THE LACY ART OF SILVER AND GOLD
Nesting between the mountains of the Lugurian Appennines sits the town of Campo Ligure, home of the ancient craft of filigree jewellery. It takes these dedicated artists 7 hours to create a lacy brooch and some twenty-five hours to produce a more elaborate table ornament. Brooches are the most popular item produced, but other items range from earrings, boxes filled with sweets, that are traditionally given as wedding presents by Italian bridal couples, through to sailing ships, ornate baskets to a two-storey birdcage.
The art of filigree has a very long tradition and basically consists of bending and braiding very thin gold or silver threads and reuniting them. It obtains its name from the Latin ‘filum’ (thread) and ‘granum’ (grain) and dates back more than 4,000 years when the artists of Asia Minor created the first filigree gold jewellery. It was the ancient Egyptians who were amongst the first to coil paper-like strands of silver and gold into patterns and solder then onto a solid backing, and some of this fine filigree jewellery was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Most probably it was the ancient traders who helped to spread the unusual techniques throughout the Mediterranean.
By early 1800 Genoa was the centre of filigree work with over 4,000 artisans working from around 200 workshops, and it was many of the apprentices of these craftsmen who settled in Campo Ligure. The artists transforms some twenty pounds of pure silver each day, and sixty-six pounds of gold annually into commercial goods that generate more than four million lire a year.
The art of filigree work is fascinating to watch. First the artist puts the silver into a small stone melting pot, called the crogiolo,’ made of graphite stone, so that it can be heated to 950C without cracking the pot, and it takes 10 minutes to melt the silver. In a conventional oven it would take an hour. The liquid is then poured into 3ft long metal bars, each gouged with grooves in varying depths, and left to harden into long thin sticks. When they have solidified, the sticks are pulled through a mill to stretch each one. Two more ‘heating’s’ are necessary to keep the silver pliable during the process. Each stick is then filled down at one end to a crude point and, with a pair of pliers the sticks are threaded through a diamond-shaped hole made into the upright record-like plate. The process is repeated through several disks, each with a hole smaller than the last, to make the silver wire even thinner. The wire is then threaded onto a large spool and fired again to keep it pliable, before it is divided between two spools and fitted to a machine that twists the two strands together. Another machine flattens them to give the finished metal thread the serrated look that is so characteristic of filigree lace work.
Each workshop has its own set of unique designs, and some have up to 1,000 different jealously-guarded blueprints that have been handed down from generation to generation. After choosing the pattern of their choice, the artisans choose the diameter of the desired thread according to the piece they are going to produce. Using a pair of tweezers they take a length of wire, and then with their fingers gently coax the metal into the required round, oval, oblong or S shape required. Reaching for a template of their creation – made of a thicker silver and copper wire to act as a girdle to hold the pieces in place – they arrange their segments within the frame with the tweezers.
Through the centuries two techniques have been used to finish off the jewellery making. In one the wire is anchored with solder on to a backing of sheet metal, and in the other, the design is openwork and unsupported, fitted together within a tight framework. In due course, the Venetians, who prided themselves on their extravagant work, decorated their creations with enamel.
There are many magnificent unique examples of filigree work to be seen at Campo Ligure’s Museum which is dedicated to the ancient art and well worth a visit, Here you will find some very fine examples including a Russian Icon encased in filigree, a fragile looking chest, hand mirrors and doll’s house furniture, but the highlight of the collection must be a 16thC suit of armour made by Silvio Piombo and his son for the filigree fair in Campo Ligure in 1968.