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A History of Filigree

Filigree also known as filigrann or filigrane is from the Latin ‘Filum’ (thread), and ‘Granum’ (seed). Fine, thread-like wires of precious
metals are twisted, shaped and soldered into highly ornamental lacy designs.
The filigree design can also be built upon to create multi-layered
designs, such as flowers. Often, a piece of metal, or a wire frame,
is used to give substance to this delicate work.
Filigree is an ancient art form with a rich history from the Greeks
and Phoenicians to contemporary designs. This includes interpretations
of the art spanning the Byzantine, Renaissance, Edwardian and Art Nouveau eras. Filigree traditions and techniques represent many
styles including Yemenite, Turkish, Norwegian and Russian.

antique filigree candy bowl An antique
hancrafted
silver filigree
candy bowl
is made
in the
Macedonian
style.
     

ANCIENT ART FORM

This exquisite, lacy metal technique can be traced back 5000 years.
It is one of the oldest and most beautiful of art forms developed by
man.

Filigree is totally hand-crafted and requires hours of concentration.
The closely guarded craft was passed from generation to generation. Granular work, filigree and repoussé were all known and practiced
on the island of Crete by 2000 BC.

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In ornaments recovered from Phoenician sites, such as Cyprus and
Sardinia, patterns of gold wire are laid down with great delicacy
on a gold background. It is said that the art was advanced to its
highest perfection in the Greek and Etruscan filigree of the 6th
to the 3rd centuries BC.

There are a number of earrings and other personal ornaments,
in this style, found in central Italy that are preserved in the
Louvre and the British Museum. The Hermitage Museum in
St. Petersburg contains an amazingly rich collection of jewelry
from the tombs of the Crimea.

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Greek Filigree began to influence designs from about 323 BC
from Europe to India.When Alexander the Great brought his bounty
of gold and silver in from the Phoenicians, Egyptians and Persians;
filigree use began to grow not only to set stones, but in many other ornamental uses.
However, by 133AD, Rome had taken over the Greek Empire and the
Roman craftsmen used much simpler settings with their precious
stones so the elaborate wirework, again, fell out of fashion.

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ancient greek earrings

Above, is a set of ancient Greek earrings from the
Hellenistic Age (330-30 B.C.), crafted in gold.

 

ancient greek filigree bracelet

An ancient Greek gold filigree bracelet also from the
Hellenistic Age (330-30 B.C.).

INFLUENCE OF PHOENICIANS AND ETRUSCANS

The Phoenicians were know for trading gold and silver throughout the Mediterranean and also traveled to India dating back as far as 1000 BC.

They also spread their filigree designs and techniques. Many settled in southern Italy, integrating with the Etruscans; a civilization of the 7th century B.C. dedicated to the arts.

The Etruscan artists fused traditional geometric designs with the Phoenician's oriental influences of floral and figurative images.
They refined filigree to such an extraordinary degree that
their designs and techniques are still utilized by modern jewelers.

 

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ancient filigree jewelry

An example of gold filigree Phoenician jewelry.

BYZANTINE AND CHRISTIAN INFLUENCE

During the 4th century invasion of the Goths, (Dark Ages) of the
Roman Empire, filigree was lost and no longer passed down. But
the Christian Byzantine Empire had become a ‘repository of classical
learning, preserving the artistic heritage of the Greek and Roman artisans.’

Which meant that filigree was incorporated into monastic work
such as covers to scripture and icons. These holy objects were often encrusted with precious stones, filigree, granulation and cloisonné (enamel work), combined these techniques are impressive.

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byzantine icons

Examples of the elaborately adorned Byzantine Icons,
utilizing filigree, granulation and enamel work.

RENAISSANCE

The Italian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries found
craftsmen and artists bringing back the beauty of ancient Greece
and Rome and not was it communicated, through personal adornment
but in the eventual use of filigree beads and crosses in rosaries.
By the end of the 16th century, Venice saw a revival of fine
gold filigree beads, and semi-precious stones were more
often seen with filigree caps. During the Spanish Inquisition the
Jewish gold and silversmiths settled in North Africa and introduced filigree and cloisonné techniques to the craftsmen of the area.

