Category Archive: Fashion & Style
Bao Bao Wan is one of China’s most successful jewelers, with her own line of haute joaillerie as well as a more accessible range. Although she is successful in her own right, with collections stocked worldwide in stores such as Harrods in London and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, the designer and socialite was born into power. Her grandfather was Wan Li, a vice-premier of China in the 1980s and a high-ranking member of the National People’s Congress, and she grew up within the confines of Zhongnanhai, the government compound in the former Imperial Gardens. Today, when Bao Bao (which, very aptly for a jeweler, means “treasure”) isn’t jetting between fashion shows in Paris, where she often takes her front-row place beside fashion giants like Bernard Arnault, and events such as the Met Gala in New York, she lives between Hong Kong, where her business is based, and Beijing. In 2016 she became the first St. Regis Connoisseur in China.
Given that you come from a political family, how did you become a jeweler?
My family were very supportive of whatever I wanted to do, which as a young woman was art and photography. Having studied French literature in Paris, then photography in New York, I went on to study gemology [at the Hong Kong branch of the Gemological Institute of America]. My studies rounded off my education, as I understand historical references as well as aesthetic ones when I’m making jewelry – and my Chinese background gives it soul.
Is there some jewelry that you never take off?
When I was younger, I used to wear small diamond earrings that my mother gave me. I left China at the age of 16 to go to New York and didn’t know anyone, and didn’t speak the language, so it was very difficult and very lonely. Wearing my mother’s earrings reminded me that I belonged somewhere. I stopped wearing them about a year ago, although they are still very precious – as is my mother. She is also creative, and is a great painter and calligrapher, and keeps me grounded. She comes from a very humble family, and reminds me of who I am, who my family are, and my roots, which are very important.
You’ve designed cufflinks for Dior, a car for Mercedes, a make-up line for MAC. Do you regard yourself as a designer or a jeweler?A jeweler, for sure. I love doing collaborations because it’s creative. So I didn’t just choose the color for the lipsticks, but the names. One MAC lipstick, which is a violet color, I called Lavender Jade; another I named Burmese Kiss. Doing projects like that is fun.
How would you describe your own style?
It depends what I’m doing and where I am. If I go to New York now it’s for some red-carpet event, like the Met Gala, so I’ll pack something fabulous. If I’m in London, I’ll go a bit more “elegant lady” and intellectual-looking. In China, with friends and family, I’ll be casual and sporty. In Hong Kong, it’s usually for business, so I’ll have a professional look. And when I go to Australia or Sydney it will be for a holiday, so I’ll take flip flops and shorts.
You once said that, as a girl, you thought of being a bus conductor “because they had extremely beautiful bags”! Do you remember your first handbag?
Yes, it was a Lady Dior, which I still use. I always go for classic bags, rather than the latest fashions. It’s the same with fashion: I still have some old dresses by [Maison] Margiela that I bought when I was studying in Paris. I’ll still take them out to admire them, even if I don’t wear them that often. A lot of great designs today are copies of yesterday’s, which is why I don’t follow trends. You realize after a while that you’ve seen it all before.
Any labels you love more than others?
Clothes made by the Chinese designer, and my friend, Huishan Zhang. He made the last dress I wore to the Met Gala: it was covered in 10,000 Swarovski crystals, and sequins and pearls.
Specific destinations in Beijing that you would recommend?
For fashion, a boutique called Joy, which has a mixture of western designers and local labels. For food, Temple Restaurant [TRB Hutong], which is in an old temple that’s hundreds of years old. And for a drink, the bar at The Georg [the restaurant at the showroom of Danish silversmith Georg Jensen], which is in a house in an old area of Beijing that has a beautiful courtyard, with a pretty fishpond planted with lotus flowers. It’s very soothing.
Do you have a strict beauty regime?
I do a lot of walking and biking and stretching, as well as Pilates, to keep in shape. When it comes to nutrition, I don’t eat many carbs. I like Asian food, which doesn’t have much dairy in it, or potatoes or cheese, so it’s light and healthy. In Beijing, I go jogging and biking quite a lot around the lakes in the royal parks. I don’t know what it is about water – it calms me down and is therapeutic.
You’re often featured on the covers of magazines. Do young women in China still read magazines? Or is technology changing that?
I won’t ever stop reading magazines, and I hope other people don’t either. I really love the feel of print. And I don’t want to have to look at a screen all the time.
