which could be melted down by the winner.
One third of all gold used each year is recycled. In fact, so much has been recycled that ancient examples of worked gold are rare. The bullion value is often considered more important than the workmanship of the goldsmiths. Gold has been responsible for much of London and Britain's wealth. Goldsmiths were the original bankers and the capital developed as the centre of gold trading. The Goldsmiths' Company, which has a display of coinage, was made responsible for the quality of coinage in 1282 by Edward I, and the Trail of the Pyx (the testing of coinage validity) continues as an annual event.
Perhaps the most handsome section in the exhibition is the golden tableware, including the golden ice pails made about 1680-90, bequeathed by the first Duchess of Marlborough to her grandson, and the ewer and basin made in 1701-2 by Pierre Platel for the 1st Duke of Devonshire.
On display are a mid-18th century gold teething rattle, and a pair of early 18th-century chocolate cups made from melted-down mourning rings and bearing the words "Morvis Libamvr" — "Let us drink to the dead."
Today's goldsmiths still make golden tableware for the lucky few. Examples include Ndidi Ekubia's wave-like containers, Brett Payne's drinking vessel, Grant McDonald's gold breadbasket, William Lee's vase, Martyn Pugh's wine jug, and Hiroshi Suzuki's Aqua-Poesy VII rippling gold vase.
* Gold: power and allure
Until July 28, 2012, Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm at Goldsmiths' Hall, Foster Lane, EC2. Admission free (020 7606 7010; visit thegoldsmiths.co.uk).