The Golden Ships Of Columbus
Streets Of Philadelphia
Every industry has its concentrations of activity. Jewelers Row in Philadelphia is one such intersection of commerce and creativity, a conjunction of showroom and workroom. The wares of these few city blocks may end up anywhere on the map, but the district itself is a very small world: on the day we visited, everyone knew that Antonio had gotten "the boats" out. A steady stream of people dropped by his studio to see them. After all, it had been a year and a half since the ships had last been out of the bank vault. It was an event.
The studio wasn't glamorous. The calendar on the wall said December (it was mid-summer). The worktable was littered with weights and tools, with scraps of gold, crucibles doubling as ashtrays. On one end of the studio stood a row of windows; on the other end, the ships. The side of the room with the ships was brighter. The sunlight, in fact, looked downright drab in comparison. The ships seemed not to merely catch light but to emit it, like a light source. Antonio handled them with the greatest care - as if they were sleeping and might wake up. We never held them: he didn't offer it, and we didn't ask.
Such A Cost
Goldsmithing is not like most activities - you can't just do it anytime. First, you've got to have the gold. Antonio insisted on ships of solid gold and platinum. There is no other material except these two precious metals to be found on any of the works, not even in the solder. For nearly two decades, Antonio knew he wanted to build Columbus's ships in gold, but the sheer expense stopped him. The approach of the voyage's 500th anniversary, however, made Antonio's plan just timely enough, and in the late 1980s he found enough investors to finance the project. There were two major expenses - the precious metal itself, and the unpaid time that Antonio would be foregoing other work to concentrate on the ships. He estimated that the job would take him a year and a half. It took him much longer...
The Perfect Man For The Job
In Madrid, where Antonio was born, there are pine trees with unusually thick bark; as a child, he would hollow out a small section of this bark and work it into the shape of a boat. If it proved unseaworthy in the family tub, he added a washer off a seltzer bottle's top for ballast. Antonio would have most likely become an auto mechanic, like his father, but was instead apprenticed to a jeweler. He brought his goldsmithing skills to Philadelphia's famed Jewelers Row, where his unique designs - intricate yet controlled - made him a sought after creator of custom rings, pendants, and bracelets. But through the years, Antonio continued to build boats as well - wooden replicas of historic vessels, remarkable for their attention to detail and faithfulness to actual ship design. A master of two disparate crafts, Antonio united his talents to create the Golden Ships of Columbus.
The ships' construction was preceded by a year of preparatory work. During that time, Antonio had studied his blueprint...and concluded that he didn't have the tools. In fact, no one did - they didn't exist. This is one of the hazards of being the first: no one had ever attempted such a project. Now, Antonio is of course a goldsmith, but in a broader sense he is a designer, so he took it upon himself to custom design the tools he needed. For example, he created a hammer with a hook-shaped head - a hammer, in effect, that could hammer around a corner - to work the surface within the curved interior of the hull.
Antonio needed to create an incision running the length of a section of hollow gold wire. The wire would be fitted to the edges of the ships' sails, somewhat like a frame. Only the narrowest cut was required, just enough for the wire to grasp the edge of the paper-thin sail like a tightly shut mouth. For this shallowest of incisions, a lathe capable of minute movement and great steadiness was required. Antonio's design (left) included a few two-by-fours, a fishing rod, a door hinge, and the transmission from a vacuum cleaner. From such items, he fashioned a high-precision instrument. The one-of-a-kind lathe was also used to cut the ships' hulls: their curvature made a smooth cut especially difficult, but the sensitive, floating arm of Antonio's lathe followed the hulls' curves perfectly.
Finding Your Strength
Before proceeding with construction, Antonio went through a "dry run," using brass. Brass isn't necessarily any easier to work with, but it's a good deal less expensive. Antonio built brass versions of the ships' various pieces, including all three hulls. The hulls are the foundations of the ships, the largest pieces and the most difficult to build. Their difficulty lay in their curvature. Antonio heated these large pieces of gold again and again, gradually working them into the properly curved form. Because the gold became more and more vulnerable as he progressed, he only had so much room to work with; the heat should make the metal bendable, after all, not melt it. Overdo the heat and suddenly you're no longer smithing, you're minting
Construction began in 1989. The first ship to be built was the largest - the flagship, the Santa Maria. He knew it would require the most time. This was partly because of the ship's intricate detail. But more importantly, as the first to be built, it would reveal the project's difficulties. The solutions could be applied to the other, smaller ships, which could then be built more quickly. Starting in on the Santa Maria must have been as daunting as it was exciting: Antonio knew that an awesome job lay ahead of him. It turned out to be far more difficult than he could have ever guessed.
Home At Last
The quincentennial came and went. Antonio pressed on. When he finally looked up from his work, he found that four years had gone by since construction had begun. In that time, he had taken on no other work. Often he stayed at home, where he worked six days a week. (Long days - in estimating the cost of labor, the appraisal sets the figure at 9,750 hours.) From the beginning, he had held an image in his mind of what the ships would look like finished. There were no surprises in their construction: they represent a complete follow-through on conception, the pure transformation of thought into object. So it was no decision when Antonio declared the ships "done" - it was a simple recognition that all was in place. There was nothing left to do.
Antonio took his cues from ship design, not model ship design. This is crucial to an understanding of his work. From the Spanish government, Antonio acquired the blueprints for a reconstruction of Columbus's three ships. Scaled down to a 1-62 scale, the golden ships would correspond exactly to the proportions of the actual ships. The Santa Maria, Columbus's flagship, was a nao-Old Spanish for a large ship-meaning it was for cargo, not exploration. A wide-bodied, somewhat slow craft, its very size nonetheless gave it a sort of grandness. At any rate, it rose to the occasion. It is perhaps the single most famous ship in the history of sailing.
