FILIGREE (formerly written filigrain or filigrane; the Ital. filigrana, Fr. filigrane, Span, filigrana, Ger. Drahtgeflecht), jewel work of a delicate kind made with twisted threads usually of gold and silver. The word, which is usually derived from the Lat. filum, thread, and granum, grain, is not found in Ducange, and is indeed of modern origin. According to Prof. Skeat it is derived from the Span. filigrana, from "filar, to spin, and grano, the grain or principal fibre of the material." Though filigree has become a special branch of jewel work in modern times it was anciently part of the ordinary work of the jeweller. Signor A. Castellani states, in his Memoir on the Jewellery of the Ancients (1861), that all the jewelry of the Etruscans and Greeks (other than that intended for the grave, and therefore of an unsubstantial character) was made by soldering together and so building up the gold rather than by chiselling or engraving the material.
The art may be said to consist in curling, twisting and plaiting fine pliable threads of metal, and uniting them at their points of contact with each other, and with the ground, by means of gold or silver solder and borax, by the help of the blowpipe. Small grains or beads of the same metals are often set in the eyes of volutes, on the junctions, or at intervals at which they will set off the wire-work effectively. The more delicate work is generally protected by framework of stouter wire. Brooches, crosses, earrings and other personal ornaments of modern filigree are generally surrounded and subdivided by bands of square or flat metal, giving consistency to the filling up, which would not otherwise keep its proper shape. Some writers of repute have laid equal stress on the filum and the granum, and have extended the use of the term filigree to include the granulated work of the ancients, even where the twisted wire-work is entirely wanting. Such a wide application of the term is not approved by current usage, according to which the presence of the twisted threads is the predominant fact.
The Egyptian jewellers employed wire, both to lay down on a background and to plait or otherwise arrange à jour. But, with the exception of chains, it cannot be said that filigree work was much practised by them. Their strength lay rather in their cloisonné work and their moulded ornaments. Many examples, however, remain of round plaited gold chains of fine wire, such as are still made by the filigree workers of India, and known as Trichinopoly chains. From some of these are hung smaller chains of finer wire with minute fishes and other pendants fastened to them. In ornaments derived from Phoenician sites, such as Cyprus and Sardinia, patterns of gold wire are laid down with great delicacy on a gold ground, but the art was advanced to its highest perfection in the Greek and Etruscan filigree of the 6th to the 3rd centuries B.C. A number of earrings and other personal ornaments found in central Italy are preserved in the Louvre and in the British Museum. Almost all of them are made of filigree work. Some earrings are in the form of flowers of geometric design, bordered by one or more rims each made up of minute volutes of gold wire, and this kind of ornament is varied by slight differences in the way of disposing the number or arrangement of the volutes. But the feathers and petals of modern Italian filigree are not seen in these ancient designs. Instances occur, but only rarely, in which filigree devices in wire are self-supporting and not applied to metal plates. The museum of the Hermitage at St Petersburg contains an amazingly rich collection of jewelry from the tombs of the Crimea. Many bracelets and necklaces in that collection are made of twisted wire, some in as many as seven rows of plaiting, with clasps in the shape of heads of animals of beaten work. Others are strings of large beads of gold, decorated with volutes, knots and other patterns of wire soldered over the surfaces. (See the Antiquités du Bosphore Cimmérien, by Gille, 1854; reissued by S. Reinach, 1892, in which will be found careful engravings of these objects.) In the British Museum a sceptre, probably that of a Greek priestess, is covered with plaited and netted gold wire, finished with a sort of Corinthian capital and a boss of green glass.
It is probable that in India and various parts of central Asia filigree has been worked from the most remote period without any change in the designs. Whether the Asiatic jewellers were influenced by the Greeks settled on that continent, or merely trained under traditions held in common with them, it is certain that the Indian filigree workers retain the same patterns as those of the ancient Greeks, and work them in the same way, down to the present day. Wandering workmen are given so much gold, coined or rough, which is weighed, heated in a pan of charcoal, beaten into wire, and then worked in the courtyard or verandah of the employer's house according to the designs of the artist, who weighs the complete work on restoring it and is paid at a specified rate for his labour. Very fine grains or beads and spines of gold, scarcely thicker than coarse hair, projecting from plates of gold are methods of ornamentation still used.
Passing to later times we may notice in many collections of medieval jewel work (such as that in the South Kensington Museum) reliquaries, covers for the gospels, etc., made either in Constantinople from the 6th to the 12th centuries, or in monasteries in Europe, in which Byzantine goldsmiths' work was studied and imitated. These objects, besides being enriched with precious stones, polished, but not cut into facets, and with enamel, are often decorated with filigree. Large surfaces of gold are sometimes covered with scrolls of filigree soldered on; and corner pieces of the borders of book covers, or the panels of reliquaries, are not unfrequently made up of complicated pieces of plaited work alternating with spaces encrusted with enamel. Byzantine filigree work occasionally has small stones set amongst the curves or knots. Examples of such decoration can be seen in the South Kensington and British Museums.
