The Foundry Journal

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What is Filigree?

Jul 04, 2015 BY Diamond Foundry IN Style Guide

If you are one of the six people who know what filigree is  – congratulations! You are probably my boss or a Medieval Italian princess with a time machine. However, if you, like me, are an uncultured plebian from the 21st century, then you’ve probably already confused “filigree” with “filament.” Don’t worry; it’s an easy mistake to make.

Let me help you evade future embarrassment: “filament” is a slender threadlike fiber found in plant and animals structures, and “filigree” is a term used to describe the ornate, often lace-like patterning of rare metals like silver and gold.

 


These are filaments.


This is filigree.

To be fair, “filigree” and “filament” both contain thin cables of material integrated into larger structures. Artisans make filigree by twisting wire tightly into a rigid pattern of circular and harmonious shapes. These small shapes are then bonded together to create a larger configuration. The designs can later be built into complex metalwork like flowers. Or, if you really want, a horse.


You thought I was kidding.

Many Asiatic and European cultures have a history of using filigree to embellish jewelry. The Mesopotamians integrated filigree into metal jewelry as early as 3,000 B.C. Their techniques were later passed around to areas like Egypt and Greece, and experts argue that Greek and Etruscan artisans transformed filigree into high art. Irish metalworkers also have a tradition of incorporating filigree into Celtic knots and serpent motifs. Scandinavians, too, used filigree to decorate broaches.


This Etruscan earring is “high art.”

However, the type of filigree that became super popular in Europe, especially France and Italy, during the Medieval era was modeled after Eastern designs. Beginning in the 6th century, pilgrims and merchants brought back wonderfully ornate Gospel books with filigree covers from Constantinople, and Europeans were like, “at least these barbarians are doing something right.” Just kidding! The Byzantines inherited the remnants of the Roman Empire, while basically everyone in Europe was an ignorant barbarian before the renaissance. That’s why it’s called the Dark Ages.


This Medieval European woman is literally wearing a book as a hat.

Modern filigree became popular in the U.S. during Edwardian times, thanks to the Art Nouveau movement of the early 20th century. Tiffany jewelers also created designs that were made fashionable and by famous U.S. families like the Vanderbilts and the Morgans.


Art Nouveau meets filigree.

Today, filigree is still used to embellish rings, earrings and other jewelry. Old tools, such as the blowpipe, have been replaced (awesomely) with the blowtorch. Contemporary artisans employ a range of techniques, inherited and consolidated from around the world, to create their swirling patterns. Not bad for something with 5,000 year run.

 

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