Do you travel yourself to find stones for your jewelry?
Always. Stones are my real love. The problem with being a woman jeweler is that you fall in love with the stones and the pieces you make and get emotionally attached to them. I have quite a big collection of stones I can’t bear to let go. I’m very picky about what I buy – about the colors, the shapes, the brilliance – and if something is perfect, it’s pretty hard to sell. I love sapphires, emeralds, rubies, diamonds, but particularly alexandrite. It’s a stone that sometimes looks yellow, and sometimes white, depending on the light. It reflects different rays in different ways, which is so beautiful.
You’ve said: “I don’t want to put on jewelry so people just look at that – it has to be part of my life”. Could you explain what kind of jewelry you like now?
There are two types: red-carpet pieces, and effortless pieces that you can wear in the shower, to sleep in, when you’re jogging. A lot of actresses wear my jewelry whether they’re on the red carpet or working out. Our famous Chinese tennis player, Li Na [who won both the French Open and the Australian Open] was wearing my Gardens of Victory necklace when she won her biggest tournament.
Do you still get a thrill from fashion shows?
I prefer going to gemstone shows in places like Hong Kong and Basel and Thailand and Paris, and traveling to different countries to buy stones: Sri Lanka for sapphires or Burma for rubies. Some places are safer than others.
Do you like watches?
I’m not really into the mechanics of them. I wear a watch like I wear jewelry: for aesthetic reasons. All the ones I own are extravagant: for instance, one from Bulgari called the Serpenti 7 Coils, which looks like a long snake, and another from Chopard that’s set with emeralds. That’s unique: it’s the only one in the world, so it’s pretty precious.
Do you ever use a personal shopper or stylists?
No. I know exactly what I want, so I don’t need help. Although I don’t like shopping, so a personal shopper might save me time, so I could put more of myself into my work and my passions.
Many of the international brands today now have their bags and shoes and clothes made in China. Do you think the label “Made in China” no longer has connotations of being cheap?
For sure. If you look at labels like Huishan Zhang; his clothes are sold around the world alongside greats like Alaïa. My jewelry is sold at Harrods alongside Dior. So it’s changing quickly.
Tell me about the piece of jewelry you made for St. Regis.
The pin that I designed for butlers to wear on their lapel was inspired by the St. Regis hotel in New York. To me, it’s a very special place, not only because it’s unique and filled with American history but because it’s glamorous – even the cashier’s desk is beautiful. The swirl of gold on the edges of the pins reminded me of the gold you see on the elaborate door handles and on the arms of the chandeliers in the hotel; and the pearly white interior reminds me of the softness of the carpets and towels, which I love whenever I stay there.
Your address: The St. Regis Beijing
If John Varvatos had been a better musician he might never have become a fashion designer. “I was in a band as a teenager, but I just wasn’t good enough,” he says with disarming honesty. Thankfully, music’s loss was fashion’s gain. After stints at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, the designer set up his eponymous label in 2000, and quickly found a way to merge his two passions. Today, he is not just a leading name in menswear, but also one of the world’s foremost collectors of rock ’n’ roll memorabilia.
Varvatos grew up in Detroit, home of the Motown record label, yet it wasn’t just home-grown sounds that influenced him, but bands he heard on the radio, particularly the “British Invasion” – the Kinks, the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, all of whom have played an enduring role in his musical life. “I just got the Led Zeppelin Platinum record award for Led Zeppelin IV,” he says of the latest addition to his collection. “I also have a guitar signed by Led Zeppelin and gold albums given to me by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. If my office was on fire, those would be the first things I’d grab.”
Like all the best collectors, Varvatos never aspired to collecting for collecting’s sake. “I just started buying music I loved,” he shrugs. He now owns around 20,000 records. So many, in fact, that they’re everywhere – in his stores, in a dedicated storage unit, and taking pride of place at his newly built house in upstate New York. But it’s not just vinyl he covets; his real foray into serious collecting began with photography: notably a black-and-white shot of Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, taken by Jim Marshall. Hendrix is still a huge draw for Varvatos. “He’s my guy,”
Although Varvatos doesn’t like to think of himself as a collector – “I’m just a fan,” – he’s always on the lookout for the next thing. Recently he tried, and failed, to get “the jacket that Jimi Hendrix wore at the Fillmore East [the rock venue where the artist’s famous live album was recorded]”. That late-1960s, early ’70s influence – skinny trousers, tailored suits with tight fitted jackets, and plenty of black – is still part of the Varvatos style today and what first inspired his love of fashion. “I think it’s timeless,” he says. “A leather jacket, slim-fit jeans or trousers – it really could belong to any era.”
