In January of 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall spotted shimmering flecks in a riverbed at Sutter’s Mill. He tested them by pressing them against two rocks, discovered they were malleable, and realized, still in disbelief, that he’d found gold. “I’ve found it,” he said, holding the nuggets in his hand. Word quickly spread that there was gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. People rushed from all over the United States and abroad, and the sleepy mills and mountain villages quickly transformed into boomtowns. Over the next decade, 300,000 people arrived in California. Many left as empty-handed as when they arrived, while only a lucky few struck gold.
Jewelry from the Gold Rush Era is rare. Gold was used as currency, so most of what was discovered during this time was traded for horses, food, or property. Only the richest prospectors and merchants had enough gold to have it made into jewelry for their wives and families. In the rare instances when jewelry was created, nuggets were used as focal points, making them front and center in lavish necklaces, pendants, watch chains and the like. These pieces usually incorporate other Victorian elements that were used in jewelry during that time period. Occasionally, the gold is marked with a date, or even inscribed with a name or initials, passing down its history to future generations of wearers. Because there is little jewelry from the Gold Rush Era, it is special and highly sought after.
At the beginning of the gold rush, California was a lawless place. Not yet a state, there were few rules and little organization. Miners lived in tents and built wood-shanties, sometimes even living in deck cabins that were pulled off of wooden ships. Gambling, prostitution, parties, and dancing provided entertainment to the miners, who were now living on the outskirts of society, free from the normal restraints of their former lives. Though most of the miners were men, women often dressed up as men, using fake identities to gain the freedom to search for gold and live in the Wild West.
In 1896, the Alaskan Gold Rush took place in the Yukon Territory when prospectors discovered gold near the Klondike River. 100,000 people attempted to travel the Chilkoot Trails of White Pass, pulling their belongings behind them on sleds amidst harsh conditions, but less than half made it there alive.
Gold Nugget jewelry has retained popularity, and nuggets are commonly worn on necklaces, rings, earrings, and pendants as a beautiful display of gold in its natural, unaltered state. The free form dimensions are organic and poetic, highlighting the buttery gold and extraordinary crevices.
What is it that draws us to these gold nuggets? Is it their free form, which is untamed like the Wild West? Is it the story of the gold miners, determined to survive on the fringes of society? Or perhaps it is the origin of gold itself, which lays buried deep under water for eons, then finally surfaces from the depths of the Earth.
Kirtsen’s Corner has many pieces of gold nugget jewelry we are excited to share with you. Each piece is unique, as no two gold nuggets are alike in shape or size. We hope you’ll find a piece that speaks to you.