Art Books Events London's Lost Jewels: Buried Treasure & The Scent of History

London's Lost Jewels: Buried Treasure & The Scent of History

10/14/13 15:34:00 (8 comments)

by: Suzy Nightingale


On the corner of Cheapside and Friday Street in the heart of London, it is June 18, 1912, and in the heat of a Midsummer's day a group of laborers are going about their normal work, continuing the demolishment of the derelict buildings that stood there. We can picture it all well enough, the dirt and grime, choking clouds of dust, the sweaty drudgery that for all our modern technology this kind of backbreaking manual labor links society back to ancient history, let alone to a hundred years or so ago. In a twist that suddenly jolts the scene from tedious reality to one seemingly pulled from a Hollywood movie, at some point during that day one of the navvies peers into the cellar their exertions have finally revealed, rubbing his eyes in disbelief as he struggles to contain his emotions, perhaps calling over his workmates to see exactly what they had uncovered.
 

Lurking in the darkness, some six feet below where they stand, is a vast pile of tangled, glittering, honest-to-goodness buried treasure. Mountains of shining gems, gleaming nests of gold chains, creamy caskets of pearl pendants—booty long hidden and for some mysterious reason never reclaimed. Oh, how easily we can picture this, too, the golden shimmer reflected back on their faces—we have seen Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Goonies, for goodness sake; we spent our childhoods destroying vegetable plots and knocking on walls to see if they led to secret passages and pestering our parents to go and check the attic for treasure "just one more time." Well, perhaps you didn't, but this was how I spent a large part of my summer holidays as a child, imagining I was the sole discoverer of a fabulous find such as this.


Among the wondrous rings, magnificent loops of enameled gold chains and tiny embroidered purses, there lay one of the most exquisitely executed pieces in the entire hoard—a minuscule perfume bottle richly studded with rubies, pink sapphires and diamonds. Dated between the 16th and 17th century, it is overlaid in white enamel and suspended on a gold chain, originally to have been hung from a long necklace or worn on a girdle from the waist in order to mask unpleasant odors. The sides are carefully set with opal plaques and intricately carved to resemble gently curving leaves. Such a piece could only have been made for an incredibly rich lady—for the ingredients used to make perfumes during the period were beyond the reach of the stinking masses, being rare and imported from distant lands. Remember that what we now consider the humble nutmeg would have cost a sailor an entire year's wages to purchase.
 

The allure of buried treasure never fades, that internal gasp of pure lust on glimpsing a mountainous pile of wonders as the eye slowly takes in the overwhelming immensity of it all. We can all too well imagine the thoughts of those workmen who, unbeknownst to them, had discovered the largest haul of Jacobean finery ever seen, the property of a 17th Century jeweler that had remained where he hid it for almost 300 years. Taking it to a local jeweler they knew, its authenticity was assured and a heap of what they first assumed must surely have been fake, was in fact the largest collection of Elizabethan and early Stuart jewelry in the world, a priceless cache of nearly 500 exquisite jewels, gemstones and precious objects that are now being displayed in their entirety for the first time since their discovery. The Museum of London have done a huge amount of research into the circumstances of the Hoard and how it came to be there, but for all their detective work they still haven't solved the compelling mystery of who exactly owned it and why it was never reclaimed.


With images of all this running through my mind, it was with trembling excitement that I gladly took up The Museum of London's invitation to an exclusive press preview of their latest exhibition—The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels. Running from now until April 27, 2014, this is a unique opportunity for people to see the Hoard up close and personal, a window into that momentous day in 1912 when that group of begrimed workmen first set their eyes on it. As I entered the darkened room, an artistic representation of an explosion of floorboards and the glittering gems beneath lights up a wall as I walk by, and then suddenly I am shoulder to shoulder with other journalists, transported to their childhoods with noses pressed against display cases, wide-eyed through huge magnifying glasses held aloft, the better to see the intricate details of the pieces. It's one of those places that somehow feels sacred, where you hold your breath and feel as though you could have been transported back through time, and if only you listened carefully enough, you might hear the swish of a heavy skirt brushing the floor, the jangle of the jewels on a fine lady as she passes you by. An essential element of this time travel is aided by the decadent yet faintly religious fragrance that fills the air ...
 

The Museum of London commissioned Roja Dove to reimagine what the perfume contained in such a beautiful bottle could have smelled like. Elpie Psalti, Exhibition Project Manager for The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels explained why the scent installation was so important to them: "We tasked master perfumer, Roja Dove, with recreating the perfume of Jacobean London. Inspired by the hoard's beautiful jeweled scent bottle, we bring our visitors nose to nose with the life and times of the hoard." Her colleague Hazel Forsyth, curator of the entire exhibition, continued: "Ever since it's unexplained discovery in June 1912, the Cheapside Hoard has been swathed in mystery, rich in questions that had been left unanswered for too long. Some of these questions concern the bejeweled scent bottle found amidst the Hoard. How was it used? Did it contain perfume? What may that perfume have smelt like? Our collaboration with Roja Dove has seen us add a further sensory dimension to our exhibition, recreating the perfume of Elizabethan and Early Stuart London for our visitors as they encounter the Cheapside Hoard for the very first time."


For his recreation of an authentic fragrance, Roja used geranium, rose, lavender and patchouli blended with clove, clary sage, vetiver, cedarwood, and oakmoss. Further enhanced by Tonka bean, coumarin, labdanum, beeswax, civet, benzoin and contemporary spices, all these ingredients were popular in perfumery and used in only the highest quality fragrances favored by those who could afford them. It was important to Roja to use materials that he knew were entirely correct for the period. "To capture the spirit of a Early Stuart England, it is essential to understand the tastes and attitudes towards perfume at this time. The only two scented floral materials indigenous to Britain were—and still are—lavender and rose, which were often joined with oils from various herbs."
 

