Goldsmithery Techniques of Filagree, Niello, Cloisonné, Champlevé.

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Osiris, Isis and Horus (874-850 BCE)
Pendant made of gold, lapis lazuli
and glass. A wonderful example of
Egyptian goldsmithery.

Broighter Gold Collar (100-50 BCE)
National Museum of Ireland.

Goldsmithing & Goldsmithery (c.3000 BCE on)
Techniques, History, Famous Goldsmiths


What is Goldsmithing? What is a Goldsmith?
What are the unique properties of gold?
What were the main techniques used by Goldsmiths?
- Niello
- Embossing
- Enamelwork
- Cloisonné and Plique-à-jour
- Basse-Taille
- Champlevé
- Filagree/Filigree (Granulation)
- Chryselephantine
What is the history of goldsmithing?
The Renaissance: Growing affluence and trade
Famous goldsmiths
Famous gold artifacts, statues, sculptures and jewellery
Collections of Gold Objects

See also: Jewellery: History & Techniques.

Statuette of Charlemagne
on the sceptre of Charles V
(Before 1380) Louvre, Paris.
Part of the French Crown Jewels.
Made from gold, glass beads,
pearls, rubies, gilded silver,
white enamel on gold.

Gold Chariot from the Oxus Treasure
(c.600-400 BCE) An exquisite item
of Achaemenid goldsmithing from
Ancient Persia.


What is Goldsmithing?

Goldsmithing is the applied art of metalworking in gold. A goldsmith is essentially a metalworker whose specialty is working with precious metals like gold, silver, electrum, platinum, alloys like bronze and copper, as well as gemstones. (See also Crafts: History and Types.) Ever since the earliest civilization, goldsmiths have cast and hand-crafted gold artifacts, personal jewellery, platters, goblets, weaponry, equestrian items, as well as precious objects for ceremonial and religious purposes. Goldsmithing proved especially useful during medieval times, when goldsmiths were commissioned to adorn illuminated manuscripts with gold leaf, create gold reliquaries for holy relics and fashion numerous ecclesiastical objects out of precious metals. In addition, most countries have experienced their own "golden age" of precious metalwork, as exemplified by the wonderful Fabergé Easter Eggs made by the Russian master goldsmiths Gustav Fabergé (1814-1893) and Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), during the 19th century. Other types of metalwork involves silversmiths or brightsmiths (who specialize in working with silver), coppersmiths (copper), blacksmiths (iron) and whitesmiths (so-called white metals like pewter and tin).

What are the unique properties of gold?

Gold is an extremely rare, valuable and lustrous metal. Compared to other metals it does not corrode or tarnish, it is easily melted, fused and shaped, and is highly ductile: a single ounce (28 grams) of gold can be beaten into a thin sheet measuring some 300 square feet. It is also easy to pressure-weld. Because of its value and malleability, gold was one of the first materials to attract attention. Egyptian art, in particular, as well as Aegean art were noted for their gold artifacts. Ever since Antiquity, gold items have been used as both decorative art and a source of wealth. In India, for example, gold is used universally both to decorate the body and express one's status. The skill of its goldsmiths is legendary, as exemplified by the Khudabadi Sindhi Swarankar goldsmithing community, whose outstanding artworks were showcased in London at The Great Exhibition of 1851.

What were the main techniques used by Goldsmiths?

A master goldsmith is trained in numerous types of metalworking, including the sawing, cutting, forging, melting, casting, beating, soldering, filing, engraving, embossing, enamelling and polishing of precious metals and gemstones. Traditionally, most goldsmiths either learned the craft in their father's workshop, or acquired the skills as an apprentice to a master craftsman. Many also fashioned jewellery, while a number practiced engraving as printmakers. Many of the best engravers of the 15th century, for instance, were either goldsmiths, or the sons of goldsmiths, such as Albrecht Durer and Martin Schongauer. During the late-19th century, due to the Arts and Crafts movement in England, Art Nouveau around the world and the Deutscher Werkbund in Germany, the art of jewellery-making underwent a significant revival. Today, many of the best art schools offer courses in goldsmithing, silversmithing and metalwork as a part of their fine art program.

