Gold has been a symbol of social status and wealth for the Chinese since it appeared in the Xia Dynasty.
With the rise of pastoral nomadism, which brought metalworking to China, following the unification of China during the Qin and Han Dynasties, and then the end of the Bronze Age, gold gradually established its status as the material for rituals and court dress, said Xu Xiaodong, associate director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Art Museum.
Xu is also the curator of L’Ecole’s new exhibition, The Art of Gold, 3000 Years of Chinese Treasures, which is divided into four categories based on craftsmanship.
The inaugural exhibition of the jewelry art school at K11 Musea displays 55 pieces from the Mengdiexuan Collection.
The earliest examples of goldware in China are limited. Many of them were hammered accessories, such as earrings and rings in the north and attachments onto the surface of jade, bronze, silver and wood in central and southwest China.
Hammering and chasing are among the oldest goldsmithing techniques, and are capable of achieving no material loss, as well as a gold content of more than 90 percent.
An example of this technique is a pair of earrings with turquoise beads from the late Shang Dynasty.
One of the oldest objects from the collection, a gold ear ornament, is hammered from gold strips. One end retains the form of the strip for attachment to the ear, while the other is hammered into a flat crescent shape ending in a spiral – a simple yet popular style. A more complicated exhibit, a gold headdress from the 4th to 3rd century BCE, is so exquisitely crafted, you’d never think it’s as old as it is.
Constructed from a tapering band and four supports that link the band with a rounded oval on the top, the headdress is decorated with the head of an argali at the front, flanked by a symmetrical decoration of birds with snakes under their wings, deer with curling antlers and two tigers.
Spirals adorn the four connecting supports, while the rounded oval piece at the top shows four recumbent deer.
Unlike the dominance of hammering and chasing in the West, casting was an important technique stemming from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty’s tradition of bronze casting.
A highlight piece is the gold camel-design belt and ornamental plaque from the 2nd to 1st century BCE, which showed that trading between central China and the West was occurring at that time.
After the Han Dynasty, the trend of gold casting waned, as did bronze casting.
The unification of China during the Qin and Han Dynasties saw a proliferation of techniques such as filigree, granulation and gem setting from the north, leading to the development of goldsmith work and the popularity of gold ornaments.
A combination of these three skills represented the highest level of craftsmanship.
A set of gold comb and bent hairpins from the 7th to 8th century stands out, with its colorful gemstones, glass and shell inlay. Take a closer look and you will see petals, stamens and leaf-shaped gems wrapped in hammered gold flakes to form floral patterns. Gold wires outline branches, while the flowers are surrounded by gold granules.
Another collector’s favorite is the gold hair bun ornament from the 15th to 17th century.
A hemispherical, ribbed top is attached to a round, flat, collar-like base with gold foil, while the winged decorations on the sides and back are attached to the base with hooks. Bats and lotus flowers decorate the top and the collar below. The winged ornaments are embellished with five-clawed dragons chasing an inlaid red gemstone amid cloud scrolls.
“Delightfully, the two dragons, made in flexible filigree work, allow the movement of the dragon head as the wearer moves, heightening its kinetic appeal and considerable charm,” said curator Catherine Maudsley. “These two pieces exemplify both technical finesse and a refined aesthetic sense.”
Due to the pandemic, the public opening of the exhibition has been postponed. Updates will be posted on http://www.lecolevancleefarpels.com/hk/en/lecole-asia-pacific.
(This article was published at The Standard on January 22, 2021: Weekend Glitz: Golden oldies)