Why are we still obsessed with gold?
From the moment humans first glimpsed its luminous surface, this shiny yellow metal has seduced the inhabitants of every continent and every age.
Here is a tale of desire that conquered the globe; a story that begins in a 6,000-year-old grave brimming with brilliant gold bracelets and culminates on the big screen, with a 24-carat feathered cape wrapped round the shoulders of a young Elizabeth Taylor.
Through the lens of time, and with insight from the experts behind a spate of new exhibitions exploring the history and luxurious applications of gold, we uncover what lies at the heart of this eternal desire.
When workmen began digging a ditch in the town of Varna, Bulgaria, in 1972, they could have never imagined they would stumble on one of the most important gravesites in history.
On the shores of the Black Sea lay what has come to be known as the "Varna Necropolis" – hundreds of tombs, many holding a fantastic array of gold bracelets, necklaces, and scepters dating back to the 5th millennium BC.
It's the oldest gold treasure ever found, and reveals not just the craftsmanship of early humans – but a complex social structure.
"These objects are markers of social positions in society," explained Vladimir Slavchev, curator of Prehistoric Archaeology at the Varna Museum of Archaeology.
"And that is why they are so important for archaeologists – we can see there is some complex structure of human society for the first time in history."
The most fabulous treasure trove of all was Grave 43, in which over 1.2 kilograms of gold objects were discovered.
Inside lay the skeleton of what is believed to be the chief of the community – a 40 to 45-year-old man still draped in radiant necklaces, headwear, and perfectly molded bracelets (pictured).
And there's another, more usual adornment, just to the right of the hip.
"The dress of the man was decorated with the model of a gold penis," explained Slavchev.
"During excavations, the model was found to the right of the right leg. But we think it was placed just on top of his stomach."
"Gold is very soft and even when you start to hammer big pieces it can produce a lot of material," Slavchev said on how the people of the Varna Necropolis may have crafted these ornamental bulls.
"Afterwards you can cut a plate into different pieces using copper chisels."
It's not known where exactly the people of this necropolis sourced their gold, though Slavchev said it may have come from an area up to 80 kilometers south west of Varna, where gold has since been found in rocks.
It's a long way to travel for a piece of metal. But judging by the fantastic array of jewelry buried here – still shimmering an otherworldly glow thousands of years later – it was obviously thought worth the journey.
There is a certain bittersweet quality to a mummy entombed with golden jewels it will never admire, mirrors it will never gaze into, and sandals it will never walk in.
In ancient Egypt, these were the dazzling funerary objects buried with the dead, carefully placed for what they believed to be the afterlife.
The spiritual significance of gold meant it was often used to craft such treasures.
According to the British Museum, "the use of gold [in mummy masks] was connected to the belief that the sun god Ra, with whom the mummy hoped to be united, had flesh of pure gold."
Perhaps the most famous – and spectacular -- Egyptian artefact ever found is that of Tutankhamun's gold burial mask.
Featuring a protective cobra and vulture on the forehead, the elaborate mask was discovered in the young pharaoh's gold coffin, itself weighing a hefty 110 kilograms.
It was one of many treasures found in the teenage king's almost intact tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter, in 1922, and dates back to around 1320 BC.
More than 3,000 years after King Tutankhamun's death, this intricate gold diadem was found on his mummified head.
The young pharaoh is believed to have ascended the throne when he was just eight years old, ruling until his death at 17 – though the cause remains a mystery.
Spot the British archaeologist. Howard Carter, the man credited with discovering Tutankhamun's spectacular tomb, is pictured on the left with Egyptian government officials at the entrance of the Pharaoh Ramesses VI in 1922.
They may not be the most comfortable footwear, but it's unlikely you'd have heard too much complaining from the mummy wearing them.
These gold sheet sandals were found in the tomb of one of the three foreign wives of Pharaoh Thutmose III – dating back to around 1400 BC -- with similar shoes also found on the mummy of Tutankhamen.
"In life, only the highest-ranking individuals in ancient Egyptian society wore sandals as an article of dress," said Diana Craig Patch, curator at the Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
And thousands of years after their death, they're still a remarkable sight.
Welcome to the "golden age" of Chinese history, where poetry, music, and exquisite craftsmanship flourished under the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD).
Reopened Silk Road trade routes created a new appetite for luxury foreign goods, and Chinese metalworkers stepped up to demand by experimenting with new materials and techniques.
"Presumably this mirror was used in the Imperial household – I can't imagine such a lavish use of gold for any other kind of patron," said Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at the Smithsonian Institution, of this piece dating between the late-7th century and early-8th century.
