The fine art of filigree

 Ximena Briceno and her filigree artwork.

Ximena Briceno and her filigree artwork.

Artist and historian Ximena Briceņo has found that the twists, weaves and intricacies of finely-crafted filigree objects are every bit as complex as the art form’s history. By MARTYN PEARCE.

The fine art of filigree is just that - fine. Its delicately entwined silver wires have patterns and an intricacy more familiar in the natural world of vines and twines than the man-made world of silver jewellery. The complex weaves and twists of its fragile metal work introduce space in what would otherwise be solid objects.

Just to consider the time and energy put into manually producing these often small objects would leave most of us weary.

Yet all that is desired and desirable about filigree objects can also be their downfall. As pretty as filigree jewellery objects are, as uplifting as they are to look at, they have some serious practical drawbacks. The most serious of which, for the person who owns them at least, is the work it takes to keep them clean. To people who don’t like to dust - and that means most of us everywhere in the world - filigree is the ultimate dust-trap; those delicate twists and intersections become less a thing of beauty and more a place that becomes near impossible to reach with the folds of a cloth.

Perhaps this explains why in Peru - a country famous for its production of filigree objects, and the country where recent PhD scholar Ximena Briceņo began her research into the art form - filigree has little value.

"In Peru it’s considered a folk craft," she says. "It’s artisan jewellery which is inexpensive and of little value.

"Maintaining a filigree object represents a challenge, because it needs to be cleaned like every other silver object. Silver filigree is very delicate in its structure, and sometimes not worth keeping if it is severely damaged, as it is impossible to restore with traditional methods.

"Filigree is not hallmarked and there isn’t a standard alloy to say how much brass, tin or silver goes into it. It’s a jeweller’s and conservator’s challenge to repair filigree when it comes apart, and usually it is very difficult to fix due to the invasive nature of the soldering process."

And Briceņo should know. For the last decade the artist and historian has focused her attention on nothing but filigree. Who makes it, the styles and patterns they use, new techniques and metals that could be used and, interestingly, its history. Her research and study has encompassed most of the continents of the world, and has taken her a long way from Peru, the country where she grew up.

That research has also uncovered some surprising information about an art form that, while somewhat out of vogue in the Western world, has proven enduringly popular across the years.

"The earliest object in filigree - a knife - dates from 2,500 BC," she says. "But then it appears in the Byzantine period, then China, Africa, Spain and Southeast Asia. Most of the great filigree objects were produced between the 16th and 19th centuries."

But it was when the Spanish headed across the sea to Asia and the Americas in the 16th century that filigree took root in both Latin America and Spain.
"Researching Spanish newspapers from the 18th and 19th century revealed a significant influx of Chinese and Asian filigree in the Spanish market," she says.

"The Spaniards took it from Manila in the Philippines. From Manila it was introduced to Mexico - the Port of Acapulco - and to Callao, the port of Lima in Peru."

Along with the trade and the merchants on those Spanish galleons came European silversmiths. The cross-cultural exchange ensured that filigree quickly gained a foothold in the Americas, creating a native form of filigree.

Briceņo’s research traced those threads that led the art form from one continent to another, but, among all the answers, she found a mystery. Her research identified two identical 19th century filigree coffrets [small jewellery boxes] - one in the Hermitage Museum in Russia, and one in Italy’s Museo Civico Della Filigrana Pietro Carlo Bosio.

"They’re almost identical," she says. "But one says its provenance is Chinese, and the other says its provenance is Spanish. So what happened? One possibility is that one copied the other.

"What I found was that in 1820, the Ordinary Court of Spain issued a decree that all goods imported from the Asian region were to be introduced to Spanish, American and European ports as ’Spanish’, and among the products listed were filigree.

"This explains why filigree provenance is considered Spanish and not Asian. While this decree was issued in the waning days of the Spanish viceroyalties in America, it is probable that this was already common practice. This practice also explains why some of the silver filigree chests found in collections are labelled as ’Spanish’ and not ’Chinese’ or ’Asian’, when there is a clear visual similarity in craftsmanship and technique.
"The likelihood is that the silver filigree chest in the Museo Civico della Filigrana Pietro Carlo Bosio is incorrectly identified. This is an example where provenance was lost."

But, as a working artist, Briceņo’s PhD was about more than simply researching and writing about the history of the artform - it also looked at ways of bringing this ancient craft into the 21st century.

"The preliminary proposal of my research was to find new materials and new processes to apply to the development of filigree. In fact, one of the Peruvian collectors I spoke to suggested it would be fantastic to come up with a new alloy to create filigree - so that they didn’t have to clean it, as silver tarnishes, or perhaps find a more durable alloy or material."

That new metal arrived on the scene when the ANU Gold and Silversmithing Workshop purchased a laser welder in 2008.

"Once the University had the laser welder, a raft of new materials were available, such as titanium. Titanium is a metal that can’t be soldered, but can be welded. So I started working with it: twisting wires together, flattening and welding. The laser welder was perfect - the perfect application for an ancient technique. Using the laser welder means there is no need to apply powder solder to the filaments, which is what causes it to tarnish, and it is possible to restore it because of the precision of the laser beam.
"One of the other advantages of titanium is that it can be anodised electrochemically or with heat, and that process produces different colours, which adds extra fascination and complexity to the object."

Using the laser welder, and titanium as her material, Briceņo crafted five petite, but amazingly intricate, filigree objects.

"The work was informed by the traditional silver filigree incense burners developed in the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries. These traditional incense burners were made in the figurative shapes of turkeys, peacocks, llamas and a bull. I refer to my work as hybrids, as the objects themselves are a hybrid figurative representation: a combination of two or three native animals from three countries."

The next challenge for the artist is to take all that knowledge about filigree and turn it into a career.

"I want to turn my research into a book dedicated to filigree, with lots of interesting technical and historical information."

But for now she’s content to keep making these delicate, misunderstood, sometimes under-valued and often neglected fine filigree objects.

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