In addition to the basic goldsmithery techniques of smelting and forging, goldsmiths learned a range of advanced techniques including niello, embossing, repoussé work, enamelling (including cloisonné, champlevé, basse taille, plique-à-jour), engraving and filagree decoration.




First used by the Egyptians, this decorative technique involves the application of Niello - a black-coloured powder, made by fusing together copper, silver, lead and sulphur - onto designs engraved on small-scale metal objects, usually made of silver. Once the engraved metal surface is coated with the Niello, heat is applied which causes the Niello to melt and run into the engraved channels. Kievan Rus craftsmen were noted for their nielli during the 10th to 13th century, some of which is preserved in the Ukrainian Museum of Historic Treasures, in Kiev. See also: Christian Art (Byzantine Era) (c.400-1200) and Russian Medieval Painting (c.950-1100). Another great exponent of Niello was the Florentine goldsmith Maso Finiguerra (1426-64). Other noteworthy nielli include Anglo-Saxon gold belt buckles and other items from the Sutton Hoo hoards; and the Minden Crucifix (1070-1120, Minden cathedral, Germany).


This traditional metalworking technique is employed to create a raised or sunken design in a sheet of gold or other metal. A popular form of embossing is known as Repoussé - which involves the hammering of the reverse side of a metal sheet to create a design in low relief. Another method of embossing is known as Chasing. This works in the opposite way to repoussé: instead of hammering on the reverse side of the metal sheet to create a raised pattern on the front, chasing involves working on the front surface of the sheet to create a sunken design in the metal. Two exquisite examples of repoussé work are the Iron Age Petrie Crown (National Museum of Ireland), and the silver masterpiece known as the Gundestrup Cauldron (1st or 2nd century BCE, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen).


During the process of enamelling, a glass-like glaze is applied to a metal surface (or object) and then subjected to intense heat, which fuses the glaze, turning it into a beautifully coloured decorative coating. The glassy coating (known as vitreous enamel) can be made partly or wholly transparent, or completely opaque; furthermore, its colour can be controlled by mixing the smelted glass with various metal oxides such as cobalt, iron, praseodymium and others. (See also: Stained Glass Art: Materials & Methods.) Enamelling has affinities with mosaics and painting, and attained its first peak in early Byzantine culture. It also flourished during medieval times, notably in Limoges (c.1200) during the era of Gothic art, and during the Italian Renaissance.

Cloisonné and plique-à-jour

The technique of cloisonné enamelling (from the French word for compartments) involves the soldering of flattened strips of metal (or gold/silver wires) onto a metal object, so as to create a number of raised compartments (cloisons) which are then filled with enamel and kiln-fired. A more advanced (and difficult) form of cloisonné is known as Plique-à-jour, in which the "compartments" are built with walls that are not firmly fixed to the metal base. The latter is then removed with a few taps, leaving a network of enamel-filled compartments, which allow much more light to shine through. Cloisonné was mastered during the early era of Byzantine art, and during the Romanesque/Gothic period. It also spread to China - Chinese cloisonné is now regarded as one of the most outstanding examples of the craft - see, for instance, the collection of 150 Chinese items at the G.W. Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Mass. Nineteenth century Japanese goldsmiths also produced large amounts of this type of enamelwork, which reached a peak during the turn of the century in Russia, thanks to the House of Khlebnikov and, of course, Fabergé. Other famous examples of cloisonné enamelling in Christian art include the Irish Ardagh Chalice (8th/9th century, National Museum of Ireland); the Holy Crown of Hungary (Crown of Saint Stephen, 11th century, Hungarian Parliament building, Budapest); the Khakhuli Triptych (8th-12th century, Art Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi), a gold altarpiece, reportedly the largest enamelled work of art in the world.


