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Frequently misunderstood and misidentified, true damascene is a special find for those who appreciate finely handcrafted jewelry. Its intricate designs are composed of precious gold and silver embedded into base metal, such as steel. Today this jewelry comes from two distinctly different cities - Toledo, Spain and Kyoto, Japan - both of which originally acquired the technique from the same source.
Damascene-style work is said to have been practiced by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, but was developed into a high art by the craftsmen of Damascus, Syria more than 2,000 years ago. During what is known in Japan as the Nara period (between 710 and 794 A.D.), this technique for decorating metal was carried along the Silk Road from Damascus to Japan. Around the same time, the Moors conquered what is now Spain, bringing the damascene style of decoration with them. This beautiful art form took root in both countries and evolved independently in each place. Interestingly, the production of damascene jewelry largely disappeared from the Mideast and today there is no prominent maker located in that part of the world.
Fig. 1 - The Silk Road.
In Japan, damascene was frequently used to decorate the hilts of weapons. It achieved great popularity in Kyoto during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). During the period which followed, however, swords were banned in Japan, putting an end to the age of the shoguns and samurai. Craftsmen who had applied their skills to the beautification of weapons then turned their skill at damascene work to various accessories and decorative items, including jewelry. The design motifs used in damascene jewelry made in Kyoto typically reflect traditional Japanese subject matter: cherry blossoms and other flowers such as iris, landscape scenes (often including Mt. Fuji), butterflies, and birds. By 1936, more than half of the damascene items made in Japan were being exported, mainly to the United States and England.
Fig. 2 - Japanese damascene.
Fig. 3 - Spanish damascene with Renaissance motif.
Damascene work became popular in Europe during the fifteenth century, with Toledo emerging as the center of production during the Renaissance. The two fairly standard design styles typical to Spanish damascene, Renaissance and Arabesque, reflect its history and origins. Commonly seen Renaissance motifs include birds and flowers with a distinctly European look, quite different from the Japanese equivalents. The Arabesque motifs, which originated with the Moors who brought this technique to Europe, feature complex geometric patterns.
Fig. 4 - Spanish damascene with arabesque motif.
Their Japan, a book published in 1936 in Yokohama describes a painstaking, lengthy, and arduous process by which damascene items were made at that time. It stated that artists sat cross-legged before low benches and created these products by first drawing the design onto pieces of tissue paper. These tissue paper designs were placed over the base metal surface and traced into the metal with a fine chisel. Delicate crosshatching was then engraved within the outlined patterns to create a slightly rough texture similar to finely woven cloth. Very fine gold and silver threads were then hammered gently into the grooves and a tool made of deer antler was used to smooth the surface and tamp down any rough edges. The base metal was then oxidized using nitric acid (later neutralized by washing with baking soda in water). After drying, the piece was washed twice in dilute salt water and baked over a fire. This washing and baking was repeated for five days eight or nine times each day in summer, seven times each day in winter until all the rust was gone from the steel. After this, the clean surface was dipped into a thick red-clay mud and baked, repeating this dipping and baking 50 to 100 times to build a coating of lacquer. The surface was then coated with powdered charcoal and oil and baked yet again. These baked-on layers of charcoal and oil were repeated another 10 or 20 times before the piece was cleaned of black powder with a piece of cryptomeria wood and the surface was rubbed to a high polish using a small steel rod. Sometimes additional carving was done as a final step.
Sometime around the 1960s, the Amita Jewelry Corporation of Kyoto published an undated brochure advertising the damascene and smoked silver jewelry made by their company. The fabrication process they described was very similar to that of the 1930s in that delicate instruments were used to chisel into a steel foundation a design etched with fine lines which was then inlaid with precious 24 karat gold thread, gold foil, and/or sterling silver thread. The surface of the steel was then corroded with nitric acid and rusted with ammonia. The rusting process was stopped by boiling the piece in green tea before several layers of lacquer were baked onto the entire surface. Polishing with charcoal removed the top layers of lacquer to reveal the gold and silver design. The piece was then finished with finely detailed engraving.
Fig. 5 - Japanese damascene bracelet showing Mt. Fuji and nature scenes.
The Spanish method of damascening is very similar, yet somewhat different. The artwork is typically made on small plaques which are later prong-set into the finished piece of jewelry. According to this website, they also first slash or score the surface of a base metal plaque to permit the gold and silver to adhere to the plaque. The precious metals are then laid onto this scored surface and pounded into the grooves using a mate (punch) and maceta (small hammer). The black background is created by oxidation with a very hot bluing solution which leaves the precious metals unchanged. Spanish damascene work is then finished with a delicate chipping process called repasado which gives a beautiful sheen to the gold work. Both 24 karat yellow gold and 18 karat green gold, as well as silver, are used in Spanish damascene.
Fig. 6 - Moorish castle motif in Spanish damascene bracelet.
The easiest way to tell the difference between Japanese and Spanish damascene work is by looking carefully at the design motifs. Arabesque and/or Renaissance style designs are nearly always Spanish, while Asian style designs will be Japanese. Japanese damascene often has a K24 or 24K designation worked into the damascene design, done in gold. Spanish damascene may be marked SPAIN or MADE IN SPAIN on the reverse side. Spanish damascene jewelry is typically composed of individual plaques prong-set into gold-plated base metal. Japanese damascene jewelry is not prong-set, as can be seen in the examples shown.
It can be difficult to date damascene jewelry from either country because the techniques and motifs have changed so little for hundreds of years. Subtle changes in the overall style of the jewelry items, however, can give clues to age. Also, differences in quality can be discerned by careful inspection, with older pieces often exhibiting greater precision and finer detail.
Fig. 7 - This Arabesque-style Spanish damascene bracelet can be dated to the 1940s by the tank tread style frequently seen in Retro Modern jewelry of that era.
Fig. 8 - This Renaissance-style Spanish damascene bracelet with fine repasado was purchased in Toledo during the early 1960s and is from the authors personal collection.
Damascene jewelry is quite durable, standing up well to the test of time. The 1936 book by De Garis recommends rubbing damascene items monthly with a soft cloth dipped in olive oil to retain the original polish. Tarnished silver and/or gold inlays can be polished with a cotton cloth stretched across a fingertip, but chemical metal polishes and harsh abrasives should be avoided.
Imitation damascene jewelry is made in Spain and may be confusing to the beginning collector. It is important to learn to recognize the differences between this imitation and true damascene. Imitation damascene is typically made from stamped or pressed metal findings plated in gold-tone and/or silver-tone. These stamped pieces are then painted or enameled black in the recessed areas to create a contrasting pattern. Although this jewelry can be very attractive and fun to wear, it is not handcrafted and it does not contain any precious metals.
Fig. 9 - While lovely, these Arabesque-style Spanish earrings are imitation damascene, not handcrafted.
Fig. 10 - Here is another example of imitation damascene.
Lovers of beautifully crafted jewelry will want to include both Spanish and Japanese damascene in their collections. This living tradition provides a unique opportunity to own, at very modest cost, a unique artisan-made item which includes precious metals in a style which has been handed down across the centuries virtually unchanged. Each time you wear one of these lovely pieces you will be transported back in time to the splendors of the Alhambra and the adventures of the ancient Silk Road.
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