A Famous Cache in All Its Splendor

New York Times, November 12, 2013

LONDON — For all its modern talk of transparency, the jewelry trade is an opaque business and always has been. The nature of the merchandise — small, valuable, easy to misrepresent and even easier to steal — necessitates a culture of discretion and secrecy. This may explain why, in London’s jewelry quarter almost four centuries ago, someone went to great lengths to conceal a very big secret.

Around 1650, a mystery person stashed a trove of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewels in a cellar beneath a tenement on the western end of a commercial street known as Cheapside — and never showed up to reclaim it. Scholars surmise that a jeweler may have buried his stock-in-trade for safekeeping before leaving to fight in the English Civil Wars of 1642 to 1651 .

A carnelian intaglio, engraved with the heraldic badge of Viscount Stafford, provides a clue: The title was awarded in 1640, meaning the valuables were hidden after that year. The cellar itself provides another: it belonged to a house that appears to have burned to the ground with the rest of the neighborhood in the Great Fire of 1666.

The gems stayed hidden until June 1912, when a worker on a demolition crew broke through the floorboards of 30-32 Cheapside and struck a wooden casket. To his astonishment, it contained a tangled mass of exotic gemstones, ancient cameos, enameled chains and golden trinkets.

Dubbed the Cheapside Hoard, the mysterious cache — much of it still caked with bits of earth — found its way to a pawnbroker and antiquities trader named George Fabian Lawrence, better known as Stony Jack, “the bloke at Wandsworth who buys old stones and bits of pottery,” as a laborer quoted by The Daily Herald described him.

Stony Jack recognized the historic significance of the find and brought it to the attention of Lewis Harcourt, then a government minister and trustee of the nascent London Museum, who was later raised to the peerage as the first Viscount Harcourt. Determined to secure the Hoard for the museum, which had not yet opened, Harcourt and the other trustees kept it secret for two years, placating officials from rival institutions with a few pieces from the collection in exchange for their complicity.

“It was museum politics at its most heightened,” said Sharon Ament, director of the Museum of London, which was reborn in 1968 when the London Museum merged with the Guildhall Museum. “Clearly, Viscount Harcourt was very canny. He knew he was looking at something truly spectacular.”

As of last month, thousands of visitors to what is now the Museum of London can say the same thing. At long last, the entire Hoard — about 500 pieces, including a beguiling salamander pin set with emerald cabochons, a fob watch encased in a hexagonal hunk of Colombian emerald and an enameled gold scent bottle encrusted with chalcedony, rubies, opals and diamonds — is on display for the first time in a much-anticipated exhibition running through April 27.

The parade of Elizabethan and Early Stuart finery is remarkable for the simple reason that it exists. Unlike most jewels from past centuries, which were dismantled and melted down when fashions changed or their owners needed a quick spot of cash, the pieces in the Hoard have improbably survived as singular testaments to life in London at a dynamic point in its history.

“What’s so romantic about Cheapside is that it was a meeting of worlds,” said Shaun Leane, a London jeweler who appears in a BBC documentary about the Hoard.

Before the neighborhood was razed by fire, it was the 17th-century equivalent of New York’s modern Diamond District: a hub of commerce, creativity and craftsmanship fueled by an influx of immigrant artisans working with extraordinary gem materials imported from around the globe.

In a richly detailed book that accompanies the exhibition, the curator, Hazel Forsyth, describes the Hoard as a time capsule from an era when British explorers sailed the high seas in search of exotic goods to bring back to Britannia: “Among these are emeralds from Colombia; heliodors from Brazil; chrysoberyls, spinels, moonstones, sapphires and iolites from Sri Lanka; rubies, chalcedony, diamonds and garnets from India; lapis lazuli and turquoise from Afghanistan, Iran and the Sinai Peninsula; peridots from the Red Sea island of Zebriget; malachite and azurite from Russia; and rock crystal and amber from Continental Europe.”

Alas, one gem gets short shrift: The Hoard once contained scores of pearls, but most deteriorated or disintegrated during their spell in the cellar.

Even more astonishing than the Hoard’s eclectic mix of materials, or the fact that its baubles have survived for centuries, is how little has changed in the industry that created them.