Fool’s gold

On 12 May, 1937, King George VI was crowned as King of England and ruler of a vast empire over which he was also Emperor of India, along with his consort Queen Elizabeth, in Westminster Abbey. Two unusual breaches of tradition took place during the ceremony. Firstly, the dowager queen, Mary, was present at the service. Convention dictated that the late sovereign’s widow not attend. However, in the wake of the profound scandal caused by the abdication of Edward VIII to marry a twice-divorced American, Queen Mary (who always refused the title of Queen Mother) opted to be there in a display of inter-familial unity. This was a difficult decision for Queen Mary as she was a stickler for correct form; when her husband had died -it had been a real love-match and George V never took a mistress unlike his father- she had retained enough composure to turn immediately to her son, curtsy, and kiss his hand in a gesture of obeisance to her new monarch. The second breach of tradition did not cause much comment yet it revealed much about the will of the King’s wife. Elizabeth chose to have a crown made out of platinum, rather than gold, a choice that was without any royal precedent. This choice has never been explained and the late Queen Mother was not, at least to my knowledge, ever asked about it or mentioned the reasons for choosing platinum over the traditional gold. This stunning crown was last seen on top of her coffin in 2002, the year she died aged 101 years old, fortified by her staunch sense of public duty and gin.

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Gold is the metal most associated with royalty, but not just royalty, it is also a byword that resonates with wealth, opulence, and decoration. It has been thus for millennia, in the east and west, common to different cultures, peoples, and religions. It is mentioned over 400 times in the Old Testament. We do not use real gold in our currency any more and the gold standard ended four decades ago, and yet it still permeates our language. We talk about a golden age and golden years. Something -or someone- can be worth its or their weight in gold and, if we’re lucky, our friends and lovers will have hearts of gold. With the recent Olympics, a gold medal was the ultimate accolade, just as seeking the Golden Fleece or the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow are mythic quests. Yet, unlike other precious metals such as silver and platinum, gold possesses negative connotations too. It is a symbol of greed. King Midas was punished for this vice and, in the Old Testament, the unfaithful children of Israel worship a golden calf.

In Peter Bernstein’s The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession, a book that I’d recommend for its facts and statistics rather than the narrative, the author summarizes the allure -pun intended- of the yellow metal:

Over the centuries, gold has stirred the passions for power and glory, for beauty, for security, and even for immortality. Gold has been an icon for greed, a vehicle for vanity, and a potent constraint as a monetary standard. No other object has commanded so much veneration over so long a period of time. (p. 367)

Despite its somewhat turbulent and ambiguous history, gold is highly integral to many religious practices, from the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Japan (and I’d highly recommend Mishima Yukio’s novel of the same name about a young monk who becomes obsessed by its beauty and is compelled to destroy it) to the tabernacle containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

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In Catholic liturgical practice, gold-coloured vestments can replace any liturgical colour except for black (i.e. red, green, white, and violet). That is to say that, even though it is not a licit liturgical colour in its own right, it can simply brush the official colour to one side. Black, the colour of vestments used for mourning such as Masses for the dead, often contains gold borders and embroidery, for the gold there symbolizes hope in the resurrection, figuratively and literally embedded in the mourning black and the black of mourning. I find it fascinating that, given its undeniable links to human greedy and frailty, it can assume such a privileged role in being emblematic of truth, beauty, and hope.

I suspect that the way in which we so prize gold is because of its very ambivalence, since our love of wearing it betrays a lust for riches common to us all, as well satisfying our deeper and more soulful yearning for the beautiful, for we are flawed creatures endowed with a sense of exile. Unlike many other metals, it does not oxidize and is therefore constant, surely the reason for it being associated with a half century. Alloys of it can be very pretty and produce green, white, and even purple gold. I have mentioned in a previous post that I do not find gold to be as beautiful as silver or copper. I only have some white gold and rose gold cufflinks and solid gold ones do not particularly interest me, though I would happily receive them as gifts (such as this Lapponia pair in 18 carat . . .). I find gold to be as predictable as it is gaudy, but de gustibus.

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Today’s cufflinks are something of an exception to the rule for me. They are designed by the Danish silversmith Hugo Gruen and bear his maker’s mark of HGr, dating from somewhere around the mid to late 1960s. They evoke a wild flower, such as a crocus, to me. They are heavy, big-boned beasts made out of sterling silver but have a gold wash. Gruen often would design a pair of cufflinks and put a few of the range in a wild gold wash. A gold wash is lighter than gold-plating, which is designed to look, deceitfully, like real gold. With this pair, I love the fact that the silver is almost peeking through the slight golden frosting. All that glistens, then, is not always gold.

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