In the north of Europe the Saxons, Britons and Celts were from an early period skilful in several kinds of goldsmiths' work. Admirable examples of filigree patterns laid down in wire on gold, from Anglo-Saxon tombs, may be seen in the British Museum - notably a brooch from Dover, and a sword-hilt from Cumberland.
The Irish filigree work is more thoughtful in design and more varied in pattern than that of any period or country that could be named. Its highest perfection must be placed in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Royal Irish Academy in Dublin contains a number of reliquaries and personal jewels, of which filigree is the general and most remarkable ornament. The "Tara" brooch has been copied and imitated, and the shape and decoration of it are well known. Instead of fine curls or volutes of gold thread, the Irish filigree is varied by numerous designs in which one thread can be traced through curious knots and complications, which, disposed over large surfaces, balance one another, but always with special varieties and arrangements difficult to trace with the eye. The long thread appears and disappears without breach of continuity, the two ends generally worked into the head and the tail of a serpent or a monster. The reliquary containing the "Bell of St Patrick" is covered with knotted work in many varieties. A two-handled chalice, called the "Ardagh cup," found near Limerick in 1868, is ornamented with work of this kind of extraordinary fineness. Twelve plaques on a band round the body of the vase, plaques on each handle and round the foot of the vase have a series of different designs of characteristic patterns, in fine filigree wire work wrought on the front of the repoussé ground. (See a paper by the 3rd earl of Dunraven in Transactions of Royal Irish Academy, xxiv. pt. iii. 1873.)
Much of the medieval jewel work all over Europe down to the 15th century, on reliquaries, crosses, croziers and other ecclesiastical goldsmiths' work, is set off with bosses and borders of filigree. Filigree work in silver was practised by the Moors of Spain during the middle ages with great skill, and was introduced by them and established all over the Peninsula, whence it was carried to the Spanish colonies in America. The Spanish filigree work of the 17th and 18th centuries is of extraordinary complexity (examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum), and silver filigree jewelry of delicate and artistic design is still made in considerable quantities throughout the country. The manufacture spread over the Balearic Islands, and among the populations that border the Mediterranean. It is still made all over Italy, and in Malta, Albania, the Ionian Islands and many other parts of Greece. That of the Greeks is sometimes on a large scale, with several thicknesses of wires alternating with larger and smaller bosses and beads, sometimes set with turquoises, etc., and mounted on convex plates, making rich ornamental headpieces, belts and breast ornaments. Filigree silver buttons of wire-work and small bosses are worn by the peasants in most of the countries that produce this kind of jewelry. Silver filigree brooches and buttons are also made in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Little chains and pendants are added to much of this northern work.
Some very curious filigree work was brought from Abyssinia after the capture of Magdala - arm-guards, slippers, cups, etc., some of which are now in the South Kensington Museum. They are made of thin plates of silver, over which the wire-work is soldered. The filigree is subdivided by narrow borders of simple pattern, and the intervening spaces are made up of many patterns, some with grains set at intervals.
A few words must be added as to the granulated work which, as stated above, some writers have classed under the term of filigree, although the twisted wires may be altogether wanting. Such decoration consists of minute globules of gold, soldered to form patterns on a metal surface. Its use is rare in Egypt. (See J. de Morgan, Fouilles à Dahchour, 1894-1895, pl. xii.) It occurs in Cyprus at an early period, as for instance on a gold pendant in the British Museum from Enkomi in Cyprus (10th century B.C.). The pendant is in the form of a pomegranate, and has upon it a pattern of triangles, formed by more than 3000 minute globules separately soldered on. It also occurs on ornaments of the 7th century B.C. from Camirus in Rhodes. But these globules are large, compared with those which are found on Etruscan jewelry. Signor Castellani, who had made the antique jewelry of the Etruscans and Greeks his special study, with the intention of reproducing the ancient models, found it for a long time impossible to revive this particular process of delicate soldering. He overcame the difficulty at last, by the discovery of a traditional school of craftsmen at St Angelo in Vado, by whose help his well-known reproductions were executed.
For examples of antique work the student should examine the gold ornament rooms of the British Museum, the Louvre and the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The last contains a large and very varied assortment of modern Italian, Spanish, Greek and other jewelry made for the peasants of various countries. It also possesses interesting examples of the modern work in granulated gold by Castellani and Giuliano. The Celtic work is well represented in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)