Working Group (2015)

Gems in Transit—Materials, Techniques, and Trade in the Early Modern Period

In the early modern period, as today, gems were the ultimate "hybrid objects." They played key roles in decorative art, global trade, and science and medicine. The aim of this Working Group was to connect the many roles of early modern gems by bringing together historians of different stripes who study gems as material objects. Participants considered practices—such as mineral collecting and gem appraisal—that combined two or more of these roles. They also traced the movement of gems and gem-related skills between communities of different kinds, including merchants, diamond-cutters, goldsmiths, natural philosophers, gem connoisseurs, and jewellery wearers. The Working Group covered the consumption as well as the production of gems and will pay particular attention to the movement of gems into Europe and around Europe.
This Working Group addressed three large questions about the early modern world: What role did artisans, and especially those concerned with the decorative arts, play in early modern science? What impact did newly-available foreign goods have on European culture in this period? And what was the place of "old luxuries," such as diamonds and rubies, in an age obsessed with "new luxuries" such as porcelain and painted cotton? It also covered a range of other topics that emerged naturally from a study of early modern gems, including theft, counterfeit, taste, and the definition of preciousness.

This Working Group was a collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Global History and Culture Centre at the University of Warwick.