His advertising campaigns are also often fronted by musicians, the most recent featuring LA band Vintage Trouble. And he even has his own record label, John Varvatos Records, launched in 2014. “I still love discovering new music,” he says. “And sharing these discoveries with other music lovers.” His West 17th Street office (pictured), a large-windowed warehouse space that sits alongside his fashion showroom, is testament to this passion. It’s a room that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum or rock ’n’ roll hall of fame, given the panoply of gold and platinum records that line the walls, not to mention the guitars and music memorabilia that fill every available space.
With his collection spread across the globe, it would be easy to lose track of it all, something Varvatos admits can happen. But he doesn’t mind, he says, because then “you rediscover things”. He adds: “Even when I think I’ve seen and heard it all, there’s always so much more to discover, the deeper I dig.”
Your address: The St. Regis New York
When Argentinian polo player and St. Regis Connoisseur Nacho Figueras set about creating a 30-acre ranch outside Buenos Aires two years ago, his thoughts turned to Cuadra San Cristóbal, the iconic equestrian estate created in 1968 by the late, great Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán. “I have a thing for architecture,” says Figueras. “And I love San Cristóbal – in particular Barragán’s reflective pools.”
For architecture lovers, no visit to Mexico City is complete without a pilgrimage to Cuadra San Cristóbal. The famously pink-hued 7.5-acre property in the north of the capital has inspired artists, designers and architects for 50 years. In 2016, Louis Vuitton traveled there to a shoot an advertising campaign, mustering horses as extras; American fashion designer Michael Kors and shoe brand Nine West followed; and this spring, to coincide with the annual Zona Maco Art Fair, New York-based artist Sean Scully held an exhibition there.
That was the first time the compound had been used to host art, yet many see San Cristóbal as an artwork in itself, its brilliant pink, red and purple walls reflected in two sculptural pools. The creator of this masterpiece, architect Luis Barragán, was a strict catholic with a an equally strict aesthetic. He was also a horse lover, and San Cristóbal, with its delicate fountains, shaded courtyards and elegant stable blocks, has an almost spiritual aura. It was this feeling of calm and tranquility that Figueras wanted to recreate in his own stables.
Figueras, who had visited the Mexican estate many times, hired Argentinean architect Juan Ignacio Ramos to conjure up a striking modernist home for his 44 world-class polo ponies. “I wanted a place that was practical, yet as inspiring as an art museum,” he explains. And while it resembles a living sculpture, connected by concrete, pools and nature, the Figueras Polo Stables is, it should be stressed, also a fully functioning breeding center.
“Seeing our vision come true, and our beloved horses in a place that few could dream about, was a great moment,” says Figueras, who spent three years completing the ambitious project. Oblivious to the architectural pedigree of their elegant surroundings, his pampered beasts graze on a lush grass-topped roof and drink from sculptural pools before bedding down at night. “One of my favorite things to do is to sit on the stable roof at sunset with my friends and a bottle of wine,” Figueras adds. “When you’re up there, you forget about anywhere else.”
Ramos used a palette of exposed concrete and local hardwoods, which are weathering gracefully, while the tack room resembles a gallery space. Near the artfully displayed trophies, saddles and bridles, a monograph of Japanese architect Tadao Ando sits on a coffee table.
Ando is another of Figueras’ favorites and Cerro Pelon, the ranch he created for fashion designer Tom Ford in Santa Fe, was another source of inspiration. Less than a decade old, Cerro Pelon is now on the market for $75 million. In owning what is New Mexico’s most luxurious private property, its new buyer will possess 20,000 acres of untamed countryside, an Ando-designed ranch house and modernist stables for eight horses, plus indoor and outdoor riding tracks. There’s also a landing strip and hangar for a private plane, a reflecting pool, a tennis court, two guest houses and a home and office building for a ranch manager. A film set, Silverado Movie Town, built in 1985 as the set for Silverado and many a Western thereafter, is also part of the plot.
