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Copper And Its Cousins

In the 3rd century B.C. an earthquake crashed to earth the bronze Colossus of Rhodes. It lay a thousand years before the Saracens sold it to a junk dealer who needed 900 camels to carry away this broken sun god. Copper and its alloys, bronze and brass, must have been plentiful to the ancients.

Copper was easier to work than iron. Ancients cast it into stone molds, chiseled, "filed" and hammered it into shape. They drew wires which they wove and riveted into chain mail. They hollow cast it in clay molds by the running wax or cire perdue process which gave Greece her hollow bronze statues.

The fathers of Abraham in Ur, once dated some 4300 B.C., got copper from neighboring mountains to face their doors, lintels, and furniture for fire protection and color beauty. They made bronze by alloying copper with tin to increase fusibility, strength and hardness. They decorated it with inset stones, piercing, engraving, inlaid metals and repousse (raised figures).


Mesopotamia continued this metal craft and Crete in the 16th century B.C. made beautiful inlaid metal work.

The Greeks used much bronze in furnishing their temples and homes including kitchen utensils. One shallow bronze "bowl" at the Metropolitan Museum looks like a fancy frying pan with an ornamented handle. A long-lipped pitcher might have come from one of our own arty kitchens. And a highly polished bronze mirror with a repousse portrait on the back, had hair, lashes and enclosing border lines skilfully incised. They set their furniture on animal legs and paws, carved animals or mythological figures chasing each other around vessels, and cast draped ladies or giants with serpents for feet to make handles. Romans inherited all this, but they especially loved the gold-like "auricalchum" or brass (copper alloyed with zinc, once with tin or other metals).

Cyprus, the Caucasus, and the Danube all offered copper. Spain's copper, tin and silver helped furnish Solomon's temple. The Phoenicians traded for Britain's tin and copper long before the Romans stamped it with their mark (as on the 42 pound block stamped "Sacio Romae" found near Conovium, now Angelsea)-and spread British copper and bronze over their world.

Medieval Mosul, Damascus, and the Saracens put their names to ancient Mesopotamia's gold and silver inlay work-see the Cretan bronze inlaid dagger at the Metropolitan. They incised the grooves with overhanging edges, laid the gold and silver in the grooves, and pressed down the overhanging edges to hold the inlay. Spaces between the inlaid pattern were sometimes darkened, some say "with a bituminous substance." Niello was used too-a metal alloy blackened with sulphur and melted into prepared grooves. This dark coloring "brought out" the inlay as a black design in the bright polished metal. Russian niello, like that of the Far East, is much collected.


Non-Mohammedans used human or animal figures, but Mamluk or Cairo work used arabesques, medallions, rosettes, flower forms and Arabic writings. India's inlaid metal work reached great magnificence under the Mogul emperors.

Italy inherited metal crafts from her forefathers and neighbors, and produced her famous bronze doors and other cathedral and palace furnishings. Iconoclasts sent the marvelous Byzantine craftsmen to the Meuse to add their know-how to the Dinanderie development of copper, brasses and bronze which Charlemagne fathered after his trip to Rome. And copper and its cousins, including bell metal-3 to 5 parts copper to one of tin plus occasional traces of silver, gold or lead for tone quality - spread over Europe, from cathedral to castle, then cottage.

The lion-headed sanctuary door knocker of Durham cathedral, probably descended from the Lion of Judah, fathered endless other knockers. Seven-branched candelabra graced rich men's castles while the brass pricket or single cup candlestick served the modest home. Inlaid brass washbowls and pitchers, engraved tankards, incised gridirons, pierced bed warmers, repousse book covers, cast and filed harness brasses, fireplace tools, kitchen cauldrons, door locks and keys, the Winchester bushel and weights and measures, pins and buttons, took ship with our forefathers. But the Indians in the Americas long had used copper in varying extent, even alloying it at times with gold for ornaments and tools.


Color was what people loved in copper, and this color could be changed by the kinds and amounts of metals used in the alloys, also by heat, "pickling" and patination. Antimony made copper red, and manipulation softened this down to a deep rose. Silver paled it and Silamion paled Iocosta's face by adding silver to his bronze. The Japanese shibuichi - one fourth silver to three of copper - is a pale pink. Vary the amount of silver and you change this pink. Pickling it removes part of the copper and turns this to pinkish grays which make beautiful inlays or applied designs on various colored coppers, bronzes and brasses.

Tradition says Corinthian bronze was discovered when the Romans burned Corinth and streams of molten copper, gold and silver, hardened to a light yellow golden alloy. Ancients knew tin and silver paled copper from yellow to steely gray. The Chinese go for this steely color. Iron oxidation reddens bronze. Aristonidas put a blush on Athamas cheeks with iron. Gold turns copper yellow. The Japanese add up to 5 per cent gold with silver, antimony and lead for their copper alloy, Shakudo, famous for its beauty alone or as added ornament. A hot pickling solution can turn this to a lasting bluish black. The Chinese love a velvety black patina.

Patination by pickling, time, or earth's chemicals, has always been valued. Plutarch. wrote of the azurite coloration of ancient Delphic statues. Today's America fancies tea leaf green or malachite patination. Some collectors prefer cuprous oxide reds. Faked patinas, often painted on, wash off with water or turpentine. True patinas eat into the metal.


Tiffany's produced colored copper, brass and bronze work in lamp bases, picture frames, candlesticks and other items, which are now collectors' pieces. Wonderful metal work has come from the Orient. The Philippines have long decorated copper and brasses with aluminum. India's tinned copper ware from Kashmir is famous. So too is her gilt copper relief work, her silver inlaid copper vessels, her incised and inlaid long-necked bottles or brass trays for table tops, and her engraved spouted drinking water pots - they pour the water into the mouth. We call them coffee pots.

India's bidri work, alloys of tin, zinc, lead and copper, cast and shaped, darkened with sal ammoniac, blue vitriol, and saltpeter, with oil, then enriched with silver and gold and sometimes iron inlay, ranks with the great metallic crafts of history. It is worth a collector's most ardent efforts.

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