What is Filigree?

Posted on November 16, 2015 by Mary Hood | 0 Comments

Vintage silver filigree bridal earrings.

Sterling Silver and Pearl Vintage Filigree Bridal Earrings

Filigree is an ancient metal working technique that spans millennia and world cultures. The word “filigree” comes from the Latin word filum, meaning thread and granum (grain). It has also been called telkari, an ancient Anatolian word meaning “wire work.” Indeed, filigree is crafted with fine, precious metal wires (which may resemble threads) and often incorporates small metal beads (resembling grains) to create intricate and multi-layered designs that often resemble weaving or lacework. Although filigree is now a specialized branch of jewelry, it was once part of the repertoire of the average jeweler.

Archeaological discoveries indicate that the art of filigree was practiced and incorporated into jewelry as early as 3,000 BC. Between the 6th and 3rd century BC, the art was mastered and advanced by Greek and Etruscan jewelers.

 Etruscan Golden Filigree Ear Stud

Etruscan Golden Filigree Ear Stud, 5th Century BC, on Display at the British Museum.

The Irish Insular Period (which lasted from the 5th to the 11th century, according to some scholars) witnessed a new development in the art of filigree. Instead of creating filigree with fine curls of thread, the Irish perfected a more detailed style of ornamentation involving complex patterns of interwoven metal thread. Although the journey of the thread in these designs is typically difficult to follow with the eye, the thread ultimately meets up with the head of a snake or beast.

What is Filigree? | Barbara Michelle Jacobs Blog 

The Tara Brooch is a Celtic brooch of about 700 AD

Between the 6th and 12th centuries, medieval jewelers in Constantinople and various European monasteries emulated the work of ancient Byzantine goldsmiths and created filigree pieces to adorn embellished crosses, reliquaries, and covers for Bibles. Often, these pieces were encrusted with precious stones to symbolize the sacred material they represented.  

 What is Filigree? | Barbara Michelle Jacobs Blog

Filigree Covering for a Book of Hours

Also during the Middle Ages, the Moors of Spain were known for their silver filigree, a tradition that ultimately made it to the Spanish colonies in the New World.

Filigree is still widely practiced, especially in Italy, Greece, Portugal, Malta, Macedonia, Albania, and the Ionian Islands. Chandelier earrings are one of the most popular examples of contemporary filigree. 

What is Filigree? | Barbara Michelle Jacobs Blog

Gold Filigree Earrings

How Filigree is Created

Filigree is created by twisting, curling or plaiting fine and pliable precious metal wires into an intricate design. The wires are then soldered together at their points of contact in the design and then soldered to the surface of the final piece. Depending on the time period of the filigree, flux (a chemical solution used to join metals) or a mouth-blown blowpipe (an ancient tool used to solder metals) is used to unite the metals.

Ancient filigree often incorporated small beads of metal at intervals in the design to accent the design. The beads used in this granular filigree were created with a pitted, charcoal mold that yielded spherical beads of precious metal.


Photos: Luxe de Luxe via Etsy, Wikipedia Commons, Weddbook

Posted in Ancient jewelry, antique jewelry, filigree, jewelry history, precious metal



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