» The Art of Jewelry Filigree

The Art of Jewelry Filigree

The Art of Jewelry Filigree

At Carl Blackburn many of our custom-made engagement rings and wedding bands incorporate fine hand-crafted filigree that transforms the pieces into true works of art. Filigree refers to the use of thin strands of wire that are twisted, woven, plaited, or interlaced in intricate patterns and incorporated into the design of the piece. The word filigree is derived from the Latin filum, meaning thread, and granum, meaning grain or small bead.

Filigree work ranges from simple, two dimensional geometric forms to extremely delicate layered works in three dimensions. Filigree can be found in almost any kind of jewelry, from brooches and pins to necklaces, watches, and rings. When combined with skill and patience, filigree work allows jewelers like Carl Blackburn to create pieces that quite literally incorporate air itself into the design.

History of Jewelry Filigree

Filigree has been found in jewelry from all over the world, including India, Egypt, China, and the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. The earliest designs using this technique can be traced back thousands of years, with examples surviving from ancient Mesopotamia dated as early as 3000 BC. While ancient jewelers would have learned the techniques of filigree work as part of their overall apprenticeship, today it is considered a specialized skill, practiced only by highly trained and skilled craftsmen. Learning to do filigree work requires not only time and patience, but an actual apprenticeship of sorts: the art is traditionally handed down in families, or from master to apprentice.

With the rise of industrialization in the 18th century, cheap methods of production were developed and traditional, artisan produced filigree was replaced by stamping and cutting techniques. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the great Russian jeweler Peter Carl Faberge reintroduced the exacting hand-crafted beauty of filigree back into jewelry design—the kind of which is produced today by the Carl Blackburn’s artisans.

Filigree became quite popular around 1900, with Edwardian era pieces being the first to incorporate platinum in filigree work. Rings from this period combined fragility and color—delicate filigree metal work often highlighted diamonds surrounded by colorful gemstones. The popularity of filigree work continued through the Art Nouveau period and peaked in the Art Deco period, when the thin wires were juxtaposed with bold color and abstract geometric designs in all kinds of jewelry. Though filigree waned in popularity through the latter half of the 20th century, fine filigree work is once again becoming popular today.

Types of Jewelry Filigree

Floral Filigree Wedding Band by Carl Blackburn
Openwork Wedding Band by Carl Blackburn

Historically, filigree was first made by applying wires to an underlying base of sheet metal or wire mesh. This ground-supported filigree simplifies the construction and soldering of the piece, and is generally two dimensional.

At Carl Blackburn, we specialize in openwork filigree, which features no back, and generally consists of heavier wire frames with lighter wire designs soldered into the frames at points of contact. With no back, openwork filigree results in lighter, airier pieces. Combinations of ground supported and openwork filigree can feature completed units of openwork filigree attached to sheet metals or other bases using solder or other attachments methods, like split rivets, bezels or claws.

Other materials are often added to filigree work, including enamel, niello, and precious stones. The resulting jewelry pieces use only a small amount of metal material to achieve beautifully light forms. Floral motifs, scroll-work, and swirls of intricate wire patterns can be found on many types of filigree jewelry, from brooches, pendants, and earrings to eternity, engagement and wedding rings.

Filigree Wire

The wire used in filigree work is made from various alloys of precious metals, most commonly silver, gold, and platinum. While jewelers today can purchase wires of nearly any dimension, traditionally the metals are melted, formed into ingots, and then re-heated and extruded through a laminator to produce a thick wire. This wire is then pulled through a draw-plate with a selection of calibrated holes until the desired wire thickness is achieved, with the thinnest wire often drawn to less than half a millimeter in diameter.

Once drawn to the proper diameter, the wire is annealed, or heated again, to both soften and strengthen the wire.

Filigree Techniques in Fine Jewery

After the wires are drawn to the required diameter, they are plaited, twisted, flattened, or otherwise shaped into the desired design. Although it is common to see mass produced jewelry with filigree work that is cast in place, by definition, all true filigree work is done by hand. The work of bending and welding the delicate wire into ornate designs requires highly developed skills, steady hands, and the patience of Job. It also requires extraordinary vision as some of the designs feature wire as thin as a sheet of paper. Much of the very finest filigree work is done with the help of a 10x bench microscope. The delicate wires are manipulated by means of fine pliers of various shapes and sets of fine clamps and tweezers.

Painstaking doesn’t even begin to describe the level of concentration and attention to detail required to produce fine filigree jewelry. From the careful manipulation of the exceptionally fine wire to the delicate soldering and fusing necessary, extreme skill and focus are the hallmarks of any jeweler working in filigree. Even the act of cleaning and polishing such fine work requires skilled hand work.

Contemporary Filigree Engagement Rings

Filigree Engagement Ring by Carl Blackburn
Filigree Engagement Ring by Carl Blackburn

Much of the best filigree work done today is featured in engagement and wedding rings—both as a nod to the history of Edwardian and Art Deco rings, but also as a contemporary statement of elegance and craftsmanship.

Filigree work can be featured on the shank or crown portion of the ring, and can be used as either a main design element or as an accent to highlight a diamond or other precious stones. These hand-made modern masterpieces may be vintage inspired, evoking bygone eras with floral motifs and volutes (spiral curves), but their pedigree is fully modern, offering stunning beauty in unique, contemporary settings.

Contact Carl Blackburn today to discuss the creation of your own custom-made filigree engagement ring, wedding band, or anniversary ring. We serve clients in San Diego and nationwide with the finest bespoke jewelry services. Call 858-869-0175.

Learn about the art of hand-milgraining in our article on Hand-Milgrained Engagement Rings.