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filigree rosary

A replica of a 15th century filigree rosary.

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND FILIGREE

In the 17th Century due to refined methods of faceting gems the emphasis moved once more from precious metals to gemstones,
and the diamond became the preferred item for jewelry.
The 18th Century brought with it industrial development and
mass production. Cheaper materials were utilized, in addition
to gold and semi-precious gemstones, including base-metal
alloys, paste to make imitation gemstones, steel and cast iron.
With these cheaper methods of production jewelry techniques
changed their emphasis from the artisans to less skilled
mechanical processes of stamping and cutting out patterns
and settings.

It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that Peter Carl Faberge, jeweler to the Russian Tsars, reintroduced an exacting
craftsmanship into jewelry design.

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filigree crab box

A handcrafted filigree crab box made for Catherine the Great, from a collection in The Heritage in St. Petersburg.

Filigree crab box, above, and Faberge egg photos from www.hermitagemuseum.org

EDWARDIAN AND ART NOUVEAU 19c INTO THE 20c

Faberge, master jeweler, revived the use of gold filigree. Filigree
again became very popular during the Edwardian period (late 1800s). Clothing and jewelry then moved into a vibrant new era called
Art Nouveau.

The fashionable passementerie (laces and trims) could now be
copied in fine metal wires for jewelry. This ornamental work is
also reflected in the work of Tiffany jewelers.
Tiffany designs were worn by such famous U.S. families as the
Astors, the Vanderbilts, Posts, Huttons and the Morgans.
Museums value Tiffany designs, which ranged from the Art
Nouveau period to Art Deco to today's modern styles.

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faberge egg It wasn't until
the end of the
19th century
that Peter
Faberge
reintroduced
an exacting craftsmanship
into jewelry
design.

YEMENITE FILIGREE

Yemenite jewelry is considered one of the oldest filigree styles
in the world. Filigree jewelry making was considered a respected profession among the Yemenite.

The jewelry has cultural as well as religious applications, and
many pieces of Judaica were made in filigree. The Yemenite
Jews worked primarily with silver, and occasionally with gold for
special requests.

The westernization of Yemen accelerated the decline of traditional
silver work via economic influences, new tools and methods. However, for best results, some detailed filigree elements are still done by hand using traditional methods.

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filigree menorah

A silver filigree Menorah done in the traditional Yeminite
style of filigree. Many pieces of Judaica were made in filigree.

NORWEGIAN FILIGREE

Norwegian filigree, or Sølje, is the traditional silver jewelry of
Norway. In ancient times the "spoons" (small gold oval decorative
dangles, seen in photo at far right) were meant to reflect the sun
and believed to protect the wearer.
In modern times traditional Norwegian Sølje is usually only worn
for special ocassions and often with traditional dress.
It is referred to as "costume silver" since it's often worn in this
manner.

Costume silver is worn on shirts, either at the collar and cuffs
or on the breast of the shirt itself. The "silver" includes everything
from shirt pins to different types of filigree brooches.

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Norwegian costume

Silver filigree pieces adorn a traditional Norwegian cotume.

filigree pin

A handmade solje brooch.

RUSSIAN FILIGREE

Filigree work was constructed in many countries and varied in form
and pattern. Filigree articles by Russian goldsmiths are known
by the smooth and delicate ornamental lines with mild curves of wire,
clearly defined ornaments and numerous designs within an individual object.
While excavating old Russian towns and village burial mounds, archaeologists have found articles dating back to the 9th century.

Objects decorated with filigree enamel in the Russian style were favorites for presentation both to the emperor, at the time of his coronation, and to visiting foreign dignitaries.

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russian filigree box

Russian filigree photos from www.hermitagemuseum.org

Russian filigree circular box

Russian filigree boxes from a collection at
The Hermitage.

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