Gems in Transit Programme, Monday May 18th
Millburn House, University of Warwick
The art of polishing—making a surface smooth and shiny by rubbing it—is perhaps best known from its use by lapidarians and metalworkers. Polishing brings out the hue, color and clarity of precious stones and enhances the reflectivity of metals such as a gold and silver. Medieval and early modern sources, ranging from those discussing art technology to poems and treatises of natural history and alchemy, show that alongside the work of the goldsmith, polishing was a fundamental practice in a great variety of other arts. The earliest of these practices were often fuelled by the desire to imitate the goldsmith’s art in different, yet optically similar materials. To this purpose, there is evidence of the polishing of different types of glass and enamel, of varnishes, lacquers, glue, paints and so on. Each of these materials required a different method to receive the coveted smooth and shiny surface.
Despite its importance, the history of polishing has not yet received a significant study. Using written sources, historical reconstructions and object studies, this paper explores medieval and early modern polishing practices. Such a study is interesting for at least three reasons. Firstly, it throws light on the relations between various medieval and early modern arts who sought in their own medium to substitute the luster and shine of the work of the goldsmith. Secondly, I hope to show that the search for materials that could be polished to a luster similar to precious stones and metals resulted in (artisanal) experimentation, inventions and even the generation of new knowledge. Finally, a history of polishing can reveal why smooth and shiny materials were valued and why humans have done everything in their power to make and acquire them—whether precious or material imitations of the precious.
This paper shows that material wealth in the form of Handsteine (raw silver miniature landscape sculptures) and raw uncut gems not only made Kunstkammer economically possible but also directly influenced how the actual material results of the mines, whether gems or ore, were realised in those collections. Examples will be drawn mainly from the Saxonian electoral collections as well as the imperial Habsburgs’ Kunstkammern between the 16th and 18th centuries. Seeing the mine as a subterranean Kunstkammer also allows us to see Handsteine as activities and sources of knowledge, especially with regards to the early modern Fürstin. The latter were influential patrons and collectors who worked to move goods around Europe and to spread knowledge about the importance of displaying and owning metal ores and raw gems.
In early modern Europe, Venice, Bruges, Antwerp and Amsterdam were successively the ‘main centers’ of the diamond polishing industry. The relocations of the industry from one city to another are an interesting development in itself; hence ‘macro developments’, such as shifting trade routes and trade monopolies, and also micro developments, such as the migration of skilled polishers from one city to another, will be briefly discussed. One of the arguments I would like to make is that diamond merchants tended to settle where they had easy access to rough diamonds and a reliable financial infrastructure, but they also needed skilful, knowledgeable and affordable polishers. Finally, they had to maintain close contacts with their customers, whose tastes they had to remain scrupulously abreast of. The skills and knowledge of merchants and polishers will be the main theme of my paper. What were the various sources of knowledge? How did skill and knowledge travel from one place to another?
At least as interesting as the relocation of the main centers are the remains of the polishing industries: the polishers that stayed behind when the major part of the industry had moved to another city. The second argument I would like to make is that in this truly global market each center more or less catered to a specific market. In relation to the first set of questions mentioned above, I will try to answer a second set of sub questions: what determined which type of stone was cut where? Since the basic technique of diamond finishing did not change over the centuries, differences in polished diamonds (apart from seize and colour) were expressed in different types of cut. How did these different types of cut develop over time? A lot of myths surround the history of certain types of cuts, but do the sources give us any insight into the ‘real story’?
My paper examines documentary sources from 1631 and from 1664-1695 relating to the importation and circulation of diamonds in order to ask what these sources might tell us about the material characteristics of gems, why some were perceived as more marketable than others, what was meant by particular terminology used at the time. The term ‘a la mode’, for example, is used of cut stones in France and England but its meaning is obscure. My main focus is on the type of diamond known as a ‘laske’ (also lasque and lask). Laskes were stones cut in India but while they were evidently acceptable to Portuguese and Flemish merchants in 1631, and while they found their way into European royal treasuries in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries, by the 1660s and 1670s the independent diamond importer John Cholmley was instructing his brother on no account to send such stones. By means of a micro-reading of the trans-European case of the Valguarnera diamond robbery—with its rich evidence of how diamonds were laundered—and of the letter books of the Cholmley brothers I seek to illuminate why certain types of diamonds were valued financially and aesthetically and what happened to them when they were out of the bulse.