This goldsmith's technique is like cloisonné, except that a low-relief pattern is created (by engraving or chasing) on the floors of the "compartments", which are then filled with translucent or transparent enamel, allowing the design to shine through it. An outstanding example of basse-taille is the French Royal Gold Cup (aka The Saint Agnes Cup) (14th century, British Museum), created by goldsmiths during the era of International Gothic art. A solid gold cup richly decorated with enamel and pearls, it is generally regarded as the foremost example of late medieval French plate.


A specific type of enamelwork - the word is French for "raised field" - champlevé enamelling involves the creation of sunken troughs in the surface of a metal object, which are then filled with vitreous enamel and fired in a kiln or oven. The technique was not fully developed until the era of Romanesque art (1000-1150). Famous examples of champlevé include: the Stavelot Triptych (c.1158), a masterpiece of Mosan art - a style of Romanesque goldsmithery made around Liege, Belgium - now in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York; and the Becket Casket (1180-1190) made of gilt-copper in Limoges, France (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Filagree/Filigree (Granulation)

This delicate technique basically involves the creation of gold and silver metalwork, using patterns of tiny gold beads or globules of gold (granulation), soldered to the surface of an object in patterns suggestive of lace. It was widely used by Italian and French goldsmiths from the mid-17th century to the late 19th century. Filagree reached an early apogee in Etruscan and Greek art (c.550-250 BCE), and - judging by the collection of Scythian jewellery in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg - in Steppes art around the Black Sea. In Ireland, examples of filagree goldsmithery include the Tara brooch (c.700 CE, National Museum of Ireland), a masterpiece of Celtic Jewellery art, and the Derrynaflan Chalice (NMI) - both decorated in the La Tene style of art. (See also: Celtic Metalwork art.) Other important examples of filagree gold work are in the collections of the British Museum and the V & A, in London, and the Louvre in Paris.


The term Chryselephantine art - derived from the Greek words chrysos (gold) and elephantinos (ivory) - refers to sculptures made from a combination of ivory carving and gold. Typically, a chryselephantine sculpture was built around a wooden frame, using thinly carved ivory for the flesh, and gold leaf for the armour, clothes, hair, and other details. Precious and semi-precious gemstones were used for details like eyes, jewellery, and weapons. The design of chryselephantine works was often modular to enable the gold to be removed and melted for coins in times of financial necessity. The figure of Nike clasped in the right hand of Phidias' famous statue of Athena Parthenos (c.430 BCE, Parthenon) was made out of pure gold for this very reason. The two nost famous examples of chryselephantine Greek sculpture - both made from plated ivory and gold panels during the era of Classical Greek sculpture - were sculpted by Phidias (488-431 BCE). The first was the 42-foot high statue of Athena Parthenos (c.430 BCE) in the Parthenon at Athens; the other was the 36-foot high statue of Zeus (430-422 BCE) in the temple at Olympia, which was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

What is the history of goldsmithing?

As stated above, goldwork was practiced by the earliest Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures that gave rise to Mesopotamian art and Mesopotamian sculpture, as well as Egyptian and later Minoan art. Even less sophisticated styles of Hittite art and Assyrian art had a tradition of gold-working. Gold mines in Egypt, Nubia and Saudi Arabia were major suppliers of the precious metal. Once established in ancient Greece and around the Black Sea, goldsmithery was spread westwards into central and western Europe by migrating tribes of Celts, whose blacksmiths were renowned for their mobile forges and metalworking skills. (See also: Hallstatt Celtic culture [c.800-450 BCE] and Celtic art [from 1,000 BCE]). At the same time, Etruscan art in Italy was becoming famous for the gold artifacts of its tombs. The Romans were also active in goldsmithing, not least because of their innovations in metallurgy: new techniques for large scale gold extraction were developed by introducing hydraulic mining methods, notably in Spain and the Balkans.

