1902 Encyclopedia > Filigree


FILIGREE, formerly written filigrain or filigrane (the Italian filigrana, Fr. filigrane, Span, filigrana, Germ. Drahtgeflecht), jewel work of a delicate kind made with threads and beads usually of gold and silver. The com-pound word from the Latin filum, thread, and granum, grain, is not found in Ducange, and is indeed of modern origin. Though filigree has become a special branch of jewel work in modern times it was anciently part of the ordinary work of the jeweller. Signor Castellani states, in his lecture on " Antique Jewellery," that all the jewel-lery of the Etruscans and Greeks was made by soldering together wires and grains or minute plates of gold rather than by hammering or stamping the precious metals in dies, The art may be said to consist in curling, twisting, and plaiting fine pliable threads of metal, and uniting them at their points of contact with gold or silver solder and borax, by the help of the blow-pipe. Small grains or beads of the same metals are often set in the eyes of volutes, on the junctions, or at intervals at which they will set off the wire work effectively. The more delicate work is generally protected by framework of stouter wire. Brooches, crosses, earrings, and other personal ornaments of modern filigree are generally surrounded and subdivided by bands of square or flat metal, giving consistency to the filling up, which would not otherwise keep its proper shape.

Probably the oldest existing jewel work is that which has been found by Belzoni, Wilkinson, Mariette, and other Egyptian discoverers in the tombs of Thebes and other places. Filigree forms an important feature of the orna-mentation. Amongst the jewellery now in the British Museum, and in the Louvre in Paris, are examples of the round plaited gold chains of fine wire, such as are still made by the filigree workers of India, and known as Trichinopoly chains. From some of these are hung smaller chains of finer wire with minute fishes and other pendants fastened to them. Most of the rings found in these collections are whipped with gold wire soldered to the hoop. The Greek and Etruscan filigree of about 3000 years ago is of extra-ordinary fineness and very perfect execution. A number of earrings and other personal ornaments found in Central Italy are preserved in the Campana collection of the Louvre and amongst the gems of the British Museum. Almost all of them are made of filigree work. Some ear-rings are in the form of flowers of geometric design, bordered by one or more rims each made up of minute volutes of gold wire, and this kind of ornament is varied by slight differences in the way of disposing the number or arrange-ment of the volutes. But the feathers and petals of modern Italian filigree are not seen in these ancient designs. In many earrings chains hang from the upper part, and tiny birds, such as doves or peacocks covered with enamel, are set amongst these hanging ornaments. Other Etruscan earrings are short tubes of gold, half or three-quarters of an inch long by half an inch or less in diameter, with a plate of gold attached to the side, and the whole surface covered with filigree soldered on in minute patterns. Many rings resemble fishes with the tails in their mouths, made up of thin plates of gold and wire work of the same metal. A beautiful collection of antique examples of Greek jewellery found in the Chersonese and along the coast of Asia Minor was placed, before the Crimean war, in a museum at Kerteh. Many bracelets and necklaces in that collection are made of twisted wire, some in as many as seven rows of plaiting, with clasps in the shape of heads of animals of beaten worL. Others are strings of large beads of gold, with grains of gold, or with volutes and knots of wire soldered over the surfaces. (See the Bosphore Cimmerien, in which will be found careful engravings of these objects.) In the British Museum a sceptre, pro-bably that of a Greek priestess, is covered with plaited and netted gold wire, finished with a sort of Corinthian capital and a boss of green glass.

It is probable that in India and various parts of central Asia filigree has been worked from the most remote period without any change in the designs. Whether the Asiatic jewellers were influenced by the Greeks settled on that continent, or merely trained under traditions held in common with them, it is certain that the Indian filigree workers retain the same patterns as those of the ancient Greeks, and work them in the same way, down to the present day. Wandering workmen are given so much gold, coined or rough, which is weighed, heated in a pau of charcoal, beaten into wire, and then worked in the courtyard or verandah of the employer's house according to the designs of the artist, who weighs the complete work on restoring it and is paid at a specified rate for his labour. Very fine grains or beads and spines of gold, scarcely thicker than coarse hair, projecting from plates of gold are methods of ornamentation still used. This work requires the utmost delicacy of hand to execute, and is of extra-ordinary richness of effect. Signor Castellani, the modern Cellini of Italy, who has made the antique filigree work of the Etruscans and Greeks his special study, found it for a long time impossible to revive this particular process of delicate soldering ; but the difficulty has been overcome at last.

