South American and Pre-Colombian Jewels


In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in America, introducing to Europe previously unknown populations and cultures, but at the same time, the greed in the courts of the Old Continent caused, in a few decades, the collapse of those same civilizations. Jewelry-making and the art of working gold and other precious metals did not escape from this fate and in the course of a century more than 30 tons worth of gold objects were melted down, pillaged from temples and cities, or even given, vainly, by the indigenous peoples to the Spanish as peace offerings.
For these reasons, unfortunately, a large part of the history of the Pre-Colombian populations remains a mystery that can be solved only with new archeological discoveries and by consulting documents and notes from the era.
A chronicler of the time wrote: “Women wear earrings, necklaces, anklets and arm bands. Men wear the same ornaments and in addition make holes in the nasal septum to wear gems and metal jewelry; they make holes directly below the lower lip to wear chin ornaments in rock crystal, shells, amber, turquoise, or in gold; in the end, they wear large and splendid feather arrangements on their heads or backs (…) everything is strictly regulated according to a hierarchical order: only the emperor can wear turquoise in his nose, and the piercing of his nostrils includes a solemn celebration at the moment of his inauguration…”
The Pre-Colombian populations were divided into many tribes dispersed throughout Central and South America and every tribe produced very different types and qualities of artifacts in gold and jewelry.
In Mexico the population of the Mixtecs developed and then was conquered by the Aztecs, who were then colonized by the Spanish, led by Hernando Cortez in 1521; for the Aztecs, gold was teocuitatl, or rather “the yellow droppings of the gods.”
In the area of the Mayas, the presence of gold was confirmed only from the X century at Chichèn Itza, in the Yucatàn peninsula, but from recent studies it seems that the artifacts found in the Cenotes de Sacrificios (sacred well) originate more from Mexico.
In the Andes, an area that includes Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia, the populations that are distinguished by their gold production are the Mochicas, documented by the splendid findings in Chavin in Peru, the Nazcas, located in the desert in the south of Peru; the Chimues, from whom were found splendid jewelry at Lambayeque, and the Quimbaya, known as the best goldsmiths in South America who died out during the first colonial period, leaving, however, a notable tradition of gold working behind them. All of these peoples were conquered by the Incas, in the XIII century, who were then in turn dominated by the Spanish, lead by Francisco Pissarro in the first half of the XVI century.
As for the natives of North America, in the Pre-Colombian cultures feathers played a very important role: the most commonly used were those of the quetzal bird (Pharomachrus mocinno, today an endangered species) which were used in ceremonial ornaments that would have changed the human body into a sort of a bird-man, mythic and venerated. A splendid example is the crown that was presumed to have been given by Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, to Cortez, and that today is preserved in Vienna in the Museum of Popular Traditions.
Together with feathers, also the shining wings of butterflies were used; besides these very delicate materials, the most frequent decorations were turquoise, shells and mother-of-pearl (Spondiylus pictorum) and, mostly by the Mochicas, emerald, lapis lazuli, amethyst and rock crystal. Hard stones and shells were often cut and used as inlay to depict mythological and symbolic figures inside particularly prestigious jewelry then mounted in gold, silver and copper.
Notwithstanding the legends linked to El Dorado, among Pre-Colombian jewelry it is very rare to find objects in pure gold; in fact, only an alloy of copper, silver and gold of low quality, called tumbaga, was used. The rose color given by copper to this alloy was disguised with a mise-en-coleur technique that involved treating the surface of the object with oxalic acid and then reheating it in order to melt the surface particles of the copper.
However, this trick was discovered by the Europeans only later, and the city of Cuzco was described like this by a visitor at the time: “…The walls were covered with sheets of gold, and in the stones used for their construction, niches were left to display all sorts of decorations, all in silver and gold. The reproduction of nature was so complete that even leaves and the small plants that grow on walls were not overlooked. Here and there were scattered about gold and silver lizards, butterflies, mice and snakes, so well-made and positioned that one has the impression of seeing them in all directions.”
A particularly widespread cult was that of the Sun, and to it were dedicated temples, always described with gold-covered walls, and rituals for which remain evidence in the chronicles of the time and in some splendid jewelry decorated with its symbology. Also made of gold were tumi, or crescent-shaped sacrificial knives, often of high quality and expressive force.
Among the most curious ceremonial objects are two small containers used to hold quicklime and coca leaves, which were used together to increase the hallucinogenic effects during sacred rites.
Besides the symbol of the sun, in Pre-Colombian jewelry one often finds stylized human figures, as in the case of the “human key” type, or more naturalistic, such as the splendid statues made by the Quimbaya depicting cacicchi-rulers; stylized animals such as serpents, felines, crocodiles, birds, fish, etc., and zoomorphic figures halfway between human and animal, such as the figure of Naym-Lap, the mythical first ruler of the Lambayeque civilization, also called the “Bird Man”.
The necklaces had beads of hard, polished stone or of gold in elongated cone shapes or hollow spheres.
The ornaments for the nose were generally large and crescent-shaped, whereas the earrings, often imposing, were of a flat, circular form like the discs in gold plate that were sewn onto fabrics. It was a belief of the Pre-Colombian peoples that piercing heightened the senses of the pierced body part: holes in the ear lobes to hear better, the hole in the nose and that of the lip to increase and highlight the importance of the word and, in the case of big nose rings, to hide the mouth in order to impede the entrance of evil spirits.
Of a moving beauty, at the end, are the funerary masks from the Chimù area, that were placed on the face of monarchs and holy men after death to protect them and make them immortal; they were made in gold plate, often colored with red ochre, with large priestly eyes from which flow many small emerald drops that, like a waterfall, simulate tears.

Dr. Bianca Cappello – Historian of Jewels

SOURCES (books and websites):
Anderson Black, trans. Francesco Sborgi, The History of Jewelry, Novara 1973
Luisa Faldini, Pre-Colombian Golds, Novara 1981
France Borel, Ethnos–Jewelry from Far-away Lands, Milano 1994
Archeo, year XV, number 11(177), November 1999, Rizzoli
The Museum of Gold in Bogota’
The Museum of Gold in Lima