The rise of Christianity significantly boosted demand for gold items - for devotional and ecclesiastical needs - and during the Dark Ages, monasteries in Ireland, Iona and Northern England were repeatedly raided by marauding Vikings in search of gold and precious objects, used in the making of illuminated manuscripts by artist-monks. In Constantinople, centre of the Eastern Roman empire and its own style of early Christian art, goldsmiths and mosaicists became renowned for their shimmering masterpieces of gold and multi-coloured mosaic art. See, for instance, the decorative gold and copper work on the celebrated Garima Gospels (390-660) from Ethiopia - the world's most ancient illuminated gospel text. As western European culture regained its strength during the eras of Carolingian art (c.750-900) and its successor Ottonian art (c.900-1050), more goldsmiths were hired to keep up with demand. Another influential school was the Mosan school which grew up in the area around Liege and the Benedictine monastery of Stavelot. Leading members of this school included Godefroid de Claire (1100-1173) and Nicholas of Verdun (c.1156–1232).

The use of gold for religious and secular objects duly became a worldwide phenomenon, and goldsmiths were constantly in demand both in times of affluence (when they were commissioned to produce an ever-widening array of precious items), and during times of extreme hardship (when gold items were melted down into coin).

The Renaissance: Growing affluence and trade

The cultural revolution known as Renaissance art was underpinned by an equally important revolution in commerce and finance, stimulated by greatly increased trade in silk, spices and ceramics, that would shortly transform many palaces, churches and homes of Christian Europe. The impact was also felt on the arts and culture of the quattrocento. For example, when ordering new oil paintings, patrons began to specify the exact amounts of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and other expensive raw materials from the east to be used in the work, in order to increase its opulence and grandeur. And goldsmithery was a central and influential craft in the whole process. (See also: Colour Pigments.)

The prospect of acquiring more gold to fuel their appetite for ostentatious grandeur had a direct impact on European exploration. Portuguese colonialists headed south to Morocco, in the early 15th century, in an attempt to control the gold supply emanating from the rich gold mines of Mali. A century before, in 1324, the Mali ruler Mansa Musa (1312–1337) undertook his famous hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, during which he gave away so much gold that its market price in North Africa collapsed for a period of several years. The European colonialization of South America was also prompted by reports of the widespread use of gold ornaments, particularly in Central America, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

After the Renaissance, goldsmithery in France was twice stimulated as part of the upsurge in French decorative arts, which resulted from the building of the palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles. The first revival - associated with the Fontainebleau School - began in the 16th century (c.1528-1610) under the patronage of Francis I (1494-1547). The second revival began in the 17th century under the patronage of King Louis XIII (reigned 1610-43). For details, see: Palace of Versailles (built c.1624-98).

Since then, gold, and the production of gold items, has become closely linked to international trade as well as the liquidity and movement of personal assets, notably in India and the Far East.

Famous Goldsmiths

Goldsmithing has been a springboard for many different types of art: the history of painting and sculpture, for instance, is full of examples of famous artists who first trained as goldsmiths or silversmiths. They include such Renaissance luminaries as Lorenzo Ghiberti (1380-1455), the Renaissance sculptor; Luca Della Robbia (1399-1482), noted for his terracotta sculpture; Vecchietta (1410-80), the Sienese painter and architect; Antonio del Pollaiolo (1429-98), the quattrocento sculptor; Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), the Medici sculptor who taught Leonardo; the devout Florentine Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510); the fresco painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94); the engraver Cristofano Robetta (1462–1535); the Paduan sculptor Andrea Riccio (1470-1532); the High Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530), the Mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71); the German engraver and printer Johannes Gutenberg (1395-1468), the artist Albrecht Durer the Elder (1427-1502), father of the Northern Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer; the French Renaissance engraver Jean Duvet (1485-1562), the Swiss Renaissance painter and printmaker Urs Graf (1485-1528), and the leading English miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), to name but a few.

