Metalwork Takes a Bow: Techniques that Enhance Gemstone Jewellery
November 9, 2018
Like a supporting actor stealing the spotlight from the star, fine metalwork can outshine the gems it displays. This collection of jewellery images, with items dating from pre-Columbian times forward, illustrates filigree and granulation, openwork, hammering techniques, engraving, Florentine finish and mokume gane – all used to create the detail worthy of an award-winning performance.
Filigree and Granulation
Filigree and granulation have been used since ancient times. Filigree is created by soldering fine metal wires into intricate patterns. The wires may be plain or decoratively twisted. Historically, filigree was created by applying wires to an underlying base. As the craft evolved, the base was abandoned in favour of a lighter, openwork jewellery item with a lacy appearance. The openwork style was especially popular during the 19th century.
Granulation is an ancient jewellery art in which small gold particles adhere to the surface in bead-like fashion without apparent evidence of solder. It can be applied to create textures or designs. The Sumerians first used granulation, followed by the Etruscans in Western Europe.
Openwork is a piercing technique that creates a pattern in the metal that lets light come through it. Saw-piercing is an openwork technique that uses a drill and jeweller’s saw to create a decorative motif. Upon close examination, you can see that the edges may be pressed with a milligraining tool – imagine a wood-handled pizza cutter-like tool that rolls out a small, beadlike pattern – that leaves the desired relief on the openwork metal and allows it to sparkle.
À jour, French for “to the day”, is another form of openwork created by sawing or piercing that makes it possible for light to enter from the back. The additional light enhances the gem’s scintillation and colour, which improves its liveliness.
A hammered finish is a decorative treatment created by the repeated blows of a small hammer with a specialised head to create an all-over pattern of divots. Although hammering dates back thousands of years, hammered finishes were particularly popular during the Arts and Crafts period (1860s to 1920s). Repoussé or repoussage uses a hammer and punch tool to raise the reverse side, and chasing is when the artisan indents the metal surface by striking the tool with a hammer.
Hand engraving is achieved by using gravers, chisels made of hardened steel in various shapes and sizes, to create different effects. A finish graver with delicate parallel lines is used to create a textured pattern of intersecting sets of lines known as a Florentine finish.
The Buccellati design house is known for its Florentine finish, which is recognised by its rich textural quality reminiscent of fine linen or lace. Their artisans also employ piercing techniques, which are used to create the look of honeycomb, lace or webbing. Atelier Buccellati dates to 1750 when goldsmith Contardo Buccellati made jewellery. The business rose to international fame when Mario Buccellatti took the lead from the 1920s–1960s. Bucellati’s techniques and tools haven’t changed since the Renaissance.
Mokume gane was first made in 17th-century Japan by master metalworker Denbei Shoami. The scarcity of precious metals in Japan led to the invention of new alloys and chemical treatments for colouring the alloys. Mokume gane uses layers of sheet metal of various alloys fused together to create a block. Mokume gane translates closely to “wood grain metal” or “wood eye metal”, describing the way the metal takes on the appearance of natural wood grain. The process was first used to make samurai swords.
The next time you admire a piece of beautiful jewellery, inspect the detail and craftsmanship of the metalwork to appreciate how a good supporting actor will make the star – the gem – shine.
Sharon Bohannon, a media editor who researches, catalogues and documents photos, is a GIA GG and GIA AJP. She works in the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library and Information Center.