"Throughout 17th Century England, scented powders were used in the hair, whilst floral waters were liberally doused on the skin to counteract bodily odor and some of the more unpleasant smells prevalent at the time. Complex fragrances also came into play at this time, continuing a trend made popular during the reign of Elizabeth I, who was herself a great perfume lover. Spices, musk and ambergris joined with exotic materials including frankincense and myrrh, through to the much-loved benzoin with its soft and rounded vanillic odor."

Together with rarely seen portraits of the period and incredible objects from the vast collection of the Museum of London, the treasure brings together emeralds from the mines of Colombia, Indian diamonds and pearls from Bahrain; the perfume wafts its way among the pools of light shining on the glass cases containing the Hoard. One can imagine tendrils of scented smoke escaping from the pierced wooden doorway the fragrance itself is hidden behind—though in fact it is soaked into a sea sponge, Roja revealed to me when I asked how the perfume was conveyed to visitors to the exhibition.

As we follow the guided tour around the exhibits, we come closer to the display case containing the perfume bottle I have so longed to see. On a wall immediately behind is a large screen showing close up images of the elaborate details, but on seeing the little bottle itself it is quite staggering to wonder at the craftsmanship needed to work on such a small object. Indeed, the act of smelling the perfume Roja has recreated almost feels like being Alice in Wonderland, reaching for the handle of a tiny door and pulling it towards you, leaning forward as though taking confession or a communion wafer. It is a brilliant idea and serves to make the the act of smelling the perfume even more special—it feels oddly humbling and personal, something I cannot quite put into words and only hope you get to experience for yourself.

Roja is quite obviously passionate about history and relished the opportunity of bringing a piece of history to life:

"I love that 17th Century London was such an important port of entry for exotic goods arriving from every corner of the known world. The idea that scent can re-connect moments in time with one drop and one breath utterly captivates me. And this is something that I kept in the back if my mind at all times when creating this fragrance. The result of blending the intoxicating fragrance of Tonka bean with that of rose and lavender and rich spices as formed an extremely distinctive, spicy and warm creation fit for the dazzling treasure trove that is the Cheapside Hoard."

Sadly, this wonderful evocation of decadent times long past will not be commercialized—it was created specifically to scent the exhibition and lend visitors an extra layer of understanding in their visit to the museum. Walking around the spotlit cabinets, agog at the gorgeousness within, I really felt the recreation of this 17th Century perfume tied the whole experience together in a way no object—no matter how glorious—can create. To be able to marvel at the beauty of the pieces on display is reason enough to visit this incredible exhibition, but to close your eyes and breathe in the scent of history itself is akin to sensory time travel. Just for a moment, for those few precious seconds, I was right there in the mysterious jeweler's workshop, uncapping my precious perfume bottle and delighting in its fragrance before stepping out into the bustling streets of London once more.

The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels is exhibited at The Museum of London, London EC2 and runs until April 27, 2014.

Phone: 0207-7001 9844
Website: museumoflondon.org.uk

 

Suzy Nightingale (Miss_Nightingale) is a perfume-obsessed writer from the UK who wore Chanel's Coco aged 10 and never looked back. After reviewing her fragrance collection for Fragrantica and receiving positive feedback from fellow members and editors alike, Suzy joined the Fragrantica team to be a UK correspondent.

Reporting on exclusive events, product launches, interviewing perfume makers and discovering brand new labels to enthuse about; she also manages a day job in the world of fashion, while blogging about style, beauty, historical snippets and the various trinkets that catch her eye.

 



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johngreenink
johngreenink

Fascinating article thanks! I think it's fitting that the scent created will only be for the exhibit - almost a reflection of the fleeting nature of perfume itself. Wonderful that you had a chance to see it, I hope to see it myself when next in London.

Oct
15
2013
rickyrebarco
rickyrebarco

Wonderful review. This sounds like an amazing exhibition- worth a trip to London just for this alone. Not to mention other perfume shopping...

Oct
15
2013
Alexandrarae
Alexandrarae

What a marvellous review Suzy - such wonderful history, a never to be forgotten experience for you and all those privileged to be able to attend the exhibition. Can just imagine how excited the people were who found this magnificent treasure. Thanks for sharing this with us. Warm Regards, Alexandrarae

Oct
15
2013
susanmsuk
susanmsuk

I must get to see this exhibition! I love the idea of Roja Dove creating a special fragrance to 'set the scene' for the exhibition. I wonder if that little perfume bottle was ever used? Was it created for a very rich client who never collected it? Was it used as a template to create other, similar, bottles? So many unanswered questions. I read that there were a number of jewellers who occupied that site during the Elizabethan and early Stuart period.

Oct
15
2013
ranchorita
ranchorita

I've been longing to get back to England soon, but this whets my appetite further still. Would that I could see this exquisite exhibition!

Oct
14
2013
wesleyhclark
wesleyhclark

The Museum of London is always worth visiting, but this puts it over the top!

Oct
14
2013
NebraskaLovesScent
NebraskaLovesScent

I love that the museum commissioned a fragrance to go with the Cheapside Hoard exhibit! It's certainly appropriate, given that a jeweled perfume bottle was one of the items found, but I think it would have been appropriate even if the bottle had not been there. I hope we'll see more museums choosing to add thematic aromas as another "layer" in an exhibit.

Thanks, Suzy!

Oct
14
2013
kikilove
kikilove

Wow. Fascinating. I want to go to London just to see this.

Oct
14
2013

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