Ottawa Goldsmith Continues in Ancient Tradition

July 29, 2015 Updated: August 1, 2015

At his workshop in the market area of Ottawa, goldsmith Albert J. Horton produces beautiful original designs by hand.

Working in gold, silver, and platinum among other metals, his pieces include important objets d’art such as wedding jewellery, rings, one-of-a-kind pendants and earrings that he signs with his initials, and simple jewellery such as the rock crystal and silver pendant he made for me.

Horton also repairs jewellery new and old. When I dropped by recently with some earrings needing repairs, he showed me an antique singing bird box he was working on. He turned on the mechanism with a tiny key and the little red bird began to twirl and sing.

Horton, originally from Guyana, follows in the footsteps of traditional jewellers. Some of the earliest hand-made jewellery was found in the Punic tombs of Sardinia when a trove of hand-wrought gold earrings was unearthed some years ago. The Greek diadem, circa 310 B.C., known as the myrtle wreath of Queen Meda (now on exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History), is an outstanding example of an ancient jeweller’s mastery of working with gold.

History of the Gemstone

It all started thousands of years ago when gemstones were thought to have mystic powers. It is interesting to note that jade was once considered to have great medicinal qualities. It was used as a general tonic and was swallowed shortly before death, the idea being that it would prevent decomposition of the body. The common belief today in the power of birthstones, or the wearing of a copper bracelet to protect against the pain of arthritis, comes from back then.

The natural pearl or Oriental pearl is the oldest gem known to mankind.

What is considered precious changes from one century to the next. The prophet Ezekial said that the robe of Hiram of Tyre (10th century B.C.) had every precious stone in it: “the sardius (probably carnelian), topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold.” It is thought the sapphire was really lapis lazuli and the carbuncles almandine garnets.

More recently, gems have been classified into various categories, including precious, semi-precious, and ornamental stones. Around l880 the following were considered precious stones: diamond, corundum, ruby, emerald, sapphire, amethyst, agate, aventurine, garnet, lapis lazuli, opal, topaz, and turquoise.

According to Horton, however, the term precious stone is now usually reserved for diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.

The natural pearl or Oriental pearl is the oldest gem known to mankind. It comes from a natural formation secreted around a grain of sand or other fine particle inside a mollusk. Until the 1920s, the natural pearl accounted for almost all jewellery sales, much like the diamond of today. The return of the pearl’s popularity, which had faded in the l960s, brought about huge growth in that industry, with sales of Japanese pearls and South Seas pearls skyrocketing.

However, because oyster beds are now polluted or depleted and divers are extremely hard to find, most pearls sold now are cultured pearls. It takes an X-ray to tell the difference, so cultured pearls are in demand.

It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the gemstone itself became more important than the setting. For many, however, hand-made settings remain desirable. The diamond-centred gold pendant Horton wears while working is a prime example of a piece made entirely by hand.

Horton’s workshop is at 47 Clarence Street, Suite 125. Email: albertjhorton@hotmail.com

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings and Doctor’s Review, among others. Email: hallett_susan@hotmail.com