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Gems in the Early Modern World

Dr Michael Bycroft is engaged in a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the Global History and Culture Centre of the University of Warwick History Department, running from 2014 to 2017.

The premise of this project is that gems played an important role in science, medicine, trade, travel and decorative art in the early modern period, and that as a result they are an excellent tool for studying the relationship between these domains of human activity. The project has two strands, a monograph on the emergence of a science of gems in Europe, and a series of workshops (followed by an edited collection) that take a broader look at gems in the early modern world.


The monograph is entitled 'Gems and the New Science: Craft, Commerce and Classification in Early Modern Europe'. It is an argument for the importance of gems in many areas of early modern science--not just natural history but also experimental physics, chemistry, and crystallography--and for the importance of merchants and artisans and extra-European travellers in shaping the science of gems. The monograph is structured around major episodes in the development of the science of gems between c. 1600 and 1800, with a focus on France, England, Sweden and Germany.

See Michael Bycroft's staff page for more detail on his research.


Workshops were held at the University of Warwick and the Victoria and Albert Museum on May 18th and 19th, 2015; and at the V&A on April 11th and 12th, 2016.

This is the first collaborative project on gems that puts interdisciplinarity front and centre. Our aim is to bring together a variety of historians and museum curators in order to 'join the dots' in our understanding of early modern gems. Joining the dots means tracing the movements of gems across an increasingly connected globe. It also means gathering a set of papers that each find connections between different kinds of values that were attached to gems (from economic to aesthetic to medical) and between different kinds of knowledge of gems (from the skills of experimenters to the calculations of merchants to the judgements of connoisseurs).

An edited collection based on these workshops, entitled Gems in the Early Modern World: Materials, Knowledge, and Global Trade, 1450-1800, is under production with Palgrave MacMillan, for the book series Europe's Asian Centuries.

Abstracts and speaker biographies for the 2015 workshop can be found on the workshop webpage.

Click here for details of the April 2016 workshop at the V&A.