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What is Niello?

The art of metalworking is an ancient practice, with many of the techniques used today dating as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians. Much of the process of metalworking and jewelsmithing has remained virtually unchanged since the techniques were first developed centuries ago. One of the oldest practices aside from alloying that is still in use today is known as niello. Niello is a type of decoration technique, as well as a process of creating a specialized mixture used as a filling to offset metallic etching, engravings and carvings to better cast the design in relief. Niello is, strictly speaking, a type of inlay that is used to add depth and body to minute details.

The origins of niello are attributed to the ancient Egyptians, who first used it to add detail to much of their tooled jewelry and funerary items. The practice which allowed tooled items that have been carved to become more aesthetically pleasing soon spread all throughout Europe, with much of the practice being done by – and found on – items of an Irish, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Pictish use, especially ones that date from the later decades of the Iron Age[1] .

Niello as a concoction is usually composed of a mixture of various metals, among them silver, copper, lead and sulfur which is heated to the melting point and allowed to cool, resulting in an alloy which is the color of charcoal[2] . This alloy is very brittle, and it possesses a very low melting point, along with the capacity to meld itself to other metals easily. It is then ground into powder to be applied to pieces of jewelry, or larger works of art.

Niello the process involves the use of the ground-up metallic alloy as an appliqué to crevasses of tooled gold or silver. Once applied, the piece of jewelry is then heated at a moderate temperature to melt the niello and bind it into the metalwork. For larger pieces, a torch can be used to apply the niello to chosen areas. The piece is then sanded down, and excess niello is then removed by a slow carving out or sanding, leaving a black background which brings the details of the tooled piece into relief, allowing for a greater display of detail and workmanship[3] . When done on silver (as is the most common use of niello), it can sometimes be confused for the normal patina that builds up overtime, although silver patina does not result in a coal-black and oftentimes glossy appearance.

Examples of nielli (items worked with niello) were replete during the Mediaeval period, lasting until the latter part of the 1600s. To this day, niello is a staple in jewelry making, with many examples of nielli being found in both artisan pieces and mass-produced ones, although it is no longer as commonly employed as it was during the mediaeval period. It is usually common in jewelry oriented towards the gothic subculture. The height of niello working came about during the Renaissance, where it became a staple in the creation and beautification of liturgical objects, while the Celts employed it for the beautification of everyday items, as the black background that niello provided pieces allowed the channels of typical Celtic jewelry to stand out more. The practice is still done today, either traditionally by artisan jewel smiths, or through more modern processes for jewelry made for mass market sales (such as pewter pendants and accessories). Despite being an reputedly European technique, nielli, or nielloware as they later came to be called, was also common in Thailand, where it is often referred to as ‘Siam silver’[4] .

Niello - References:

[1] Solberg, S., Jernalderen I Norge, page 158

Content researched and created by Alexander Leonhart for ©

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