Saturday, February 23, 2008

Goldstone and the Italian Monks?

Here's a good one for the bead lore category. I was reading someone's description of their goldstone jewelry item (thank you Monkey Girl, you find all the good links) and the story went like this:

Did you know that goldstone is made by Italian monks?
Hmmmm. I didn't think they had time -- I thought they were too busy making rosaries out of olive pits! So I did a little Googlesleuthing.

Wow! There is certainly plenty of goldstone lore out there. The first monk-related tale I located said that the little copper bits accidentally fell into the vat of molten glass. So what, a sloppy pig of a monk just happened to have a bowl of mushed up copper salts right next to the pot (leftovers maybe?), and his sloppy young assistant tripped and spilled it? Doubt it. As if they didn't do purposeful experiments back in the day.

And I Googled some more. Wikipedia says that goldstone was discovered by the Miotti family in 17th century Venice. 1626 to be precise. Aha!
Other tales say that it was discovered by monks seeking to make gold -- the alchemist monks. Now, there's a reasonable possibility. Apparently there were indeed monks (not necessarily from Italy), who sought to make gold. But this was long before 1626. In fact, the Cistercian Order officially banned gold-making experiments back in the 12th century. But alchemy was science in Europe until chemistry pretty much took over, around the same time the Miottis developed goldstone -- and were granted the exclusive license to it under Italian law.

Another silly story is that the formula for making goldstone was kept secret for centuries, until the Chinese discovered how to make it. Hmmm, OK. The goldstone we get nowadays is indeed made in China, according to Russ at Rings and Things.

Certainly, glassmaking secrets did help the Venetians (the Italian ones, not the ones from Venus -- kidding!) keep a monopoly on the glass trade all the way from the 12th century and beyond... Indeed, there were very harsh punishments for leaking the formulas and methods to foreigners. Members of the glassmaking families of Murano (the island outside the city proper where the glassmakers were moved to...) were not even allowed to leave without permission.

But leave they did. By the 17th century, several European cities had their own furnaces and their own expat Venetian masters of the glass. So the idea that China would somehow sneak in is a little far fetched. Besides, China has its own history of glassmaking, and stuff. And one little known fact is that Murano glassmaking techniques originated in 9th century Rome, thanks to Asian and Muslim influences. They'd been doing glass for awhile already.

Hey, I'm all for telling a good story -- it does help us hawk our wares. But let's just call goldstone a man-made chemical experiment that succeeded. Heck, the real story is every bit as interesting as the lore, IMHO. Here's a great link on the history of Murano glass, though I haven't found anything (yet) about the Miotti family.

So TTFN, off to Google... 8-)


  1. When I visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, I saw lots of goldstone snuff boxes that had been sent to China from Europe in the 1700s-1800s. My guess is that the Chinese learned about this material from the Europeans.

    Hope that helps,
    --Mary Johnson

  2. Wow, that is so interesting! What a neat experience to go there and see that, thanks Mary 8-)


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