A History of Filigree

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Filigree also known as filigrann or filigrane is from the Latin ‘Filum’ (thread), and ‘Granum’ (seed). Fine, thread-like wires of precious

metals are twisted, shaped and soldered into highly ornamental lacy designs.

The filigree design can also be built upon to create multi-layered

designs, such as flowers. Often, a piece of metal, or a wire frame,

is used to give substance to this delicate work.

Filigree is an ancient art form with a rich history from the Greeks

and Phoenicians to contemporary designs. This includes interpretations

of the art spanning the Byzantine, Renaissance, Edwardian and Art Nouveau eras. Filigree traditions and techniques represent many

styles including Yemenite, Turkish, Norwegian and Russian.


This exquisite, lacy metal technique can be traced back 5000 years.

It is one of the oldest and most beautiful of art forms developed by


Filigree is totally hand-crafted and requires hours of concentration.

The closely guarded craft was passed from generation to generation. Granular work, filigree and repoussé were all known and practiced

on the island of Crete by 2000 BC.

In ornaments recovered from Phoenician sites, such as Cyprus and

Sardinia, patterns of gold wire are laid down with great delicacy

on a gold background. It is said that the art was advanced to its

highest perfection in the Greek and Etruscan filigree of the 6th

to the 3rd centuries BC.

There are a number of earrings and other personal ornaments,

in this style, found in central Italy that are preserved in the

Louvre and the British Museum. The Hermitage Museum in

St. Petersburg contains an amazingly rich collection of jewelry

from the tombs of the Crimea.

Greek Filigree began to influence designs from about 323 BC

from Europe to India.When Alexander the Great brought his bounty

of gold and silver in from the Phoenicians, Egyptians and Persians;

filigree use began to grow not only to set stones, but in many other ornamental uses.

However, by 133AD, Rome had taken over the Greek Empire and the

Roman craftsmen used much simpler settings with their precious

stones so the elaborate wirework, again, fell out of fashion.


Above, is a set of ancient Greek earrings from the

Hellenistic Age (330-30 B.C.), crafted in gold.

An ancient Greek gold filigree bracelet also from the

Hellenistic Age (330-30 B.C.).


The Phoenicians were know for trading gold and silver throughout the Mediterranean and also traveled to India dating back as far as 1000 BC.

They also spread their filigree designs and techniques. Many settled in southern Italy, integrating with the Etruscans; a civilization of the 7th century B.C. dedicated to the arts.

The Etruscan artists fused traditional geometric designs with the Phoenician's oriental influences of floral and figurative images.

They refined filigree to such an extraordinary degree that

their designs and techniques are still utilized by modern jewelers.

An example of gold filigree Phoenician jewelry.


During the 4th century invasion of the Goths, (Dark Ages) of the

Roman Empire, filigree was lost and no longer passed down. But

the Christian Byzantine Empire had become a ‘repository of classical

learning, preserving the artistic heritage of the Greek and Roman artisans.’

Which meant that filigree was incorporated into monastic work

such as covers to scripture and icons. These holy objects were often encrusted with precious stones, filigree, granulation and cloisonné (enamel work), combined these techniques are impressive.


The Italian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries found

craftsmen and artists bringing back the beauty of ancient Greece

and Rome and not was it communicated, through personal adornment

but in the eventual use of filigree beads and crosses in rosaries.

By the end of the 16th century, Venice saw a revival of fine

gold filigree beads, and semi-precious stones were more

often seen with filigree caps. During the Spanish Inquisition the

Jewish gold and silversmiths settled in North Africa and introduced filigree and cloisonné techniques to the craftsmen of the area.

A replica of a 15th century filigree rosary.


In the 17th Century due to refined methods of faceting gems the emphasis moved once more from precious metals to gemstones,

and the diamond became the preferred item for jewelry.

The 18th Century brought with it industrial development and

mass production. Cheaper materials were utilized, in addition

to gold and semi-precious gemstones, including base-metal

alloys, paste to make imitation gemstones, steel and cast iron.

With these cheaper methods of production jewelry techniques

changed their emphasis from the artisans to less skilled

mechanical processes of stamping and cutting out patterns

and settings.

It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that Peter Carl Faberge, jeweler to the Russian Tsars, reintroduced an exacting

craftsmanship into jewelry design.

A handcrafted filigree crab box made for Catherine the

Great, from a collection in The Heritage in St.



Faberge, master jeweler, revived the use of gold filigree. Filigree

again became very popular during the Edwardian period (late 1800s). Clothing and jewelry then moved into a vibrant new era called

Art Nouveau.

The fashionable passementerie (laces and trims) could now be

copied in fine metal wires for jewelry. This ornamental work is

also reflected in the work of Tiffany jewelers.

Tiffany designs were worn by such famous U.S. families as the

Astors, the Vanderbilts, Posts, Huttons and the Morgans.

Museums value Tiffany designs, which ranged from the Art

Nouveau period to Art Deco to today's modern styles.


Yemenite jewelry is considered one of the oldest filigree styles

in the world. Filigree jewelry making was considered a respected profession among the Yemenite.

The jewelry has cultural as well as religious applications, and

many pieces of Judaica were made in filigree. The Yemenite

Jews worked primarily with silver, and occasionally with gold for

special requests.

The westernization of Yemen accelerated the decline of traditional

silver work via economic influences, new tools and methods. However, for best results, some detailed filigree elements are still done by hand using traditional methods.

A silver filigree Menorah done in the traditional Yeminite sty

-le of filigree. Many pieces of Judaica were made in filigree.


Norwegian filigree, or Sølje, is the traditional silver jewelry of

Norway. In ancient times the "spoons" (small gold oval decorative

dangles, seen in photo at far right) were meant to reflect the sun

and believed to protect the wearer.

In modern times traditional Norwegian Sølje is usually only worn

for special ocassions and often with traditional dress.

It is referred to as "costume silver" since it's often worn in this


Costume silver is worn on shirts, either at the collar and cuffs

or on the breast of the shirt itself. The "silver" includes everything

from shirt pins to different types of filigree brooches.

Silver filigree pieces adorn a traditional Norwegian cotume.


Filigree work was constructed in many countries and varied in form

and pattern. Filigree articles by Russian goldsmiths are known

by the smooth and delicate ornamental lines with mild curves of wire,

clearly defined ornaments and numerous designs within an individual object.

While excavating old Russian towns and village burial mounds, archaeologists have found articles dating back to the 9th century.

Objects decorated with filigree enamel in the Russian style were favorites for presentation both to the emperor, at the time of his coronation, and to visiting foreign dignitaries.

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