Tuesday, April 22, 2014

All that glitters ...

Gem stones and jewels are endlessly fascinating and I have recently noticed that I seem to feature these in a lot of my stories although I didn’t mean for this to become a recurring theme.  I have blogged about both diamonds – “a girl’s best friend” – and pearls before, and I love treasure and precious things of any kind, but that goes for most people I think.  Through the ages, mankind has always coveted that which is most difficult to acquire, so at least I’m not alone!

(Not the Cheapside Hoard jewels but still pretty)
When Elizabeth Hawksley very kindly told me about an exhibition at the Museum of London called The Cheapside Hoard –London’s Lost Jewels, naturally I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to go and see it.  It sounded absolutely amazing, as indeed it was.  Not just because of the beauty of the treasures on display, but because of the mystery behind the discovery and the uniqueness of the collection – what looks like the entire stock of a 17th century jeweller, giving us vital knowledge of his trade at that time.

The find was shrouded in mystery for quite some time, although it is clear now that the cache of jewels was discovered by workmen in 1912.  They were demolishing a house in Cheapside – once one of the main markets and thoroughfares of the city of London and the place where all the best goldsmiths and jewellers had their shops during the 16th and 17th century.  When the builders reached the cellars of the house and broke through into an original cellar from before the Great Fire of London (which happened in 1666), the glittering hoard came to light.  They must have been both stunned and delighted!

Although such finds should be reported to the authorities, the labourers didn’t.  Instead they filled their pockets and anything else they had to hand and went to see a pawnbroker who was known to buy anything antique dug up in London.  Fortunately for posterity, he did the right thing and alerted the London Museum, who subsequently bought most of what had been found.  Some of the pieces did get lost and may still be in private ownership somewhere, but the vast majority of gems and jewels ultimately ended up at the museum.  And what a dazzling display they make!

There were bodkins (hairpins), rings, necklaces and loose gemstones.  Brooches, cameos, watches and buttons.  In short, every kind of item you would expect to find in a goldsmith’s shop.  I imagined myself as a 17th century lady, trying to choose something out of this magnificent collection and decided that if I could only have one thing, it had to be one of the lovely pendant drops.  Made of amethysts, emeralds or garnets, they sparkled in the muted light and looked like mini chandeliers, some with little jewel clusters that had been fashioned to resemble bunches of grapes.  I could have bought two and used them as earrings, or just one for a necklace.  They were quite simply stunning!

I think we definitely owe that pawnbroker a debt of gratitude for saving the Cheapside Hoard from being dispersed – it would have been a terrible shame not to be able to see it now.

So back to my own stories and jewels – the one I’m working on at the moment (Monsoon Mists – to be published August 2014) features a gem trader who is based in India in the late 1750’s.  Unfortunately this was a bit later than the Cheapside Hoard, but I had great fun doing the research for this era too.  It’s never a hardship to go and look at beautiful diamonds, rubies or sapphires, and I enjoyed learning about the various ways in which these were graded and valued.  The best of them came from India, Sri Lanka or Burma, whereas if you wanted emeralds, the quality stones were from South America.  My hero travels both to the fabled diamond mines of Golconda (India) and to Burma in search of rubies.  And along the way he comes across a very unusual jewel, which causes him no end of trouble … but more about that in August.

As for the jewels of the Cheapside Hoard, I have a feeling they will come in very handy for my next time slip which is set during the English Civil War.  Now all I have to do is choose whether my heroine should have amethysts or emeralds for her pendant drop earrings …

Christina x


Beth Elliott said...

I share your interest in gems and am always happy to stare at the displays of fabulous jewels in museums - Empress Eugenie's diamonds, the Spoonmaker's diamond,indeed anything that glitters. How splendid to put lots of gems in your stories, and what a delightful dilemma to have to choose just which stones to give your heroine.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the exhibition, Christina - though the Museum's stringent security made getting into the exhibition feel a bit like getting into Fort Knox!

Still, doubtless it was necessary.

anne stenhouse said...

I saw this exhibition earlier in the year and was blown away by it. It's particularly interesting to have portraits around the walls showing what the items were like when worn. I so hope it won't all go back into hidden storage after Sunday. Anne Stenhouse

Margaret Kaine said...

As you say, this does sound like enjoyable research Christina, and your books are always meticulously researched. The Cheapside Hoard sounds definitely worth a visit, and what woman doesn't love beautiful jewels. I have made a note!

Christina Courtenay said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Beth - yes, a delightful dilemma indeed and it will require much thought :-)

Elizabeth - it was a bit scary going into that "vault", wasn't it!?

Anne - so glad you enjoyed it too and yes, I loved the portraits! Some really excellent ones.

Margaret - thank you and yes, I wish we could all have jewels like that :-)

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Re: Amethysts. They are beautiful stones, I agree, but, in the 19th century, purple was considered an appropriate colour for half-mourning. At the end of her reign, for example, Queen Victoria came out of her deep mourning for Prince Albert and wore a small bunch of violets on her bonnet!

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