Vintage Damascene Jewelry: Three Key Traits
There are three key traits of genuine damascene jewelry:
- The background metal is oxidized to a very dark color
- The design is hand chiseled into the metal
- 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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 🙂