What is Filigree?

The filigree pattern is a delicate, intricate, lace-like design, exemplifying a level of skill and detail.

Filigree defined

The English word filigree is actually shortened from the Latin word “filum” meaning thread and grain, like a small bead.  The dictionary definition that we have today is, “delicate ornamental work of fine silver, gold, or other metal wires, especially lacy jewelers’ work of scrolls and arabesques.” Simply put, filigree is a metalwork style type.

How to create the filigree pattern

Filigree involves twisting threads of metal together into lace-like patterns. The metalwork, in combination with beads and twisted threads, is soldered together and arranged in stylized, delicate and intricate motifs, often reflecting a lace design. These designs can be either backed work or openwork. The metal wirework may be plaited, plain, untwisted, twisted, and the metals used are usually bronze, platinum, silver or gold. The filigree design might also be accented with gemstones, although it wasn’t until the 4th Century that gemstones were incorporated. The filigree pattern is thus a delicate, intricate, lace-like design, exemplifying a level of skill and detail.

russian filagree box

This antique Russian filigree box sold for $275 in November 2014.

There are generally four structural ways to create different types of filigree designs:

  • The first type is when a material, such as enamel is used to fill in the gaps between the filigree wire design.
  • The second type is called openwork because a design does not have a backing and is constructed with a heavier wire. The wires are then soldered together at key points so that the structural integrity of the design is intact.
  • The third type (photo below) is ground-supported, essentially involving the wires being soldered to one supporting surface.

Ground-supported filigree involves the wires being soldered to one supporting surface.

  • The fourth type (photo below) combines two of the above structural ways to create filigree- open-work and ground-supported, this way the openwork wires are supported and attached to a supporting surface, such as sheet metal. 

Openwork wires are supported and attached to a supporting surface, such as sheet metal.

The history of filigree design

This method of jewelry making has its origin in Mesopotamia, where it was utilized by craftsmen as far back as 3000 BC. Although today the filigree technique demands skillful craftsmanship, in ancient times it was the customary skill all jewelers acquired despite its difficult and time-consuming nature. Creating filigree by hand made it a design that was extremely rare and valuable. Furthermore, due to its delicate structure, little authentic antique filigree survives, enhancing the value of such pieces even more.

Filigree work was particularly prominent amongst the Greeks and Etruscans. All of their jewelry was created by soldering together and constructing upon gold, certainly not by chipping away or engraving the metal. It is clear that Indian and Asian jewelers were heavily influenced by the Greek way of creating jewelry; in fact, to this day they still create jewelry using the ancient styles and designs.

Today, modern technology allows filigree designs to be mass produced and machine cast, granting the art form that is filigree to be accessible to anyone who wishes to incorporate such a delicate and intrinsic aspect into their piece. The mass-produced filigree design is likely to be more hard-wearing, less delicate, and is often stamped out rather than built up, like traditional filigree design is. Therefore, some would argue that this process produces something called ajoure design, rather than filigree.

Filigree elsewhere…

This antique lamp with a filigree shade sold for $293.76 in March 2016.

The filigree design, and the techniques it involves have an application in other metalwork, not just in pieces of jewelry; thus, filigree design can be seen in all sorts of metalwork design and is certainly a design worth looking out for!

Delilah Kealey-Roberts joined the AC Silver team as a Sales & Digital Assistant in 2017 after completing her degree in English Literature at Leeds University. Delilah possesses a passion for jewelry and antiquities combined with an interest in blogging and social media.

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