The following article was printed in Silver Magazine. It is copyrighted by the author and may NOT be reproduced without authorization. It is published here by the author with the permission of Silver Magazine.
The practice of filigree silversmithing has been found in virtually every country which has
a history of producing decorative metal objects, making it one of the oldest skills in the
silversmithing arsenal. The basic concept is too use silver or gold wire to form patterns of
curves, whorls, spirals or circles. The patterns are then combined in various innovative
ways to make objects that appear to be light and airy, but are in reality very strong.
The technique is very labor intensive. The silversmith must have a great patience and the
ability to manipulate small wires in confined areas. While other smithing skills may require
a greater degree of difficulty, filigree work requires unmatched concentration and
attention to detail. Consequently most filigree work is from areas where wages are low in
comparison to the price of the metal.
While examples of early American and English filigree exist, the art was not practiced
extensively in those countries because of its labor intensive requirements.
Most examples of pure filigree work are relatively small. Among the photographs are
jewelry, spoons, and a small box. On larger objects, the filigree is added for decoration.
The basic concepts are similar to cloisonné and the framework is the same as for expensive
and difficult plique-a-jour. Cloisonné is a fine network of curved wires on a solid
background which is then filled with various colored enamels. Plique-a-jour is an open
framework which is filled with enamel. (This is a very difficult and expensive process, but
the result is a beautiful "stained glass" effect).
The basic component is of course wire. The wire can be of various diameters depending
upon the desired effect. In the old days, the wire was hand drawn through progressively
smaller holes in a metal drawplate until the desired diameter was reached (usually 26 - 32
gauge). Since the early 19th century the smith has been able to buy a wide variety of
straight and twisted wires which have been prepared by machine.
First a basic framework is created by bending wire with any of a number of different types
of pliers into the shape of the desired object. Sometimes the design is drawn on paper and
the wire is bent to match the drawing, but much of the time the smith simply uses his
imagination and skills to create the design.
A simple wiring jig is made by hammering nails into a board. Obviously the placement of
the nails will differ depending on the size of circles and whorls necessary to complete the
The smith then wraps wire around the nails to create the curves or whorls desired. The
bent wire is placed in the desired spot within the framework and held in place by an
adhesive. Various adhesives have been used in different areas, but usually gum tragacanth
is used today. The process is repeated over and over again until the design is fully
Balls and beads of silver are made by melting small bits of metal and larger beads are made
by melting sections of wire until it forms a ball.
The framework is then placed on a cast iron frying pan or mica sheet or on a silver
backing sheet. Flux to make the solder flow smoothly may be added to the adhesive.
Various alloys of solder have been used over the years but a common formula is 50%
brass and 50% silver. The solder is reduced to a powder, and applied to the parts of the
design which are to be soldered.
The whole item is then carefully heated until the solder melts (without melting the thin
silver wires) and then carefully removed from the heat. Today we have temperature
controlled ovens for this process, but in previous eras, the controlled heating was a much
more difficult process.
After soldering, the filigree sections are very carefully hammered with a leather tipped
hammer into the desired shape. Bending the piece by hand will create distortions.
If cloisonné or plique-a-jour is to be done, the enamel work can be done at this time. The
description of the processes involved will be left for a future article.
The final step is to clean and remove all excess solder, scrub and buff the piece to a high
Many pieces of silver filigree are unmarked. In some cases there is not a broad enough
expanse of silver to place a mark, and in others the amount of silver used was not
sufficient to require a mark. It should be noted that if it becomes necessary to apply an
acid test to filigree work, it is imperative that a spot is chosen which does not have solder
applied to it. Because of the low silver content of solder, the acid would show that the
piece is not of an acceptable grade of silver.
As in most cases where something is desirable but difficult to attain, attempts have been
made to simulate the detail work of filigree. As early as the beginning of the 19th century,
British silversmiths created caddy spoons which on the surface look like filigree but are
actually cast silver. These simulation attempts have been made continuously over the last
200 years. but Careful observation is usually all that is needed to distinguish a cast piece
from actual filigree work.
The two large spoons pictured are 19th century Chinese (fig. A). They have a deep bowl
which was probably used to filter a liquid (most likely tea). They are somewhat unusual
pieces in that the amount of filigree work is extensive and that the filigree work is
designed with a purpose other than decoration. Since the work is all hand done, a close
examination (fig. B is a detail of the bowl) shows many subtle differences in design.
The salt spoon (fig. C) is unmarked but it is probably 19th century European. The bowl
has been gilded because salt is a corrosive agent and will cause pitting on silver. The
Peruvian (fig. D) coin bowl spoon has examples of fine filigree work just below the
The small round box (fig. E) is from Israel. The top (on the right) is shown separately so
that the reader can see the detail filigree work within the bottom portion of the box. Fine
work of this nature is practiced throughout the Middle East and the Jewish silversmiths
who have emigrated to Israel from Yemen are particularly known for their precision
The various pins are from Mexico. The Mexican silver industry which is centered around
Taxco is known for much interesting hand made jewelry. Most of this is for the tourist
trade, but some designers such as Spratling have well deserved reputations for outstanding
The set of forks (fig. F) are from Latin America (marks have not been traced). Even
though these were made as a set, because of the hand made workmanship you will be able
to see subtle differences in the designs of each piece. While a machine will make perfect
copies, I personally prefer the "personality" that result from the hand made operation.
"Spoons from Around the World" by Dorothy T. Rainwater and Donna H. Felger, Schiffer
Publishing , Ltd. 1992
"Creative Gold-And Silversmithing" by Sharr Choate, Crown Publishers, Inc. N.Y., 1970
"British Silver in the Huntington Collection" by Robert R. Wark, Castle Press ,1978
"Silver" by Lucinda Fletcher, Crescent Books, N.Y. 1973
Wayne Bednersh is an avid collector of many types of silver with a specialty in spoons.
internet address AC805@LAFN.ORG
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