Stable blocks can make good homes for humans too. The no-frills template of these agricultural outbuildings – the lack of decorative detailing and an uncomplicated layout – lends itself to stylish, pared-back living. And such is the need for nature among our equine companions, there’s also the potential to go off-grid. Madrid architects Studio Ábaton converted a crumbling stone stable in the middle of nowhere in western Spain into a family home. Heating is provided by solar panels and the property relies on two nearby streams for its water. Limestone floors, concrete walls and iron beams coexist with well-worn stone and weather-beaten wood.
Similarly remote is Crackenback Stables in the Snowy Mountains of southeastern Australia. Sydney-based Casey Brown Architects redefined the classic corrugated shed to create a two-bedroom property with staff accommodation and stables for five horses. Wrapped in a shiny metal shell, its futuristic form has garnered countless design awards since it was completed in 2015. Meanwhile, on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, London-based Seth Stein Architects and local practice Watson Architecture + Design have teamed up to create an equally striking stable block using local rammed earth and Tasmanian oak. It seems that providing architecturally sophisticated shelters for our four-legged equine friends is a trend that’s here to stay.
Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City
“I started with watches. Then it was cars. Now it’s art,” says Nirav Modi. He’s describing his progression as a collector, which has resulted in the superb array of artworks that adorn the Mumbai headquarters of his eponymous jewelry brand. Having recently opened stores in London and Manhattan, Modi has turned the jewelry house he launched in 2010 into a globally recognized contemporary Indian luxury brand. Like his jewelry, which is produced entirely in Mumbai, his art was created almost entirely in India, spanning the century between India’s struggle for independence and its current status as an economic powerhouse.
Today, the jeweler owns about 500 pieces of art – some of which are hung in the oceanfront duplex he shares with his wife and three children, and others at their beach house in Alibag, where fashionable Bombayites head for the weekend. Most of the collection, though, is kept at the company’s offices (designed by his mother, an interior designer) and displayed in rotation. Apart, that is, from a few works that never leave his own office: a sculpture of brass cowpats by the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta; Boy With Lemons, a painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, the bold female artist of the Twenties and Thirties sometimes described as India’s Frida Kahlo; and a haunting photographic portrait of Sher-Gil taken by her nephew, Vivan Sundaram.
Having grown up in Antwerp, where his family were diamond dealers, and visited the museums of Rome, Paris and Brussels with his mother, Modi says he was attracted to art from a young age. Although at home, “dinner table conversation was all about diamonds: diamonds bought, diamonds sold, diamonds cut”, as a young man he became obsessed with other objects of beauty. His first passion was watches – beginning with one he just had to have. “I spent my first six months’ wages on an IWC perpetual calendar watch,” he recalls, followed by a series of extraordinarily complicated models, from fine watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour. After that, he discovered cars – “mostly British” – although living in Mumbai, he points out with a wry smile, you don’t really get the chance to make the most of a high-performance automobile.
It was only in the Nineties that he started to collect art. “As I was living in India,” he says, “I was most influenced by the Indian modern art I was seeing around me.” Today, Indian art from 1850 until 1970 makes up the core of his collection, which now encompasses something close to a complete canon of artists of that period, and some of its greatest masters. Like most serious collectors, though, for Modi there’s always something missing, something more to add – including, he says, “a masterpiece by Tyeb Mehta” (one of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group who gained international recognition in the Sixties and Seventies).
According to Mallika Advani, the former head of Christie’s in India who has been Modi’s art adviser for many years, the jeweler is “the dream collector. He knows what he wants and how to work the primary market, but he’s also very good at auction.” He also has, she explains, a passionate desire to acquire key pieces that he believes will enhance his collection, enough knowledge to know when to buy a piece and when to wait, and what he’s missed out on, so he can try and buy it later.
The choice to display the collection – and rotate the display – at the semi-public space of his offices rather than at home is a deliberate one, Modi explains. “Art inspires me. There are pieces I’ve had on walls for years and suddenly I notice a nuance, despite having seen the works day in, day out. This quality of art is fascinating. I wanted to create an environment where more people would have the opportunity to be immersed in it.”
Your address: The St. Regis Mumbai
A pair of matching Vespas is not the first thing you expect to find at the front door of one of Europe’s leading royal families. But, as the electric gates swing back to let me into the London townhouse of Prince Pavlos and Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, there, by the chic black-lacquered front door, stand two immaculate burgundy scooters: one for him and one for her.
