This October The Museum of London will be putting on an exhibition showcasing the world’s finest collection of Elizabethan and Early Stuart jewellery known as The Cheapside Hoard. The exhibition marks the first time the collection has been on show in its entirely since it was found deep under a cellar floor in London’s Cheapside over 100 years ago. Ahead of this much-anticipated event we met with the curator Hazel Forsyth who has dedicated the past year to studying the hoard in order to unravel some of the mystery that surrounds it. In doing so she explores the pivotal questions; who owned it, when and why was it was buried and why was it never reclaimed?

Why has the hoard gone relatively unstudied until now?

I really don’t know! Books on jewellery and the history of the period often reference the hoard but for some reason it hasn’t received the attention it deserves until now.

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What is the focus of the exhibition?

The Museum of London is a social history museum so our mission is to expose the human dimension behind the collection. As far as possible, the exhibition uncovers the personal stories of the jeweler, smuggler, patron or thief.  We have also been looking at London’s role in the international gem and jewellery trade during the period and tried to understand a little bit more about the processes and techniques used at the time.

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The date and reason for burial has been relatively hard to prove why is that?

We know from recent excavations that it was buried before the great fire of London in 1666 when all the buildings in Cheapside were destroyed. The goldsmiths would have had about three days to escape so it is possible that the treasures could have been buried at this time in order to keep them safe. However the mere fact that no one came back for them suggests that whoever buried them must have died and no one else knew they were there. There were only six recorded deaths from the fire so this makes it unlikely. 

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You have recently discovered a polished and engraved carnelian gem that has been a giant leap into solving some of the mystery surrounding the hoard. Tell us more about that.

It has gone largely unconsidered until now because it is small and chipped but it contains a swan on a wreath and a viscount’s coronet which has been vital to dating the collection. The heraldic badge that it depicts is that of Viscount Stafford who assumed the title after his marriage to Mary Stafford. He is the only person to have received that title in his family so the gem’s presence in the hoard tells us that it must have been buried after 1640 when he married.

What has it told you about the collection?

We still don’t know the answers but this connection with Stafford is fascinating because both he and his parents were gem collectors. They were a very prominent catholic family with good international connections as well as being connected with the court. It seems to me that it is possible, although I can’t prove it, that some of the classical gems and devotional jewels may have emanated from the Stafford-Arundel family. Certainly their estates were confiscated during the civil war and a lot of their jewellery collection was pawned and broken up. Therefore the likelihood is, that the hoard was buried during the Civil war period.

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Gemstones can determine a lot about the trading industry at the time. Are there any pieces that stand out as doing so?

Of all the jewels, the one that best captures the international trade links is the Salamander brooch. In this piece emeralds and diamonds have been combined in a very engaging way which shows the new and old world colliding.The fact that this piece was in a hoard in London shows that London was quite literally the crossroads of this international trade. We have been able to trace where in the world many of the gemstones have come from for example this one-of-a -kind watch that has been set into a large single hexagonal emerald crystal confirms links with Columbia.

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Enamel is a technique that is seen throughout the collection, sometimes covering the entire surface of the gold. Was that something that was really popular at the time?

It is difficult to know for sure because there isn’t really any other jewellery that has survived from this period to compare this hoard with although the evidence we have here would suggest that was very popular. Jewellery was sold by gold-weight which we know created all sorts of difficulties (with goldsmiths using enamel to make pieces heavier) because Shakespeare himself makes reference to this. Enamel by nature is a very delicate material so although a lot has been chipped, it is amazing that so much has survived.

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You have been working in collaboration with the Birmingham School of Jewellery and The Jewellery Industy and Innovation Center to create 3D models. What part will the models play in the exhibition?

New technology has allowed us to get a much better understanding of how the objects in the hoard were made. A combination of digital photography, lazer scans, CAD and 3D printing has enabled us to take pieces apart digitally and rebuild them to create replica models. One of the pieces we have focused on is a pendant that was not in terribly good condition as most of the pearls have gone. We have managed to create a series of models in wax, base metal and more recently 18ct gold and are currently sourcing some pearls so we can see how it would have looked originally. For the exhibition we will have three pieces made up with pearls that people can try them on.

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Jewellery is small scale and intricate; has it been a challenge to display the jewellery to its maximum potential?

The biggest challenge was trying to convert my colleagues ideas about the possibilities of display. A lot of the items were meant to be pendant so I was very anxious that we showed them the way they were designed to hang. Suspended on fishing line the pieces will be move slightly capturing the light in a way they would have done when worn. To contextualize the hoard we have used portraits and textiles from the period and provided magnify glasses for people to carry around. Lastly I did not want to have a linear route around the exhibition. The way we have designed it will allow people to please themselves where they go whenever something catches their eye. This level of interaction will really bring it alive.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewel, Museum of London, 11 October 2013 – 27 April 2014