Filigree, Wide Open Spaces

If this were an exercise in free association and you were asked to repeat what comes to mind when you hear the term “filigree,” chances are you’d think of the word “wire”-along with the accompanying mental image of a metalsmith twirling vermicelli-like strands of gold into open, airy designs.

And for every one of the 50 centuries of jewelry wireworking that we know of your response would mirror reality.

Every century but ours, that is. For all of the 20th and possibly much of the 19th centuries, filigree has been predominantly a die-struck and, more recently, cast, rather than a wire, product. Given its delicate, lacy look, it is understandably difficult to imagine that its manufacture could ever have gone wireless. Not surprisingly, archaic, rather diehard notions about this technique persist today. Even the renowned ” Jeweler’s Dictionary” defines filigree as “ornamental work formed of wire” without mentioning any more recent means of fabrication.

Doubtless, there are still handcrafters making wire filigree jewelry in essentially the same manner as did the Egyptians, this technique’s earliest known practitioners, circa 3000 B.C.

High-karat gold jewelry manufacturer Pat Patangay of Sonali, Oceanside, Calif., recalls visiting the workshops of old-method filigree masters in his hometown of Hyuerabad, India, as recently as 20 years ago. Since the company features a line of handmade 22k-gold filigree items, it is safe to say those craftsmen, and, at least, their children, do things in the same way. “Outside big cities like Bombay, India remains very traditional,” says Patangay. If so, here’s how they probably work.

Unable, as their Western counterparts can, to order pre-drawn wire from a findings and jewelry supply house, they’ll make it from scratch. Using a method similar to making pasta, thin-gauge metal-most commonly gold or silver-is fed into special steel or iron dies called drawplates with openings of various diameters to give the wire a desired thinness. In the case of ultra-thin wire, the wire may be drawn several times, each time through successively smaller holes in the die. Next, the wire is shaped into spirals, loops or twists using metal bending tools called mandrels. Patangay remembers seeing goldsmiths use blowpipes to throw flame on the wire and soften it enough to be shaped into patterns and later soldered. In some cases, the wire is textured using hammers or punches. Once the wire is shaped and finished, it is soldered, if needed, to a surrounding frame.

As you can imagine, making wire filigree jewelry is time-consuming and, even when done in Asia’s cheapest labor centers, expensive. It probably was also back in the heyday of Victorian jewelry when the filigree style became extremely popular. For sure, the cost of handwrought filigree would have become prohibitive by the time this technique became a mainstay of art deco jewelry in the 1930s.

To make filigree jewelry available and affordable to a mass audience, European and American manufacturers long ago converted from wire to sheet metal fabrication methods. Thus all those wide open spaces in most filigree work that you might have thought were made by bending thin bands of precious metal were really made by piercing stamped metal parts.

Ironically, the die-striking process by which manufacturers were able to make filigree a mass-market item is today far too labor-intensive to be widely used. But since many, if not most, of the vintage and estate filigree pieces jewelers see were made using it, one should have some idea of how it worked. Indeed, there are findings and mill product companies like Hoover and Strong, Richmond, Va., that are sitting on large collections of dies for filigree jewelry from the 1930s through the 1960s that could be taken out of mothballs should there be a revival of interest in filigree made the way it was in the peak moderm periods of this genre.

But a revival of die-struck filigree isn’t likely in the price-point-conscious present. According to Fred Klotz, Hoover & Strong’s findings supervisor, a typical die-struck filigree ring requires nearly 20 steps before it is completed. It would take a full-length feature to detail the process of making a standard filigree ring. So we’ll have to make do with a capsule summary.

Such a ring is composed of two parts: a shank and top. And even though the shank is by far the easier part to make, it still requires several steps, including stamping, shaping, punching and rounding. It is the far more complicated process of making the top, where most, if not all, of the filigree work is found, that concerns us here.

First, the top’s basic silhouette is stamped out in blank form. Second, its filigree pattern is stamped in, then raised in distinct relief. Third, the pattern is pierced out using as many as six different tools. At this point, the piece is still flat and must be given contour and definition. This fourth step is called “doming” and involves placing the top in a special plastic or brass block, then using a punch to give it final shape and style. Fifth, the domed top is soldered to the shank. All of the steps in creating a shank and a top, it is worth noting, can require many strikings, each separated by annealing (heating and cooling) of the part to make it softer and more malleable.

Is it any wonder, given all these steps, that most modern-day filigree jewelry is cast? Casting eliminates many of the steps involved in die-striking, principally piercing, without, thanks to computer technology, loosing the sharpness and precision of the old method. One of the leaders in high-tech filigree, Michael Anthony Jewelers, Mount Vernon, N.Y., uses a CAD/CAM system to translate designs created on a monitor into exact master models from which production molds are made. The accuracy with which designs are executed by the computer is astonishing. However, cast filigree has one limitation. Pieces cannot yet be made with patterns that have the slender, threadlike fineness of classic hand-wired and die-struck pieces. D

Modern, April 1995

This 10k-gold filigree ring by Michael
Anthony was made using a CAD/CAM
system to produce its original model. | 800-759-9997 | (fax) 800-616-9997