If they were the property of any other young London couple, the bikes wouldn’t be of interest. But Pavlos, the Crown Prince of Greece, has connections to half the royals in Europe, with their golden carriages and bulletproof limousines, and his wife Marie-Chantal, the daughter of the DFS (Duty Free Shops) billionaire Robert Miller, is not unaccustomed to a life of personal chauffeurs and private planes. The fact that they whizz about the British capital on two wheels – posting Instagram photographs of themselves with their children on the back – tells you much of what you need to know about this most independent of royal couples.
As she leads me into the drawing room of their capacious Chelsea home, her petite frame clad in black J Brand jeans and a cream lace shirt, with Pierre Hardy pumps on her feet, it’s clear she’s no average princess. “Sorry about the cat,” she apologizes, removing a muddy-nosed creature from a cream chair and calling one of her five children to retrieve it. “It got stuck in a hole, and I haven’t had time to wash it yet.” The cat, though, is the only thing that’s not immaculate in the room. Cushions are artfully arranged on carefully placed sofas. Tight, round “trees” of single-color flowers adorn coffee tables. Photographs of the couple’s wedding – the biggest gathering of royals in London since the nuptials of Princess Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1947 – adorn a polished grand piano. And on three of the walls hang Andy Warhol paintings: one that the artist gave her as a gift on her school graduation, and two which she posed for as a 16-year-old intern at his Factory studio in New York.
Working for Warhol was “one of the best experiences I could ever have had”, she says. “It was so much fun. It was the 1980s and the art world was booming, and he’d have me do everything: mix paint, serve lunch, run errands, go with him to openings and exhibits, and hang out with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I can’t believe my parents let me, to be honest – although I did have a 10pm curfew.”
Sitting for Warhol came about by accident. “He said to me one day, ‘Scarlett, would you like to sit for me?’ I called myself Scarlett then – who knows why. I didn’t like Marie-Chantal. I was 16 and trying to invent myself. Maybe it was after Gone with the Wind – I can’t remember. So I sat for him. My father, thankfully, bought the works, which was a good investment.”
Three decades later, she not only appreciates the name Marie-Chantal, but has created an eponymous business from it: a luxury children’s clothing range that has grown from a small line in a single London store to an internationally recognizable brand sold in more than 30 countries worldwide. When she launched in 2001 in New York, where she has a home, “friends [including loyal followers such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt, Jessica Alba and Victoria Beckham] were very sweet and bought it. We did 18 options for girls, 12 for boys.” Today, she sells as many items online internationally as she does in her original store in the British capital.
“I think people crave the nostalgia of an old-fashioned childhood,” she says, praising the Duchess of Cambridge, whose wedding she attended, for helping to revive more traditional childrenswear. “They want gingham and stripes, and pretty dresses for girls, and beautifully cut classics for boys, whether they’re in a big city in Asia or on America’s East Coast. And lovely fabrics that aren’t scratchy and itchy.”
Her own mother, she says, has “immaculate taste” and bought only classical styles for her and her sisters, Alexandra von Fürstenberg (now a furniture designer) and Pia Getty (a filmmaker). “We lived in Hong Kong and she would take us to Europe to do our shopping for the year: toiles from Liberty,and kilts and cashmere from The Scotch House, in London; the remainder from Cacharel and Daniel Hechter in Paris.”
Even today, as a 48-year-old mother of five children, aged between nine and 21, Marie-Chantal still takes inspiration from her mother’s wardrobe – and borrows from it regularly. “She has great jackets and accessories, and some very good Chanel pieces. What’s funny is that Olympia [her 21-year-old daughter, currently studying photography in New York] is now borrowing my clothes. Our taste is multi-generational.”
Other than her mother, from whom she borrowed a navy Chanel couture suit to wear on the evening she met Prince Pavlos, the icons she was inspired by are all from a previous generation. “I know it’s a cliché, but it was women like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Jane Birkin, whose style you don’t see so much today. It’s much more diverse and creative now: girls are mixing street style with high fashion, and pieces from Zara or Topshop. They might buy a designer bag, but that’s it, whereas when I was young and living in Paris in the 1980s, you were loyal to one designer. Mine was Karl Lagerfeld, then Valentino, who made my wedding dress [a pearl-encrusted gown that was rumored to have cost $225,000] and who has since become a friend. I love the way they nurture clients. There’s a real friendship there.”