One of the more ingenious touches in the original Santa Maria's design was the main sail's attachment to the mast. This ring-shaped harness holding the boom to the main mast was hollow inside and filled with metal balls that allowed easy movement up and down the mast. Though the sails on these reproductions are of platinum and, thus, frozen in mid-billow, their creator nonetheless remained true to the blueprints and recreated this unusual mechanism. This epitomizes the care with which the Golden Ships of Columbus were made.
The Santa Maria wears its crow's nest like a crown. It was certainly a crowning achievement in Antonio's reconstruction of the ship. He built the crow's nest so that it could simply screw onto the top of the main mast. But due to the intricacy-and sheer number-of ropes running through the crow's nest, he could accomplish this only by carefully rotating the entire ship-sort of like turning a whole house to screw in a light bulb. Working in miniature has its own difficulties, and in many ways Antonio's ships were harder to build than Columbus's.
The Pinta was a caravel, smaller and sleeker than the Santa Maria, with a good deal less superstructure, making it the faster boat. Faithful to each ship's design, however, Antonio accounted for more than their basic structures. There was the delicacy of the flags and pennants flying over each ship - and the intricacy of the endless lengths of rope. All the ships' ropes were doubled for thickness and then braided, so they required enormous lengths of gold. The Pinta, for example, has 142 feet of gold rope onboard.
As Luck Would Have It
In the case of the flags, luck stepped in. Each boat has one white and two tri-color flags on board. Antonio insisted on using only gold and platinum on his ships, so it was a happy coincidence that Spain's colors were red, yellow, and white. These colors could be recreated in red and yellow gold and white platinum. The surfaces of the tri-colored flags appear seamless, as though cut from a single sheet of metal. In fact, they are four separate pieces expertly joined together as one. It is because of small miracles like this that Antonio's work is incomparable.
More Than Meets The Eye
All the pieces actually holding the ships together - all the pins, nuts, and bolts - are hidden. This makes the ships more attractive, but doubly difficult to construct. The Pinta has 61 pulleys - a considerable number in itself - made up of 262 separate pieces. In all, the Pinta has 1,062 pieces, and the Santa Maria, nearly 1,300. Most of these pieces will never be seen by anyone - except, of course, the artist who put it all together. Trust us: they're there.
Down To The Last Detail
The golden ships duplicate the original ships not only in their basic designs but in all accoutrements, as well. The Nina and Pinta, for instance, carried lifeboats - so do Antonio's reproductions. Vents, anchors, flags, pulleys, cannons, ladders, water barrels, and bilge pumps, even the door handle to the captain's cabin can be found onboard. Everything, in fact, but the crew.
A Defining Difference
Like the Pinta, the Nina was a caravel. Its most striking feature was its lateen sail. Where the other ships had mostly rectangular sails, The Nina's lateen sails were triangular. During the voyage, the Nina reverted to conventional sails, but Antonio has kept the beautiful lateen sails, making this smallest of the three ships especially distinct.
Gold and platinum have different melting points. This was an important consideration when attaching the gold crosses to the platinum sails. The added instability of different melting points made an already taxing procedure even more difficult. Each sail is less than half a millimeter thick; and because platinum, the purer metal, flexes less than 18K gold under heat, Antonio feared that the cross might pass through the paper-thin sail. The procedure required the utmost care - and then had to be repeated seven times, each sail as vulnerable as the last.
Like Nothing Else
Among art objects, Antonio's ships are utterly unique. Nothing else like them exists. To assess the ships' value, some sort of comparison was necessary; the only example the appraiser could find was an arcane art form, the nef. Nefs were small sailboats, crafted in silver, used as table ornaments. But nefs lack the detail of Antonio's ships, as well as that painstaking adherence to properly proportioned ship design. Besides which, the nef disappeared as an art form hundreds of years ago. We ask of a work of art that it be singular; the Golden Ships of Columbus deliver on that promise.
Half labor of love and half terrible struggle, building the Golden Ships of Columbus is not, one would think, something to be repeated. But, on the contrary, Antonio is upping the ante. His next project, the U.S.S. Constitution, is, if anything, an even more demanding task. Its vast network of sails will be unlike anything ever attempted in gold - and platinum-smithing. The proposed length: one meter. This American frigate will require more than three times the gold and platinum of the other three ships combined. Describing it to us, Antonio held his hands out, as though it were already there. "I can't wait to do it," he said. "I can already see it."
Hasta La Vista
In the end, Antonio fastened the ships into their carrying cases - which he sheathed in cardboard boxes, to make them look less conspicuous on the street - and in a sudden downpour he walked them back to the bank. In Philadelphia, some cops still walk their beats; Antonio found an officer and asked him to make the two-block trip with him, just in case.
The Golden Ships of Columbus are a one-of-a-kind world-class work of art, and this is a purchase few are in the position to even consider. It's our hope that Antonio's ships will finally find their final port.
18" in length
16.25" in height
13.75" in length
15 1/8" in height
3.25" in width*
16.5" in height
10.5" in length
2.75" in width*
It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Antonio Gonzalez, the master goldsmith and creator of the Golden Ships of Columbus. Antonio passed on July 25, 2005 after a protracted illness.
Over view of Project
The Golden Ships of Columbus
Crafted over a four-year period by master goldsmith Antonio Gonzalez, the Golden Ships of Columbus are unlike any other work of art in the world. Antonio worked from actual ship blueprints, using only platinum and 18 kt gold. It required a lifetime's expertise, and the sacrifice of any normal existence, for the artist to realize his project.