The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques

The Art of Jewelry: There is something about jewelry that engages even the most Spartan of women. You can see the sparkle of the stone and the metal reflected in their eyes as they bend over the counter.  Because so much of the history of jewelry is tied up with culture and anthropology, innumerable craft techniques have sprung up around it because it is so desirable.  We’ve examined some in our recent blogs. Today, in the concluding one, we will look at a few more. 

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Embossing: The Art of Jewelry

Arguably producing the most exquisite of all jewelry, embossing is the process of creating designs on metal, which could be in relief (repousse) or sunken(chasing). Most objects combine the two techniques. The advantage is that contoured metal is more robust than flat metal, and therefore, thinner precious metal can be used, allowing for the economy.  

Chinese cup at the Met
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Dish from the Midenhall treasure.
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
The famous burial mask of King Tutankhamun on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. The 24 pound (11 kilogram) mask is made of gold, glass, and precious stones. The nemes headdress features a vulture, symbolizing sovereignty over Upper Egypt, and a cobra, symbolizing sovereignty over Lower Egypt.

The tools used are standard for both techniques.  Called punches, they are used to hammer the metal. Usually, the design is outlined both on the surface and reverse of the metal sheet. When beating from the reverse, the design created is in relief, called repousse.  And chasing is the opposite of repousse, using the hammer to depress the metal.

The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Beautiful design by Kutch silversmith Omeersi Mawjee
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Tools.
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Process.

I find it fascinating that embossing has existed as a decorative technique to fashion precious metal from 2500 BCE and continues unchanged in modern times.  There are outstanding examples from antiquity, and the technique continues in use by current designers.  

The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Contemporary work from the Middle East.
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Necklace by NMW designs.

Niello: The Art of Jewelry

Niello as a technique was first used in Egypt. Niello is a black powder, an amalgam of silver, copper, sulfur, and lead.  After designs are engraved on the metal surface, it is covered in Niello, and the whole is heated.  This melts the Niello, covering the engraved channels.  The piece is then finished and polished, removing excess Niello.  The beauty comes from the contrast of black against precious metal, mostly silver. 

Niello flourished in the Renaissance, used mainly for religious objects.  Sadly, it has become uncommon in current times, except in places like Thailand and India, where it is used for touristy trinkets.   The Bidri ware of India, though not Niello, depends on its appeal on the same contract between black and precious metal, though reversed. 

The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
A prayer box from Uzbekistan. Tesori Orientali.
Fuller brooch Anglo Saxon. British museum
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
A design for Niello
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Engraved niello ornament on a silver riza of the Eleusa icon in Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery
Thai bracelet.

Cameos: The Art of Jewelry

As a fan of Victorian literature, I personally love cameos, but they have a history beyond the Victorian era. It was practiced by Greece, Rome, and Egypt in ancient times, often with mythological or political themes.  It continued to be popular during the Renaissance, reaching a height during the 19th century.  

The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
A Roman cameo showing Jupiter. Wikipedia.
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
A 16th century cameo showing the Queen of Poland. The Met

Cameos are made by the process of bas relief carving on glass, shells, and hard stones like agate or onyx. Usually, one layer of carving is lower than the other, creating a design in two dimensions.  The designs can appear on brooches, rings, and necklaces.

Cameos continue to be popular in contemporary culture, influencing couture and incorporating modern themes in their designs.  The genuinely antique are also highly collectible, appearing in auctions regularly.  

The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Contemporary necklace. Vogue.
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Earrings by Liz Swig
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Ring by Lydia Courteille

Lost wax process: The Art of Jewelry Making

Like embossing, the lost wax process of making jewelry goes back 5000 years,  particularly in India.  A mold is created in wax, covered in clay, and sun-dried. It is then heated after making a hole in the clay, through which the hot wax drains out. Molten metal is poured in through the same spot, taking the shape of the original mold.  Once cool, the clay cover is removed, and the metal object polished and finished. 

The clay core. Picture from Sasha
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
The firing process. Picture from Sasha
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Cooling and breaking open. Picture from Sasha

The lost wax technique has been historically practiced in India, Mesopotamia, and Europe until the 18th century.  The famous Dhokra jewelry of E India uses the technique, as do the fine sculptures of the Chola period. 

The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
A necklace being polished
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
A Ganesha figurine
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Jewelry from Zola
The Art of Jewelry: Important Historical Techniques
Jewelry from Zola

Fortunately, and particularly in India, the lost wax process remains popular in jewelry-making traditions.

Worldwide, though jewelry sales remain on the up and up, mechanized processes are sadly overtaking the handmade, even in precious pieces.  There is beauty in the imperfection and individuality of handmade.  It is to be hoped that these historical craft forms will not vanish.  Designers will play an important part, as they alone can use craft in contemporary ways that appeal to the urban consumer.

AUTHOR BIO

Mira Gupta

Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury.  She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft.  She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.

Read more articles by the Author HERE

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