If she had to pick two women now whose style she admires, it would be Inès de la Fressange, Lagerfeld’s muse, “who has such classic elegance, she could wear white jeans and a white shirt and look fabulous”, and Lauren Santo Domingo, “who’s great at being experimental and carrying off new brands”, and who carries Marie-Chantal’s line on her Moda Operandi online boutique. And designers? “Peter Pilotto, Erdem, Emilia Wickstead and Michael Kors.”
As you might expect from someone who regularly appears on lists of the world’s best-dressed women, attending fashion shows and shopping are a key part of her daily life. “The problem is the internet!” she exclaims, rolling her eyes. “I love shopping online and there are so many great places: Matches, Mytheresa, Shopbop for its jeans and T-shirts, Farfetch, Amazon… I can’t remember the last time I went and browsed in a boutique. It just doesn’t happen any more.”
Being much the same size as she was when she married 22 years ago means she can mix classics from the 1980s with new things. She stays trim by going to the gym or cycling. “Plus, I haven’t eaten carbohydrates for years, or sugar. If you add up how much sugar is in a diet, what with fruit and veg, and cookies and desserts, it really adds up, so I stopped completely. I try to stop the kids having sugar, too, but it’s a nightmare. Even juices – you really have to read the labels. It’s all hidden. Everyone should watch Food, Inc. and That Sugar Film. Then they’d cut it out completely.”
Two things she believes in, however, are fresh air and a good beauty regime. “My dermatologist advocates a regime of scrub, wash and moisturize, plus vitamin C and glycolic acid,” she says. “And it works.” As for the fresh air, she gets plenty of that on the family estate in Yorkshire, in the north of England, where they go most weekends. “Growing up in Hong Kong, I dreamed of space. Being able to enjoy that now is wonderful. I’m a mix of urban and country, I think.”
As are her customers – in her four stores, online shop and sales points around the world. Surprisingly, she says, it’s in Asia that classic dressing has had a particular resurgence. “There, the little girl or boy really represents the family status, so it’s important to dress them well,” she says.
Advice to focus her business eastwards has come from a trusted source. Her father grew his DFS and Galleria brands by targeting the Japanese consumer of the 1970s. “Today, it’s the Chinese,” she says, “who love not just luxury but lots of different new brands. It’s growing there like nowhere else.”
But really, she says, wherever they are, people of all ages like to look good. “It’s important to make an effort,” she smiles. “People appreciate it. Like manners.” And with that she gets up to make me tea, like the mannerly princess she is.
Above: Princess Marie-Chantal in the elegant London abode she shares with Prince Pavlos and their family (photo: Julian Broad/Getty Images)
The art of decor
The couple’s home is filled with art, including paintings of herself by Warhol, and of her children (photo: Julian Broad/Getty Images)
Marie-Chantal’s spring/summer 2017 collection for children includes lightweight suits for boys and cool tweed dresses for girls, each beautifully cut
Princess Marie-Chantal photographed in the garden of her London townhouse with three of her five children, wearing clothes from their mother’s eponymous range
From the baking coastal deserts to the fertile terraces of the Sacred Valley, the sun was worshipped by almost all of Peru’s indigenous peoples. And when the Nazca, Salinar, Vicús, Chimú, Moche and Sipán cultures sought a physical expression of this vital power, they turned to their most precious metal: gold.
When I first visited Lima’s state-run Museo de Oro and the private Larco museum of Pre-Columbian art in Cuzco, my jaw dropped at the extraordinarily exquisite representations of animals, ceremonial clothing and bags, sculptured hands, ceremonial cups and Tumis (axes with semi-circular blades) and funerary masks. These masterpieces demonstrate how gold, for the nobility, played a role in every aspect of life and death.
This story was repeated across the Americas, from the Mayas in Mexico to the Muisca people of Colombia. When the conquistadors came knocking, much of the splendor was scattered. Some traveled to Spain and Europe, some went to the Pope. Many of the extant gold artworks and jewelry are now held in museums or kept in private collections.
This is what makes Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas – at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center and then in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – a unique event. The show will feature more than 300 works rarely or never-before seen in the United States from more than 50 international lenders, including treasures unearthed in recent excavations across the continent.
