A review of the glittering "Going for Gold" exhibition at Seattle Art Museum, which remains up through Nov. 17, 2013.

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Gold — glorious, lustrous, malleable and all too rare.

Coveted for thousands of years, it’s been crafted into the most valued symbols of wealth and royalty in societies across the globe. Seattle Art Museum’s new exhibition of gold treasures from its own collection, “Going for Gold,” brings together examples of the finest gold work from five continents dating back to the 16th century B.C.

Because of its unique physical and chemical properties, gold is adaptable to all kinds of shapes and forms. It can be hammered into sheets, suspended in a glaze, woven into cloth, sculpted, or poured into a mold. An ounce of gold fills one tablespoon, yet it can be pulled into a wire or thread 50 miles long. You’ll find examples of gold in all these forms in this exhibition.

Breathtaking fabrics woven or embroidered in gold thread adorn the gallery walls. The shimmering 18th-century kesa, modeled on the robe of Buddha and worn by Buddhist holy people, were made by taking gold threads and wrapping them around silk fibers to give the soft metal added strength. In other societies, paper served as the underpinning for the golden strands. There are Chinese and Italian fabrics embroidered in gold, Japanese cloth with gold filigree designs, and so much more.

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On entering the gallery you’ll be confronted with “Baroque Braque” (1987), a large sculpture by Howard Kottler, an internationally recognized ceramic artist who was a professor in the art department of the University of Washington. Inspired by Braque’s cubism, the piece is covered in a gold luster glaze so brilliant it overwhelms the viewer.

Of course, there is jewelry. Earrings from Mali made from thin sheets of decorated gold are designed to hang over the ear. Compare these massive (6 inches long and 3 inches wide) adornments with the highly patterned, cast-gold nose ring from pre-Columbian America.

There’s a Fabergé bookmark decorated with a delicate gold and jeweled flower twined down its length. Fabergé, goldsmith to the Czars, is also represented by a gold cigarette case whose lid is a checkerboard of yellow, rose and green gold. The rose color comes from alloying gold with copper. Green results from the proper mix of gold and silver.

Among the loveliest displayed items is a set of three baskets/bowls from Myanmar. Made of bamboo lacquered to a fine, smooth surface, the baskets have been decorated in gold leaf designs like that of our Art Deco style.

From 18th- or 19th-century Tibet comes a pure white conch shell trumpet with one side covered in gold embedded with precious jewels. Similar musical instruments are used in monasteries today to frighten away ghosts and to please the Buddha.

Co-curators Julie Emerson and Pam McClusky combed SAM’s vaults to create this small but sumptuous show. Many items have never been exhibited before. Like the lustrous metal itself, this is a rich exhibition that wears very well.

Nancy Worssam: ngworssam@gmail.com

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