The seventeenth century was an important period in the history of the diamond trade. Until the early decades of the eighteenth century, diamonds were only found in India and on the island of Borneo. While Portugal and the United Provinces were perhaps the first important powers with regard to diamond exports to Europe, their place was quickly overtaken by England, which managed, during the seventeenth century, to establish a structured and regular trade, relying to an important extent on the involvement of Jewish traders. This did not mean, however, that the importance of Amsterdam waned completely. A cutting industry developed itself there with which no other European diamond center could compete in the early modern period. Remarkably, this industry also relied to an important extent on Jewish expertise.
This paper shall focus on acts in the notarial archives of Amsterdam to provide a micro-historical image of Jewish involvement in the diamond industry of the seventeenth century. Several issues will be addressed: was there knowledge transfer? Were Jewish diamond cutters and polishers a relatively closed or open community with regard to non-Jewish personnel? What was the role played by women? In addition, the involvement of Jewish artisans and traders in Amsterdam’s diamond industry during the seventeenth century will be placed in a larger perspective, by linking it to the role played by Jews in the Anglo-Indian diamond trade.
The paper takes an object-centred approach that combines perspectives from social and economic history with those of cultural history. In looking at the urban environment of an imperial town in early modern Germany, this paper investigates the many ways in which ordinary, and noble men and women interacted with gems and jewels, and gave them economic, social, imaginary, and magic meanings. While the circulation of jewels sheds further light to what has been termed an ‘economy of makeshifts’, the analysis of (popular) knowledge shows how gems were perceived and used both as object of study and as apotropaic resource.
Ever since the sixteenth century, Antwerp had been an important centre for the trade in gemstones. The Scheldt-city counted a great number of goldsmiths, jewellers, and grinders of precious stones, whose products were greatly admired by contemporaries. This paper tells the story of the collections of those Antwerp artisans who were experts in the trade and processing of gemstones. Based on probate inventories, it deals with their personal collections, with the gems for sale in their shops (unworked, ground, or mounted into new objects), but also how these objects in turn became part of other Antwerp collections.
Gems had been part of collections ever since the earliest princely treasuries. As gems became part of collections, some were elevated from the domain of utility; they gained a new status as meaningful objects (so-called ‘semiophores’). Especially in the case of gems, there was a fluid transition between utilitarian objects and objects imbued with meaning. This paper further challenges the traditional dichotomy between utilitarian objects and semiophores, by arguing that in early seventeenth-century Antwerp, it was precisely the practical-material knowledge about gems that made them beloved and meaningful collectables. Practical knowledge earlier restricted to the workshops of artisans, was now ‘collected’ by the knowledgeable in the form of objects that were considered to be transmitters of knowledge: the gems themselves, but also imitation gems, artefacts with gems, tools, recipe books, engravings, and paintings.
As the place of chemistry in universities was consolidated in the eighteenth century, natural philosophers became increasingly critical about the role of minerals, and particularly gemstones, in medicine. A case study in the Northern Netherlands shows that although this new, critical understanding of gemstones as materia medica in academia was included in apothecary handbooks and pharmacopeia fairly quickly, the interest in gemstones as a pharmaceutical ingredient and other exclusive materia medica persisted. Some factors that played a role in this process are analysed here. This paper suggests that the new chemical understanding of gemstones initially appeared to have only a small effect on the listing of gemstones in pharmaceutical handbooks because of their limited availability. Yet the ongoing inclusion of gemstones and other exclusive ingredients in pharmacopeia suggests social pressure and economic considerations played a bigger role for apothecaries than a desire to practice state-of-the-art medicine and pharmacy, even though academically trained natural philosophers and pharmacists discouraged the use of gemstones, gold, silver, and pearls. Moreover, this case shows that the increasing interest in transformations of nonorganic materials was not automatically tied to a rise in pharmaceutical chemistry, as Jonathan Simon has recently suggested was the case in eighteenth-century France.