Passing to later times we may notice in many collec-tions of mediaeval jewel work (such as that in the South Kensington Museum) reliquaries, covers for the gospels, &c, made either in Constantinople from the 6th to the 12 th centuries, or in monasteries in Europe, in which Byzantine goldsmiths' work was studied and imitated. These objects, besides being enriched with precious stones, polished, but not cut into facets, and with enamel, are often decorated with filigree. Large surfaces of gold are sometimes covered with scrolls of filigree soldered on; and corner pieces of the borders of book covers, or the panels of reliquaries, are not unfrequently made up of complicated pieces of plaited work alternating with spaces encrusted with enamel. Byzantine filigree work occasionally has small stones set amongst the curves or knots. Examples of such decoration can be seen in the South Kensington and British Museums.

In the north of Europe the Saxons, Britons, and Celts were from an early period skilful in several kinds of gold-smiths' work. As early as the middle of the 5th century the brooches and other personal ornaments of the " Littus Saxonicum " in England were encrusted with enamel, often set in bands of pure gold, and the enamel work varied with borders or centres of filigree.

The Irish filigree work is more thoughtful in design and more varied in pattern than that of any period or country that could be named. It reached its highest perfection, according to Dr Petrie, in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Boyal Irish Academy in Dublin contains a number of reliquaries and personal jewels, of which filigree is the general and most remarkable ornament. The "Tara" brooch has been copied and imitated, and the shape and decoration of it are well known. Instead of fine curls or volutes of gold thread, the Irish filigree is varied by numerous designs in which one thread can be traced through curious knots and complications, which, disposed over large sur-faces, balance one another, but always with special varieties and arrangements difficult to trace with the eye. The long thread appears and disappears without breach of con-tinuity, the two ends generally worked into the head and the tail of a serpent or a monster. The reliquary contain-ing the " Bell of St Patrick " is covered with knotted work in many varieties. A two-handled chalice, called the " Ardagh cup," found near Limerick a few years since, has belts, bosses at the junctions of the handles, and the whole lining of the foot ornamented with work of this kind of extraordinary fineness. The late Lord Dunraven (Boyal Irish Academy Trans., vol. xxiv.) numbers forty varieties of pattern on this cup alone. Some are the Greek fret with Celtic varieties, spiral trumpet-shaped lines, interlaced bands, knots, and arabesques, all in several varieties.

Much of the mediaeval jewel work all over Europe down to the 15th century, on reliquaries, crosses, croziers, and other ecclesiastical goldsmiths' work, is set off with bosses and borders of filigree, Filigree work in silver was prac-tised by the Moors of Spain during the Middle Ages with great skill, and was introduced by them and established all over the Peninsula, where silver filigree jewellery of delicate and artistic design is still made in considerable quantities. The manufacture spread over the Balearic Islands, and among the populations that border the Mediterranean. It is still made all over Italy, and in Albania, the Ionian Islands, and many other parts of Greece. That of the Greeks is sometimes on a large scale, with several thicknesses of wires alternating with larger and smaller bosses and beads, sometimes set with turquoises, &c, and mounted on con-vex plates, making rich ornamental headpieces, belts, and breast ornaments. Filigree silver buttons of wire work and small bosses are worn by the peasants in most of the countries that produce this kind of jewellery. Silver filigree brooches and buttons are also made in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Little chains and pendants are added to much of this northern work. Beautiful specimens have been contributed to the various international exhibitions.

Some very curious filigree work was brought from Abyssinia after the capture of Magdala—arm guards, slippers, cups, &c, some of which are now in the South Kensington Museum. They are made of thin plates of silver, over which the wire work is soldered. The filigree is subdivided by narrow borders of simple pattern, and the intervening spaces are made up of many patterns, some with grains set at intervals.

Great interest has been felt in the revival of the designs of antique jewellery by Signor Castellani. He collected examples of the peasant jewellery still made in many provinces of Italy on traditionary designs preserved from a remote antiquity. Most of the decoration is in filigree of many varieties. It was in part through the help of workmen in remote villages, who retained the use of various kinds of solders, long forgotten elsewhere, that the fine reproductions of antique gold filigree have been so beautifully carried into execution in Italy, and by Italian jewellers in London.

For examples of antique work the student should examine the jewel room of the British Museum, the Campana collection in the Louvre in Paris, and the collection in the South Kensington Museum. The last contains a large and very varied assortment of modern Italian, Spanish, Greek, and other jewellery made for the peasants of various countries. The Celtic work is well represented in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. (J. H. P.)

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