Special mention should be made of the great Russian master goldsmiths from the 19th century, such as Andrey Grigoriev, Ivan Gubkin, Sakerdon Skripitsyn, and Ivan Zuyev. In addition, note the "artist-jewellers" Gustav Fabergé (1814–1893) and Peter Carl Fabergé (1846–1920), creators of the exquisite "Fabergé Easter Eggs" for the Romanov Tsars. Among the many Fabergé craftsmen involved in the various goldsmithery processes - in addition to the jewellers Michael Perchin (1860-1903) and Henrik Wigstrom (1862-1923) - were Erik August Kollin (1836-1901), Feodor Ruckert (1840-1917), August Frederik Hollming (1854-1915), Johannes Zehngraf (1857-1908), Johan Victor Aarne (1863-1934), Feodor Alexeievich Afanasiev (1870-1937), Karl Gustaf Hjalmar Armfeldt (1873-1959), Oskar Woldemar Pihl (1860-97), Vassily Zuiev (1878-1941). See also: Russian Art (30,000 BCE - 1920).

Famous Gold Objects, Statues, Artifacts and Hoards

In addition to those items cited above, here is a short list of famous objects made from gold and other precious metals.

Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BCE) British Museum, London
Sculpture in gold-leaf, copper, lapis lazuli, red limestone, from Ur. Regarded as a masterpiece of Sumerian art of the Third Millennium BCE.

Maikop Gold Bull (c.2500 BCE) Hermitage, St Petersburg
Gold Sculpture (Maikop Culpture) from North Caucasus

Vapheio Cups (c.1475 BCE) National Archeological Museum, Athens
Early Mycenean drinking cups by Minoan goldsmiths, using repoussé technique

Mask of Tutankhamun (c.1327 BCE) Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Mummy mask in gold, glass, lapis lazuli, obsidian, carnelian, quartz, faience

Prince of Marlik (c.1200 BCE) National Museum of Iran, Tehran
Gold bust made by Persian goldsmiths using repoussé technique

Oxus Gold Chariot (c.400 BCE) British Museum, London
Part of the Oxus Treasure created by Tadjikstan goldsmiths

Kul Oba Sythian Vessel (c.375 BCE) Hermitage, St Petersburg
Electrum vessel from Kerch tomb, made by Scythian goldsmiths

Broighter Hoard (Gold Torc, Boat) (c.100 BCE) National Museum of Ireland
Finest example of Celtic La Tene goldwork

Bactrian Gold Hoard (1st Century BCE)
20,600 gold ornaments from six burial mounds in Afghanistan

Bimaran Reliquary (c.50 CE) British Museum
Afghanistan gold container, decorated with rare images of Buddha

The Staffordshire Hoard (c.750) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
3,500-item collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork

Reliquary of St Faith (975) Church of Sainte Foy Monastery, Conques
Made from gold, silver, copper, pearls, cloisonné enamel

Golden Virgin (990) Essen Cathedral, Germany
Earliest surving statue of the Madonna, made from gold leaf, cloisonné enamel

Basel Cathedral Altar Front (c.1027) Musee National du Moyen Age
Made by Ottonian goldsmiths from gold, precious stones, pearls

Shrine of the Three Kings (1180-1225) Treasury of Cologne Cathedral
Created by Mosan goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun.

The Cellini Salt Cellar (1543) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Enameled gold sculpture by Renaissance goldsmith/sculptor Benvenuto Cellini

The Golden Buddha (c.1760) Temple of Wat Traimit, Bangkok
World's largest solid gold statue worth approx $250 million

Collections of Gold Objects

Many of the world's best art museums have collections of antiquities made by goldsmiths from all over the world: see, for instance, the gold ornament rooms of the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, as well as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Note also that the British Royal family has over 250 Fabergé items in the Royal Art Collection. In America, the most extensive collections of gold artifacts are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the G.W. Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts. Other collections of "objets d'art" are on display in specialist museums including the History Museum in Samokov, Bulgaria; the Art Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi; the Ukrainian Museum of Historic Treasures in Kiev; National Archeological Museum, Athens; the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; and the Musee National du Moyen Age, Paris, to name but a few.


• For more about decorative arts and crafts, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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