The “gold fever” that gripped Australia in the 1850s spread like wildfire, overturning the political and social systems as it tore through the landscape and changed it forever. The gold rush led to an increase in population, which helped to bring social as well as cultural development, and less than fifty years after gold was discovered, Australia became an independent country. Not only did these gold finds impact the design and manufacture of jewellery, they are also culturally significant and are a direct link to Australia’s mining heritage which would help facilitate the six Australian colonies to collectively govern in their own right as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
Australian Gold attracted people from all over the world to strike it rich, or in some cases, lose it all. The irresistible drawcard that you could rise from rags to riches in a much less mobile and far more rigid societal structure saw the whole country caught up in ‘gold fever’ with men leaving their jobs, homes and families in a rush to the goldfields of New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria, in search of their own “Éureka moment”. People believed that if they worked hard, they would be handsomely rewarded, overnight.
In European societies, the privileged and wealthy typically wore refined, classically inspired gold and jewels set with precious stones. On the goldfields, lucky miners now had a new found wealth and as the nouveau riche of their time, they were intent on putting their instant fortune on display through fashion and jewels. Pretty and glamorous classical motifs such as bows, swags, flowerheads and love hearts were replaced by the mining tools they used such as picks, shovels, spades, sluices and pans. Miners often wore them as miniature trophies to flaunt their success.
As gold gave rise to population and economic growth, around thirty jewellers and goldsmiths from the UK and Europe worked on the Victorian goldfields and in major cities in the 1850s. They fashioned watch chains, (like lots 119 and 120 in November Fine Jewels & Timepieces) cravat pins and heavy gold rings for the men, and brooches, bangles and necklaces for their wives or sweethearts. Opals were widely used (as we see in lot 124), as were Australian agates, quartz, blue and yellow sapphires, zircon, and topaz.
Within ten years of the first discoveries, Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine had emerged as substantial urban centres, and several smaller towns and settlements continued to grow and flourish until the 1890s. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ boomed as a result of the wealth pouring in from the goldfields; by 1901 the city was Australia’s principal industrial centre and was chosen as the nation’s first capital.
Many jewellers operated thriving and extensive businesses with finer, larger and more embellished jewels being produced, some of which are still trading to this day. Featured in our Fine Jewels & Timepieces Auction on 22 November is an important example of just such a jewel (lot 123) by the award winning jewellers Kilpatrick & Co. who, in 1855, were based at 39 Collins Street. This beautifully crafted and sumptuous gold collar showcases the skills of a master jeweller. Accompanied by its original maker’s fitted box, collectors and historians would not be challenged in arguing that this dazzling necklace more than exceeds its hefty “cultural and socio-historic weight” in gold.
PATRICIA KONTOS / Senior Jewellery Specialist