To understand the history of the Americas, you have to understand gold. The Museo de Oro has pieces dating from as early as 100 AD. In Cuzco, the Incas’ “navel of the world”, Atahualpa was said to possess a portable throne of 15-carat gold that weighed 183 pounds. For many of the pre-Incan cultures, gold and silver were the embodiment of a fundamental dualism of light and dark, male and female, night and day.
For the Incas, whose empire stretched from Ecuador to northern Argentina, gold was not merely beautiful and rare, it symbolized unearthly and uncanny power. Archaeologists believe the Inca road network served for ritual activities. The famous Machu Picchu citadel had multiple and overlapping functions, sacred and profane. The most stirring place at the site, for me, is a stone pillar known as the Intihuatana. The name, possibly given to it by Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, means “hitching post of the sun”. The Incas, using the stone as an astronomical clock, held ceremonies on the March and September equinoxes when the sun was directly above the pillar. The Inca knew our closest star provided them with crops, fire, life itself and they believed that gold in some way embodied this cosmic force. Whoever owned gold had harnessed the creative energy of the sun.
Bogotá’s famous Museo de Oro claims to be the largest collection of gold objects in the world. Representations of fishes and sea snails, decorative plates, surreal anthropomorphs and zoomorphs and a dazzling votive raft express the vivid imaginations and demonstrate the artisanal talents of the Muisca culture, which occupied the Andean highlands from as early as the 16th century BC right up to the Spanish conquest.
Europeans were mesmerized by gold, too. If Columbus’s main goal was a fast route to the Indies, this was because he was seeking spices, silks, and precious stones and metals. Hernán Cortés is said to have confessed, “We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.”
When Aztec ruler Montezuma made an offering of the precious metal to the invaders, believing them to be divine rather than dastardly, Cortés saw his chance. Much of the hoard was shipped to Europe, to become part of Spain’s imperial treasures, to pay debts, to be melted down, to be shipped on as patronage to the Pope. King Ferdinand of Spain required gold in order to fund further expeditions, to spread the word of God and to secure control over the vast new territories. Some was lost en route, plundered by pirates. In 1975, an octopus fisherman spied something glittering in shallow waters off Punta Gorda, near Veracruz on the Mexican Gulf. He dug into the sand with his free hand. The find, now known as the Fisherman’s Treasure, contained beautiful Aztec bracelets, pendants and ornaments, originally destined for Charles V but sunk en route. Some of these will be on show at Golden Kingdoms.
The search for gold would lead colonists and conquistadors to take terrible risks. Even in the deserts of Patagonia, Spanish explorers would, on hearing fantastical rumors told by natives, set off on epic, futile – often fatal – expeditions across the arid plains. Imaginary places like the City of the Caesars became the talk of coffee shops in Seville and Genoa, London and Paris.
The 20th century was not immune to gold fever. The recent film The Lost City of Z tells of British explorer, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett, who traveled to Brazil eight times between 1906 and 1925, searching for vestiges of an ancient civilization. Tales of lost Inca gold turn up perennially in newspapers – and, indeed, ancient sites are being discovered all the time (Golden Kingdoms, for instance, will showcase ornaments from Sipán, the richest unlooted tomb in the ancient Americas, found only in 1988).
All these possibilities are captured in the notion of El Dorado – the mythic Golden Man that segued from being a tribal chief associated with the Muisca to become a city, a kingdom and, ultimately, a lost empire. A few years ago, traveling through northern Brazil by bus, I woke to find we’d passed through a place called El Dorado during the night. It seemed fitting: to doze while passing through a place that has occupied so many dreams. Like all those conquistadors before me, I had to make do with the fiery glow of the dawn sun. Anyway, I rationalized, it was bound to have disappointed me. It was a small town, a nowhere place. There had to be dozens of humdrum El Dorados named after that futile, crazed illusion.
Then again, perhaps, buried a few inches beneath the ground, was a rusting chest containing a stash of gold that once lit up the faces of Incas or Amazonians, and lay waiting, shining in the dark, if only I could find it.
Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas is at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (getty.edu) from September 16, 2017, to January 28, 2018, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York metmuseum.org from February 27 to May 28, 2018.
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Above: Aztec serpent labret with articulated tongue
Above: Moche octopus frontlet
Above and below: artifacts from the Golden Kingdoms exhibition