Vintage Damascene Jewelry: Three Traits Separate the Real from the Fake

Vintage Damascene Jewelry

Vintage Damascene Jewelry: Three Key Traits

There are three key traits of genuine damascene jewelry:

  1. The background metal is oxidized to a very dark color
  2. The design is hand chiseled into the metal
  3. Gold and/or silver foil is pressed into the chiseled design

The following sections explain these in more detail and include photos of both genuine vintage damascene jewelry and faux damasacene pieces so you can easily tell the difference.

What is Damascene?

I first became interested in damascene jewelry on a trip to Europe when I visited Toledo, Spain. In addition to the beautiful cathedral and the renowned synagogue, our tour included a trip to a large shop that produced its own damascene jewelry. We were able to visit the workshop and watch the artisans create this beautiful jewelry by hand. Of course, I bought quite a few pieces, which, I’m sure, was the intent of the tour. Some I gave as gifts, but I did keep a few pieces for myself.

Damascene Jewelry from Spain on original cards
Fine Damascene Jewelry purchased in Toledo, Spain on original cards
Note the quality label on the left

According to Wikipedia.com, “Damascening is the art of inlaying different metals into one another—typically, gold or silver into a darkly oxidized steel background—to produce intricate patterns similar to niello. The English term comes from a perceived resemblance to the rich tapestry patterns of damask silk.”

When I visited the workshop in Spain, I saw artisans hand etching designs into the darkened metal. Once the designs were completed, they applied silver and gold foil from large spools into the crevices, again by hand. The result is striking and beautiful. Some of the designs use yellow gold, rose gold, and silver to create a lovely color pattern.

Fine, handcrafted damascene jewelry is decorated with 18K or 24K gold and/or silver foil. When purchased from a shop, this will be noted, as shown on the jewelry cards in the photos. Vintage damascene jewelry and damascene jewelry produced today will have the same characteristics, as this jewelry was and still is made by hand.

Genuine Damascene Jewelry Cross
Simple genuine damascene cross, front and back. Note the dark, oxidized metal

The cross in the above photo clearly illustrates trait number 1 – oxidized metal.

What about Niello?

Although it may look similar to damascene, niello is a different process. Metal is engraved to create a raised design, then a mixture of silver, lead and sulphur, which creates a black enamel-like substance, is poured into the engraved areas. So with damascene, the black is oxidized metal which provides the background. With niello, the black is a compound added to the engraved areas of the metal. While niello is always black, Siam Sterling pieces use colored enamel in place of a black lead and sulphur compound to create more colorful designs.

Niello has been produced in many countries, while vintage Siam Sterling is from Thailand. From the 1930s through the 1970s, handmade Siam Sterling jewelry was made popular in the U.S. by American soldiers who brought it back as gifts for their wives and girlfriends. At the time, Thailand was known as Siam, which is why these vintage pieces are stamped “SIAM STERLING.”

Vintage Yellow Enamel Siam Sterling Bracelet
Vintage Siam Sterling Bracelet with Yellow Enamel applied to recessed areas

A Brief History of Antique and Vintage Damascene Jewelry

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were known to produce items with damascene-like designs. The artisans of Damascus, Syria are credited with developing the process into a high art form over 2,000 years ago, hence the name “damascene.” History tells us that in the 8th century this metal technique was carried to Japan via the “Silk Road” from Damascus to Japan. Japanase artists then began crafting their own designs. Around this same period, the Moors conquered Spain and brought the craft with them. What is interesting is that damascene developed in both Japan and Spain, then later disappeared from the Middle East. Damascene is still made in Japan and Spain today.

Vintage damascene jewelry fan brooch from Japan
Vintage damascene jewelry fan brooch from Japan. Note the Japanese mountain scene

Japanese vintage damascene jewelry is easy to spot because it usually features oriental themes with mountains and pagodas. Spanish vintage damascene jewelry usually features Arabic inspired designs.

Note that in most damascene pieces, the dark oxidized metal will be inset into a larger metal setting, as if it were a stone. Think of it as a piece of art set in a frame.

Vintage Genuine Damascene Jewelry Bracelet3Traits
This vintage damascene bracelet clearly exhibits the three traits of genuine damascene

Damascene, Faux Damascene, and Toledoware

The best way to see the differences between genuine vintage damascene jewelry and “faux damascene” is to compare them side-by-side. With genuine damascene, the background is always very dark, since it is oxidized metal. You can clealry see that the designs are etched and that gold and/or silver foil has been pressed into the etched areas. With “faux damascene” there are no etched designs, rather the metal is thick and textured, then colored enamel or paint is used to create the design.

Real vs Faux Vintage Damascene Jewelry
Compare genuine and “faux” damascene side-by-side to see the differences

Faux damascene jewelry has one trait that is an immediate giveaway. It almost always has beaded or “granulated” trim painted white. On some older vintage pieces the white paint may have worn away, but the raised metal design and beaded trim are easy to spot.

“Toledoware” is a slang term that is often used to refer to faux damascene made in Spain. Toledo is the Spanish city where fine damascene is made, but most of the faux damascene jewelry was also made in Spain and usually stamped “SPAIN.” Those stamps have sometimes confused people, but as mentioned, compare them side-by-side and you’ll see which is the genuine vintage damascene jewelry and which is the “faux.”

Vintage Faux Damascene Jewelry
Examples of vintage faux damascene jewelry. Note the raised metal designs and painted detail.