"Because of gold's rarity and value, artisans used different methods to literally stretch it as far as it would go," Wilson said of then innovative techniques such as gilding and panel-beating.
"They might apply a pasty mixture of gold and mercury to surfaces. Heating evaporated the mercury and left the sparkling gold behind – needless to say, it was a toxic process."
This melon-shaped box with rodent handle, dates between the late-7th century and early-8th.
"Many people look to the Tang as one of the most cosmopolitan eras in all of Chinese history," added Wilson.
"Inspired by bowls, cups, and other functional objects imported from West and Central Asia, they perfected metalworking techniques introduced from Iran and Sogdiana."
And in this age of Tang Dynasty creativity, their golden cup runneth over.
The desire for gold has driven many a foolhardy explorer across the globe only to return empty handed – if they returned at all.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans were seduced with new fervor by the tale of El Dorado – a mythical city in the Americas bathed in unimaginable riches.
Needless to say, El Dorado was never found, and the very term has been absorbed into our lexicon denoting any place of fabulous wealth.
But there was a grain of truth to the legend. And it can be found in the jungles of Colombia...
It might not be an entire city made of gold, but the intricate "Muisca Raft" (pictured above) supposedly tells the story of a chieftain covering himself in gold dust and diving into Lake Guatavita, Colombia, during an inauguration ceremony.
Precious pieces of gold and emeralds were thrown into the lake during the festival, and the story is believed to have sowed the seed of the El Dorado myth we know today.
Measuring almost 20cm long, this delicate model was crafted from extremely pure gold – over 80%. It was discovered in a small cave near Bogota, Colombia, in 1969, and is believed to date back to the late period of the Muisca culture, between 1200 and 1500 AD.
This decorative flask in the shape of a man was used to hold lime – and not the type that grows on trees.
"The lime was obtained from burning and grinding seashells," explained the British Museum.
"The alkaline lime was chewed with cocoa leaves to release their active stimulant and enhance clear, contemplative thinking."
Which might also help explain the look of concentration depicted on this particular flask's face.
This Indian representation of Inca royalty dates back to 1800. Notice their gold crowns bear the emblem of the sun. The Incas believed gold was the sweat of the sun, which they worshipped.
A fantastic miniature army appears to perch on this gold pectoral. The wonderfully detailed ornamentation originates from the Tayrona culture, which existed around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of Colombia, from 900 to 1600 AD.
The golden city of El Dorado may be a myth, but thanks to this treasure trove of pre-Columbian jewels, its imagined beauty beguiles us still.
Emperor Shah Jahan is perhaps best known as the man behind India's Taj Mahal – built as a magnificent marble tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
But he also presided over the Mughal Empire, a fabulously wealthy dynasty which stretched across the Indian subcontinent between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The following painting shows the weighing of Shah Jahan on his 42nd lunar birthday in 1632, and can be found in exquisite Islamic Manuscript the "Padshahnama" -- currently on show as part of the "Gold" exhibition at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Written in Persian on paper flecked with gold, the manuscript is part of Britain's Royal Collection, and is the official record of the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled between 1628 and 1658.
We asked "Gold" curator Lauren Porter to give us an insight into the stunning image.
"Twice a year, on the occasion of his lunar and solar birthdays, the Emperor would come before his nobles to be weighed against gold, silver and other precious items in the golden 'Scale of Auspiciousness'.
"An amount equivalent to the Emperor's weight would then be distributed as alms to the poor (the recipients are pictured at lower right with their hands outstretched). It was believed that this charitable act would enhance the spiritual and corporeal wellbeing of the Emperor.
"Gold regularly featured on the pages of Islamic manuscripts and could take the form of gold leaf, which could be polished with agate to achieve a high level of shine, or shell gold (paint made from ground particles of gold) which would be applied with a brush to provide delicate highlights and a more subtle sheen."
What pleasure there is in a tiny, glittering box in the palm of your hand – and to know the childlike secrets buried within.
In 18th century Britain, that "secret" may well have been snuff – a perfumed powered tobacco favored by the aristocratic, and later middle, classes.
While the working class puffed on tobacco pipes, the upper echelons of society preferred to inhale a pinch of snuff -- and not just from any old box.
The snuffbox was as much about signifying your own social standing in the world as carrying tobacco – the more spectacular the object, the more esteemed the owner.
And by the evening's candlelight, the boxes that glowed brightest were those made of gold...
"Gold was the ultimate luxury metal," explained Vicky Avery, keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, currently exhibiting "Up-close and Personal: 18th century gold boxes from the Rosalinde and Albert Gilbert Collection."
