Gold Rush Fever: The History of Gold Nugget Jewelry

Posted by Monica Pichler on

A black and white photo of three men and a woman stand by a trough where they are panning for gold in CaliforniaMen and women alike came to California to pan for gold. Photo taken in 1850 [Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, unknown author].

The landscape of the American West was forever changed with the discovery of two small gold nuggets in a Californian stream in 1848. As word spread, people across the country loaded up their belongings and began the trek to the West Coast, where they attempted (often futilely) to strike it rich and discover gold for themselves.

The California Gold Rush became world famous, and as a result, Victorians everywhere wanted to own an authentic gold nugget as a symbol of discovery, wealth, and power. A gold nugget is the purest form of gold in existence, and each piece was completely unique. Real gold nugget jewelry, however, was relatively rare as most nuggets were traded or melted down into a fine metal and not kept in their original form. For a nugget to become jewelry, the discoverer would have had to have enough that they would be fine parting with some for the purpose of jewelry. When they were parted with, gold nuggets were transformed into stickpins, earrings, pendants, or accents to larger pieces.

An antique Victorian 24k solid gold gold nugget pendant shown in hand

This fantastic natural 24-karat gold nugget is an amazing example of Victorian Gold Rush jewelry! This was originally a stickpin, which is a common form of jewelry gold nuggets were used in, and I had my jeweler convert it into a stunning and wearable pendant.

The love for gold nugget jewelry didn’t end as the initial Gold Rush subsided, however. Through the turn of the 20th century and well beyond, gold nugget and nugget-style pieces persisted. When real, pure nuggets were not available, alloyed gold, such as 14k, was melted and transformed into “nugget” shapes that visually resembled gold nugget jewelry. These pieces are also incredibly beautiful and desirable.

A vintage 14k yellow gold gold nugget style pendant with two chunky Old Mine Cut diamonds shown in hand

Above is a great example of a vintage, 20th-century version of gold nugget "new" style pendants. Although this is not a pure 24k gold nugget, it is crafted from 14k gold in a nugget "style." This piece is accented by two chunky Old Mine Cut diamonds!

I’ve been lucky to have a few gold nugget pieces in my shop over the years! Check out these pieces from my gold nugget archive below!

A group of 14k yellow gold and pure 24k gold gold nugget pendants with diamonds, shown in a hand
A group of incredible gold-nugget pendants! Some include pure 24k gold nuggets, others are gold-nugget style! All are stunning!
A selection of vintage and antique gold nugget rings, some with diamonds, some with emerald stones, shown worn on fingers on hand
Gold nugget jewelry includes amazing rings, as well! Look at these beauties I've sold in the past. These are all vintage, and some included diamonds and fine gemstones such as emerald!
So, what do you think of gold nugget jewelry? Do you have any in your collection?

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