The earliest-known fine goldwork is from Ur in Mesopotamia. Dating from c.3000 B.C. to 2340 B.C., it was executed with great technical proficiency. Egyptian goldwork dating from the Middle Kingdom, including gold jewelry with inlaid gems, and the objects found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, are examples of the fine work done by Egypt's goldsmiths.
Goldwork of the Aegean civilization shows the many metalworking techniques—openwork, repoussé, embossing, and inlaying—used by artisans of that time. The Vaphio cups are the most outstanding treasures to survive this period, although many fine examples of goldwork (jewelry, death masks, drinking cups, vases, weapons, and dress ornaments) have been found at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns. The goldwork of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia (6th-4th cent. B.C.) is noted for its extreme opulence and for the technical skill with which it was executed; examples of these treasures are in the British Museum and the Louvre.
Archaic Greek and Etruscan goldwork dating from c.700 B.C. to 500 B.C. was strongly influenced by Middle Eastern artisans. With its rich and barbaric design, Etruscan goldwork was among the finest in the ancient world. Later Greek work developed exquisite filigree and combined delicate geometric ornament with mythological figures. Roman goldwork followed Greek forms but placed greater emphasis on massive proportion and over-elaborate detail. Greek forms also influenced the goldsmiths of the Byzantine Empire.
During the early Middle Ages the best European goldwork was produced by the Celts, particularly in Ireland—the Tara brooch (National Mus., Dublin) is characteristic of their intricate design and fine workmanship. The Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian schools employed spiral, animal, and interlacing ornament, with a splendid display of color and inlaid jewels. In the later Middle Ages a wealth of golden ecclesiastical crosses, reliquaries, sacred vessels, and altar fronts were produced throughout Europe in a diversity of styles and techniques but consistently with greater emphasis on gem setting and ornamentation.
During the Italian Renaissance the rediscovery of classical forms gave fresh spirit to representational figure work, and the art of the goldsmith was in great demand for both secular and sacred ornament. Renaissance goldsmiths, the most celebrated of whom was Cellini, produced works of great refinement and detail. Later European goldwork tended to repeat Renaissance forms until the classic revival of the early 19th cent., when the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum revived interest in classical antiquity.
Goldwork was just as important in many parts of Asia as it was in the West. India had many centers noted for ornate goldwork and other metalwork. Tibetan goldsmiths created figures having a religious significance. Chinese goldwork is rare because of the scarcity of the metal in China; the examples that survive are exquisite. Central and South America had excellent goldsmiths, and Aztec, Panamanian, and especially Inca goldwork is of extremely high quality.
During the craft revival of the 1960s and 70s in the United States the techniques of gold working that were developed in the past were used to create complex, innovative designs, principally in jewelry making. More recently, new techniques, including electroforming, have been added to the traditional means of producing goldwork.
See T. Wigley, The Art of the Goldsmith and Jeweler (1977); A. G. Grimwade, London Goldsmiths, 1697-1837 (3d ed. 1989).
Goldwork is a type of metalwork particularly concerned with gold and its use in jewellery and coinage. Gold's remarkable ductility and malleability, in addition to its pleasing aesthetics, make goldwork an important area of industry. See goldsmithing.