"It was incredibly expensive, but it could also be shaped into ovals or squares or rectangles. It could be embossed, chaffed, engraved, and be covered in jewels to make it even more luxurious."
This gold snuffbox timepiece originates from England between 1766 and 1772.
Tiny pearls form the tail of this intricately painted lion, originating from Geneva, Switzerland, between 1804 and 1809.
Hidden pictures often appeared under the lid, such as this one of Philip V of Spain, dating back to Paris, 1714.
Snuffbox adorned with maps, from Germany, 1757. With tobacco from America, gems from South East Asia, and the metal itself wrought in continental Europe, these exotic boxes were, as Avery says: "like holding the world in your hand."
Gold in 1920s America was a bit like the young hedonists who flaunted it – a lot of razzle dazzle, but not always authentic.
This was an affluent new era of fast-living fellas and free-wheeling flappers, where money was spent just as quickly as it was made -- and though everything glittered, it wasn't necessarily gold.
"A lot of 'gold beads' were actually glass painted with a gilt exterior," explained Jennifer Marshall, professor of North American Art at the University of Minnesota. "They were fancy, but not always precious."
"This was an American wealth that cared more about appearances than actual value. They didn't know it at the time, but looking back, it was an age of quick wealth, not old money."
If you had a car made of pure gold, it's unlikely you'd ever take it out of your garage, much less park it in the street. Luckily, this 1920 Pierce-Arrow Model 48 2/3-Passenger Coupé is just painted gold. Though that didn't stop it selling for $139,136 in 2010.
Where did this newfound affluence come from?
"The boom is fed by post-WWI consumerism and manufacturing," explained Marshall. "There's this real feeling that the U.S. is taking the mantle of Western Civilization.
"So in terms of gold, you see a lot of revival styles – Tudor, Chinese, Egyptian – in the U.S. If this is the new seat of civilization, then why shouldn't it also have those styles?"
No need to go home to freshen up between parties -- just whip out your demure golden enamel and diamond powder compact and lipstick holder.
Which incidentally sold at Sotheby's recently for over $10,000.
"When we imagine the nightlife back then, think of the lighting in clubs, of what gold looks like under incandescent bulbs, in a speakeasy in Harlem," said Marshall.
"Gold really reacts to light in a different way to other metals."
Decades before Paris Hilton tottered around town with a miniature dog in her oversized handbag, the party people of the Roaring Twenties were sporting 18 carat gold, ruby and diamond evening bags in the shape of a pug's face.
This little number sold for $17,500 at auction.
Money can buy many things -- taste isn't always one of them.
Sparkling, desirable, and unattainable. Our kings and queens of the screen are gold personified.
And even the most ordinary objects -- from a lighter, to a pen, or watch -- can be transformed into a valuable collector's item once they've come into contact with these otherworldly creatures.
Add a famous back story, engraved signature, and the allure of gold, and you're looking at a treasured piece of history that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The spectacular gold cape worn by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963 film "Cleopatra," was auctioned for $59,000 in 2012.
"Elizabeth Taylor wears that cape in very epic, over-the-top, pivotal scenes — including when she dies — so it also becomes her death cape," explained said Margaret Barrett, director of entertainment auctions at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, U.S.A, who oversaw the sale of the Academy Award winning costume.
"It was made from gold painted leather, with each piece cut into the form of a feather. And boy it was heavy – like picking up a small dog!"
Frank Sinatra's 14 carat gold pocket watch, a gift from Dean Martin in the 1960s, was auctioned for $12,500 in 2012. The initials "FAS" (Frank Albert Sinatra) are engraved on the outside, while inside is the message: "To the ‘Daig,' Love Dean" (evidently a private nickname for Sinatra).
"What I like about gifts like this is it's very clear who gave it and who received it. Once it's engraved, we have its history there forever," said Barrett.
Long after the King has left the building, his precious possessions continue to capture the imaginations of fans.
This black star sapphire and gold ring sold for $44,812 at auction last year.
You're probably more likely to stumble across an image of screen siren Marlene Dietrich smoking, than not.
So it feels apt that this gold cigarette lighter, like a time capsule from another world, had her very special stamp on it.
Dating back to 1939, the piece of Hollywood history sold at auction for $3,000 last year – an object of desire as golden as its owner.
"These things are special because people don't really give gifts like that anymore," said Barrett of the engraved cigarette cases and lighters she often sees auctioned for thousands of dollars.
"It's a nice, sentimental piece of property from the past."
Design by: Alberto Meir,Bryan Perry and India Hayes