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Fairy Wands Of Filigree

Many an American bride wed in the family parlor at the turn of the century wore a heart shaped silver filigree locket filled with a pink cake of perfume. The big church wedding bride often pinned on a Tiffany filigree brooch. Chinese brides wear silver gilt filigree head pieces with good luck dragons and phoenixes wrought in metal threads. Scandinavian brides wear silver gilt filigree crowns with hearts and fruits and birds a-wing bearing jewels in their claws, while many a Jewish bride uses the filigree ceremonial ring band of flower faces touched with blue or green, or with varicolored enamels and "set" with a high gabled temple.

For filigree is probably older than Abraham and is loved around the world. We still use its Roman name-fili from filum or thread, and gree from granum or grain. Anciently filigree was a combination of thread or wire work made into lace-like patterns and decorated with grain work made of tiny drops of silver or gold soldered on to give highlights and shadows and texture. A recent discovery of 4,000 year old jewelry in Gaza shown in the Illustrated London News pictured gold ear rings with this graining above a lace-like filigree edging.


Fine spines or hair-like tendrils were sometimes soldered on filigree to catch the light and give an airy quality. Tiny stars or flower faces with gold grained centers added pattern. Some craftsmen even changed the color of the silver or gold wire which made the filigree by subjecting it to heat or chemicals.

Silver wire, newly cleaned, is near white, and the ancients loved color. So they smoked their silver in sulphur fumes or washed it in a.monium sulphide or similar solution, achieving from pale amber through rich crimson to deep purple and even black. Their nine to fifteen carat gold, properly heated, changed to pink or purple. Wires so treated made a highly colorful filigree ornament.

Gilding filigree was done by the old mercury process; or by soaking linen in gold chloride, drying it, burning it, and rubbing the ashes over the metal, then polishing with leather to bring out the gilding. Some craftsmen gilded copper, brass, or bronze unless the law forbade, which it did in Spain in the later Middle Ages.

Ancient trails and trading ships spread filigree through the known world, and the Greek ships in their turn, traded it for dried fruits and raw materials to support the glory of Greece. In one year records show the mine at Laurium, near present Ergasteria, gave Greek artists thirty tons of silver for precious metal work.

Our Metropolitan Museum today owns a gold filigree necklace which has five plaited strands terminating in palmettes and rosettes. It bears pendants holding tiny flower faces edged with hair-like wire. This necklace came to us from the golden age of Greece.


The Etruscans who brought their artistic background from their Southern Mesopotamian home, were masters of filigree wire work and graining. Their delicate filigree, frosted with golden grains as fine as a hundredth of an inch, showed no touch of excess solder.

Ancient Roman auction rooms had to comb fakes from the real Greek silver antiques. And cities of the far flung Roman Empire welcomed Greek filigree artists who created this wonderful lace-like jewelry and taught the local craftsmen to make it.

Byzantium with her predominating Christian symbolism and Greek love of color added choice enameling, inlaid jewels and colored glass sets to her filigree. She also soldered filigree ornaments to large solid surfaces of gold or silver for reliquary panels, book covers and lavish furniture.

Pilgrims, traders, and monastic artists carried Byzantium's 'tastes in filigree to the remote North and East, and to all Western Christendom. Russia developed her elaborate filigree wire work and jewel-set enamels.

French artists set up their charcoal brazier, anvil, drawboard, and simple chemicals, pliers, chisels and blowpipe in the cluster of shops about their Gothic cathedrals and made filigree reliquaries, crosses, and crowns for the churchgoers.

For their populace the French made buttons and ear rings, chatelaines and neck pieces. Graining, jewel stones and enamels, plain or painted, enriched their filigree. England used enamels too and Ireland developed her intricate "thread and knot work" filigree which is so richly demonstrated in her great Tara brooch in the National Museum of Dublin.


In Denmark, Norway and Sweden the peasants still make and wear beautiful buttons and pins of filigree. So too do Middle and Southern Europeans. Hungarians blend their silver filigree with rich colored enamels. The Germans fashion hair pin heads of fern-like patterned panels joined into hollow balls, or flat ornamental discs of entwined hearts and flowers.

Austrian lovers spend long winter evenings coaxing silver wires into filigree necklets with many chains ending in a pair of filigree clasps set with glass. Dalmatian fillets string a heavy chain between bold half moon ear rings which shower tiny bangles. Tyrolean shops show rings of hearts and doves, and filigree buckles which bring many a "yes" to the lover's marriage offer.

Italy still makes her golden hearted filigree flowers, the single ones flanked by tall leaves, the chained necklets often hung with a fringe of wire curls. Her brooches of ships in sail are as airy as a wisp of linen lace. Malta makes famous filigree. And Spain's wrought wire work with its Moorish lavishness is as loved now as in the days the Conquistadores brought it West and America's Indians touched it with their own stylisms.


India still shapes the filigree patterns used by 5th century B.C. Athens. The wandering craftsman with his tools on his back will pause in the yard of some housewife to turn her silver coins into filigree. He weighs her metal, heats and refines it-as only the pure silver will hold its form and not spring out of place. He beats or draws his wires-never quite round so they will curve better-curls and twists them, cuts each with his sharp chisel and fastens it in place with solder, borax, and blowpipe.

This wandering jeweler of India "frosts" his creation with fine graining, or touches the center of the volute with a metal knob or jewel set. He frames the more delicate designs with heavier wire for contrast, emphasis and protection; or, like the Chinese and Japanese, he may color the wire itself. The completed filigree is weighed to assure the housewife she is getting her "coin's worth." And the craftsman moves on to the next town. Thus the story goes.

So did the ancient Greek jeweler ply his trade in silver and gold filigree when Solomon's ships crossed the Mediterranean, hull down, under their load of silver from the mines of Tharshish. That was centuries before the rich business men of ancient Rome bid their sesterces in her auction rooms for the antique silver wrought-work from long gone artists of conquered Greece.

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