Vintage Damascene Jewelry Resources

Here are a few articles that explain and discuss damascene and niello.

Damascening at Wikipedia.org: Damascening

New York Times Travel Article about Damascene: Damascene Ware in Spain’s Toledo (Published: April 11, 1982)

Niello at Wikipedia.org: Niello

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Thank you, Christine 🙂

Partner Antiques

Really amazing collection! I love to collect rare antique items and keen to know about its history. I am very impressed to see vintage damascene Jewelry. I want to add rare antique in my collection. Thanks to share such great collection with us.

Robyn Bernstein

Hello. Are there any hallmarks given to them? I have two lovely pueces from my late grandmother that I’m researching. Both are 3d pins/brooches. One is a covered wagon pulled by horses, the other is a rickshaw. Both have moving wheels, are gold in color with blck detailing.

Christine

Hello Robyn. Many of the genuine Damascene pieces are not signed, or signed only with the company name. The pieces I purchased in Spain have no hallmarks at all – the company name and metal purity marks are on the cards (see first photo). Many of the faux Damascene pieces were marked “SPAIN,” but many are also unmarked. I am guessing that your brooch with the rickshaw is most likely Japanese. Are they genuine Damascene or faux? Compare them to the photos above, and you’ll see the differences. Good luck with your research, Christine 🙂

Esther

Great article I have a gold tone pillbox with Amita Japan on the back. The
Damascene is of Temple scene with a boat, Mount Fugi etc. I am wondering if it is real. No where is silver or 24 K gold listed, but on the inside there is a number 25 or 26 by the hinge. The Damascene is rather flat. I also have a braclet, not hinged but chain link with a security chain featuring the Arab desinged. It is not marked at all. Thank you for info you can give me.

Rachel

Hi Christine,
I am so glad I stumbled upon this article about the differences and similarities between Damescene, faux Damascene, and Niello. I make brooches and other jewelry using only vintage and antique “bits”, and it’s often difficult to know when a piece I want to buy is 50 years old or older. Your article has given me very valuable information that will help me differentiate more easily from now on.

Thank you!

Warmly,

Rachel E. Neff

webdesign berlin wedding

Thanks for finally talking about >Vintage Damascene Jewelry:
Three Traits Separate the Real from the Fake – My Classic Jewelry Vintage Jewelry Blog <Loved it!

Jocelyn Reynolds - Period Pieces

Thanks so much for the excellent information – it was very helpful. I have a pair of earrings that are damascene, based on this article. I’ve been puzzled about them for a long time, and had described them as having black enamel. Now I can update my description!

Gina

Thank you for the wonderful article. I would like to know how to clean my vintage Damascene jewelry all of the gold and silver inlay is tarnished so darkly. Please let me know. Thank you, Gina

Christine

Hello Gina. I usually gently wipe with a soft cloth. You can dampen the cloth a little, if needed. Thanks for visiting the My Classic Jewelry blog. Christine 🙂

Patricia Reed

Really interesting article — I’m going to share it on my vintage store’s facebook page. I was about to list a handful of Damascene pieces, now I know that I have one pr of earrings that is the real deal and a bracelet and earrings, that while marked Spain, are faux Toledoware.

Emma

Thank you for this article, very informative and thourough! I found a beautiful piece in an op shop so hoping by this explanation it seems to be a genuine one. Does anyone know anything about the red stones used. The pendant I have has faceted red stones around it.

Alyse

Can you please help me identify a brooch? Specially I am looking for information of the two faces in the border. I can send a photo via email if you are interested.
Thanks,
Alyse

Pamela Henson

Hello Christine, first off Thank you for the information on Damascene! I have a lovely Damascene bracelet of 2 butterflies & small round pieces all with a Japanese motif with the last one at the clasp having the mark K24 in goldtone paint, any idea what that signature means? Than you for your time, Pamela

Maggie

HI, I have always wondered about this strange bracelet that was a gift to me from my Dad…it is Vintage now, as I have had it since I was very young…Thank you very much for enlightening me now…no one else could as my dad is gone now

Rachel Miller

Thanks for your website, I have a bracelet that I believe is vintage damascene, but would like your opinion – my parents did visit Spain many years ago, so my Mother may have bought this then. She’s gone, but she did leave behind some interesting pieces of jewelry – nothing particularly valuable, but an eclectic collection.
If you have time, I’d like to send you a photo and get your input.
Thanks in advance!

Karen Kelleher

Dear Ma’am: I first found this kind of jewelry looking at some other pieces, but I could not take my eyes off of them. I abandoned what I came for a purchased a beautiful pair of these kind of earrings. I did not know what they were, I just knew they were so beautiful, and the art, well, they had to be hand crafted. I treasured them. I never wore them.
One day, I opened my jewelry box, and relized I had collected MANY pieces of this art work, and had not even realized it. Up until now, I had no idea what I even had been, apparently, “collecting”.
Thank you so much for sharing with me how much knowledge you have on this subject, for know I believe I know everything about Damascene.
Now, I shall pat myself on the back, and say; “ALL OF MY PIECES ARE GENUINE! I HAVE A GOOD EYE! FOR NOT KNOWING WHAT THEY WERE? PAYING PENNIES FOR THEM? I TOOK A RISK EACH TIME< WITHOUT KNOWING…Hmm? I JUST KNEW THEY WERE SPECIAL; beautiful little treasures of hand made metal carved and caressed by talented artisans from Spain (it was my guess). I still have them all, mostly pins, brooches and beautiful, dangly multipices of earrings.

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