The Cheapside Hoard: London´s Lost Jewels

Exibition at the Museum of London 11 October, 2013 to 27 April 2014


Review by Elisabeth Strack for the ICGL Newsletter No. 1, 2014.


In 1910, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, for centuries owner of properties along the once distinguished Cheapside street in London’s East End, decided to tear a number of buildings down. They were situated on 30-32 Cheapside, on the corner with Friday Street, not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral and they had been erected in 1667, after the Great Fire of 1666.


Fig. 1. The Emerald Watch Case. The case and the lid are probably cut from the same crystal, coming from the Muzo locality in Colombia. Length ca. 3cm. Courtesy: Museum of London.


When in June of 1912 the workmen started to excavate the cellars, they discovered a heap of jewellery that had evidently survived the Great Fire and the post-fire rebuilding. The workmen brought their findings for sale to a middleman, George Fabian Lawrence, who secured them for the London Museum that was to open only two years later at Stafford House, near St. James’s Palace. It was the location where the Cheapside Hoard, as it was named meanwhile, was shown to the public in March 1914. In 1976, nearly sixty years later and after many discussions on the issue of ownership, the Hoard became the possession of the Museum of London, with some items held by the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum (and some items may have disappeared on the way).

The present exhibition at the Museum of London, exactly 100 years after the first showing, is accompanied by a catalogue that provides insight into the historical background. The author of the catalogue and curator of the exhibition, Hazel Forsyth, explores the historical context of London’s gem and jewellery trade in the late 16th and early 17th centuries - the time window that is attributed to the making of the jewels in the hoard - publishing many facts for the first time.


In fact, the catalogue is more than just a catalogue, it is a thoroughly researched and highly competent scholarly work.

Around the year 1600, Cheapside was a principal thoroughfare of the city. Goldsmiths had a presence since the 14th century, with their Company Hall in Foster Lane (where it still is today). The company tried to keep an eye on business by concentrating as many goldsmiths as possible in a small area.


The hoard discovered at No. 30-32 is made up of nearly 500 pieces of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewelry (Elizabeth I. reigned from 1558 – 1603 and James I. from 1603-1625). They were either produced abroad or in London and may have made up the stock of a goldsmith. Ownership could never be proved. The treasure includes rings, brooches, pendants, chains and buttons, using different types of gemstones and enamelled gold settings, but also loose stones, beads, cameos, scent bottles, fan holders, crystal tankards and a salt cellar. The items represent luxury goods of the period, making use of colourful gemstones from all over the world.


The most outstanding examples are emeralds from Colombia. Apart from those used in rings with rosette settings, earrings and enamelled chains, three examples are extraordinary. First, a small emerald parrot cameo (ca. 1.8cm in length), second a lizard or salamander gold brooch (length ca. 4cm) with white enamel, set with emeralds and Indian table cut diamonds (Figure 2) and third the emerald-cased watch (length about 3cm) that makes use of a polished emerald crystal (Figure 1). It is not only the most spectacular item of the Cheapside Hoard but it is unique. There exists no comparable example worldwide.

Fig. 2. Salamander Brooch. Length ca. 4cm. Courtesy: Museum of London.
Fig. 2. Salamander Brooch. Length ca. 4cm. Courtesy: Museum of London.

Mining of Colombian emerald deposits by the Spanish had started only in the 1560s but soon the emeralds found their way through an international network of gem merchants to both the east (India) and to the European trading centres like Seville, Lisbon, Venice, Antwerp, Amsterdam and London. Most emeralds in the hoard were cut en cabochon and those of lower qualities have been foiled.

Other gemstones encountered are rubies from Burma and India, red spinels (termed ‘balas rubies’ at the time, those in the Cheapside treasure may have come from both the classical deposit in Afghanistan (now Tadjikistan) and from other localities) , sapphires, iolites, chrysoberyl cat’s-eyes and moonstones from Sri Lanka, almandine and hessonite garnets (the latter also from Sri Lanka), Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan, turquoise from Persia, opals from Hungary and amethysts and citrines of unknown origin. Often cut en cabochon, the hoard also includes facetted stones, both rose-cuts and briolettes and perfectly table-cut sapphires and citrines. The question of where they havebeen cut has not yet been resolved as it can also not be said with certainty where the jewels have been produced. Most of the gold, tested by the Goldsmith Company’s Assay Office, has a standard of 19.2 carats and corresponds to what was named the ‘Paris touch‘ while the official standard in London at the time was 22 carats.

Fig. 3. Ruby and diamond bow pendant. Most of the channel-set, table-cut diamonds are missing. Length ca. 5cm. Courtesy: Museum of London.
Fig. 3. Ruby and diamond bow pendant. Most of the channel-set, table-cut diamonds are missing. Length ca. 5cm. Courtesy: Museum of London.

All diamonds found in the hoard are table cuts (Figure 2 and Figure 3). The brilliant cut, although described by Benvenuto Cellini in 1568, was not yet used for smaller stones and all diamonds still originate from India. Other deposits had not yet been discovered.


Pearls, mainly small in size, seem to have been used as an element of decoration only, moreover many are missing. The latter may have to do with the burial of more than 300 years, as a large part of those pearls that are preserved show signs of decay. Others have survived in remarkably good conditions. This is true for the largest nearly round pearl of 11mm in a sapphire cameo pendant while the large baroque pearl of 21mm in a ship pin lacks beauty. The pearls may have come from traditional finding places in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea or the Strait of Manaar (between Ceylon and India) but they may also have come from South America where Christopher Columbus, on his third voyage in 1498, had discovered pearls in the hand of the natives at the coast of what is now Venezuela.

Fig. 4 Gold pendant set with cut and polished red and green pastes (glass). Length ca. 5.6cm. Courtesy: Museum of London.
Fig. 4 Gold pendant set with cut and polished red and green pastes (glass). Length ca. 5.6cm. Courtesy: Museum of London.


Besides Sevilla and Venice, London was a main trading place for pearls. Cameos are worth mentioning as they include antique Roman and Byzantine examples (made from agates, jasper, heliotrope, cornelian, lapis lazuli, amethyst and sapphire) and an agate cameo of Queen Elizabeth I. Moreover, the hoard includes foiled gemstones and fakes, for example imitations of ruby made of crackled and dyed rock crystal and red and green pastes. (Figure 4). This provides invaluable information for gemmologists while historians and goldsmiths can use the hoard as an equally invaluable source of information for jewelry styles and techniques at the turn of Tudor to Stuart London. The exhibition of 2013/2014 attracted great public attention, which showed itself by a veritable run of visitors that may make it nearly impossible to leisurely view the objects in detail.


I gratefully recall a visit in 2007, organised by the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, where a small group of participants was allowed to view Cheapside objects on a table.


Acknowledgements go to Hazel Forsyth for making the photographs available.


Catalogue: Hazel Forsyth, 2013, The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels. Museum of London, Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd., 272 pages.