Plain gold chains rarely survive. They were either melted down to create new jewelry for rapidly changing fashions or sold when cash was needed. Many of those that have survived come from shipwrecks. Displayed in Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Key West are variants of this chain type recovered from the Spanish treasure ships, the Atocha and its sister ship the Santa Margarita, that sunk in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. Romantically called pirate’s gold, similar chains came from the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion in 1638 found near Manilla. Royal treasuries are another source for gold chains, such as those of the Wittelsbach family, the Dukes of West Pomerania, and the Dukes of Saxony. Few are ever available on the art market.
This long gold chain is composed of 126 oval-shaped links that have been interlocked and soldered together, arriving at a length of approximately 110 cm. (approximately three and a half feet). Each link is made of an oval, cylindrical form with a protruding wide central ridge.
Chains like this could be looped around the neck several times or worn off shoulder, and they appear in Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Marguerite Numan wears a remarkably similar chain in her donor portrait in the Haneton Triptych, painted c. 1520-1521 by Bernard van Orley (1487-1541) for the first secretary of the Grand Council of Emperor Charles V. Pictured with other luxury goods, a nautilus cup and a musk apple, warning of the transience of life, a comparable chain – this one with a suspended pendant – features in a Dutch Vanitas still-life painting by Pieter Claesz dated 1638.
For chains in shipwrecks, see Mathers et al 1990, pp. 185-242 and Mathewson 1986, pp. 113-115, as well as the exh. cat. La joyería Española 1998, no. 86. For chains in ducal
treasuries, see Stolleis/Himmelheber 1977, exh. cat. Princely Magnificence 1980, no. 125; and Nagel 2009. On chains in general, Cappellieri 2018, pp. 46-63.
European Private Collection