Use of Precious Materials


Most often used for jewelry design, precious materials—such as gold, silver, ivory, and gemstone—are also employed to enrich works of art and architecture. The funerary Portrait of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, created during the New Kingdom in Ancient Egypt, was made of solid gold and adorned with precious stones. In addition to demonstrating the wealth and power of the pharaoh, these materials held symbolic value: gold, due its sun-like brilliance and resistance to corrosion, was associated with immortality, while blue lapis lazuli was linked to the heavens. Throughout history, many cultures have used precious materials to create funerary objects, including a famously ornate jade burial costume from China’s Han Dynasty, and as luxurious raw materials in painting—throughout Asia and in Medieval Europe, rich blue and green pigments were ground from gemstones. In 2007, British artist Damien Hirst controversially adorned a platinum-cast human skull with over 8,600 diamonds to create For the Love of God, reputed to be the most expensive work of contemporary art ever produced. While Hirst’s gallery, White Cube, made clear that these diamonds were “ethically sourced,” the story of precious materials in art carries with it a long and difficult history of geopolitical conflict. Similar to Hirst, contemporary artists continue to leverage the inherent commercial value as well as aesthetic qualities of precious materials.

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