By Katie Austin
After the fall of Rome, much of the world from fell into an economic and social decline that many historians once referred to as the Dark Ages, lasting from the 5th through 15th centuries CE. Although there were was some cultural and artistic backsliding and a lack of written historical records, archaeological discoveries in the 19th century and on have caused scholars to re-think this period of human history as a time of creative and intellectual obscurity, preferring to refer to the time period as the Middle Ages. There is, perhaps, no lovelier evidence of the creative spirit being alive and well during the Middle Ages than in the world of jewelry. In fact, some of the most important tricks of the trade were spread or expanded upon during the Middle Ages. Two popular metal-smithing processes in the Middle Ages were plating and gilding.
When many people think of plating, they imagine a piece of jewelry being lowered into a bubbling pot of molten metal to coat it. At The Jewelbox, it isn’t unusual to be asked if a yellow gold ring can be “dipped” to make it white. In reality, plating is a centuries-old process that doesn’t involve liquid metal; it’s all about electrochemistry. In jewelry plating, a thin sheet of metal, often gold, silver or rhodium, is electrically charged in a process opposite of how batteries are charged, causing the molecules of the thin metal sheet to attract and adhere to the object being plated. When the plating process is used to adhere ornamental gold design onto metal and glass, it is known as gilding. Plating wasn’t a new process by the Middle Ages; our archaeological records credit the pre-Columbian indigenous people of Peru with the first plating process, called depletion gilding. Still, the people of the Middle Ages, particularly the Byzantines and the Celts, spread the practice and its effects were far-reaching. As a matter of fact, you probably rely on electrochemical plating everyday without even knowing it. Even if you don’t favor plated jewelry, electroplating is a common process utilized for the inner workings of your smartphone, laptop and tablet.
The Middle Ages also saw some great expansion on the idea of creating small but incredibly intricate detail in pieces of jewelry. When you think of a group of Medieval people capable of expertly creating delicate, painstakingly ornate jewelry, who comes to mind? I bet it wasn’t the Vikings! Believe it or not, the Vikings of the Middle Ages contributed a lot to the world of jewelry. For starters, like the Ancient Chinese, the Vikings generally favored silver as a medium, which was rather unusual in the Middle Ages; there was an overwhelming preference for gold at the time. The Vikings’ signature style started very simply with plain bands but their craft flourished with the adoption of two techniques: repoussé and filigree.
Repoussé is the art of creating relief detail in a malleable piece of metal by hammering out designs from the back of the metal. As with plating and gilding, repoussé wasn’t a new technique. Its use dates back at least 3,000 BCE in the Middle East, with Ancient Greeks and Romans embracing the technique to hammer out bronze breastplates for battle. Still, it is fascinating that the Vikings -a group best known for its fighting and pillaging- would value the repoussé technique for the creation of things of beauty.
Filigree is the art of creating patterns and designs on metal jewelry by soldering tiny beads, twisted thread or both onto the jewelry’s surface. The name, “filigree” comes from the Latin words, “filum,” meaning, “thread,” and “granum,” meaning. “grain” in reference to the grain-like beading. The practice of soldering filigree design onto jewelry dates back as far as the use of repoussé, with archaeological evidence that the practice was used by the Mesopotamians. Nevertheless, the Vikings had a real flair for creating imaginative designs with the use of filigree in abstract and geometric patterns on decorative pins necessary particularly for women to keep their clothing closed, as well as finger rings, neck rings and even Norse religious amulets like the one pictured.
By the late Middle Ages, design work on gold and other metals by the Vikings, as well as the Celts, Byzantines, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons and a myriad of Germanic tribes, was so detailed that the use of gemstones was often foregone. Can you imagine Micky Roof’s dreamy drop earrings without lush amethysts, deep green tourmalines or flashy opals to accompany the beautiful metalwork? Well, don’t despair! As we know from Micky’s work, gemstones came back into popularity, paired with great new human talent for fine detail in goldsmithing. Tune in next week for gems’ triumphant return during the Renaissance!