Monday, December 8, 2008

Silver Jewellery - A Brief History By Jeff Hall



Silver was used in ancient Italy and Greece for personal ornaments, vessels,jewellery,arrows, weapons and coinage. It was inlaid and plated. It was also mixed with Gold to produce white gold as well as being mixed with baser metals.

Examples of ancient jewelry were found in Queen Pu-abi's tomb at Ur in Sumeria(now called Tall al-Muqayyar), dating from 3000 BC. In the crypt the queen's body was covered with jewellery made from gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian,agate and chalcedony beads.

Aegean lands were rich in precious metals. The considerable deposits of treasure found in the earliest prehistoric strata on the site of Troy are not likely to be later than 2000 BC. The largest of them, called Priam's Treasure, was a large silver cup containing gold ornaments consisting of elaborate diadems or pectorals, six bracelets, 60 earrings or hair rings, and nearly 9,000 beads. Silver was widely used in the Greek islands however only a few simple vessels, rings, pins, and headbands survive.

Mycenaean and Minoan.

Three silver dagger blades were found in a communal tomb at Kumasa.Silver seals and ornaments of the same age were also found in these regions. A silver cup found in Gournia dates to circa 2000. Some vases and jugsfrom Mycenae are also made of silver. Some of the Mycenaean blades are bronze inlaid with

gold, , silver, niello and electrum.

Bronze to the Iron Age

Engraved and embossed silver bowls made by Phoenicians have been found in Greece. Most of them have elaborate pictorial designs of Egyptian or Assyrian character and therefore probably foreign to Greece.

However some simpler types, decorated with rows of animals and flowers,can hardly be distinguished from the first Hellenic products. A silver bowl from around the 5th century BC can be found inthe Metropolitan Museum of Art showing a fine flower style.

Silver vases and toilet articles have been found beside the more common bronze in Etruscan tombs. For example, a chased powder box of the 4th century BC in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


During the 4th century BC, the trend of ornamenting silver vessels with relief was revived. This type of work, elaborated in the Hellenistic Age and particularly at Antioch and Alexandria, remained the common method of decoration for silver articles until the end of the Roman Empire.

A lot of Roman silverware was buried during the violent last centuries of the ancient world. The largest, the Boscoreale treasure (mostly in the Louvre), was accidentally saved by
the same volcanic eruption that destroyed Herculaneum and killed Pliny in AD 79. A slightly smaller hoard found at Hildesheim (now in Berlin) also belongs to the early empire. The acquisition and appreciation of silver plate was a sort of cult in Rome. Technical names for various kinds of reliefs
were in common use (emblemata, sigilla, crustae.) Weights were recorded and compared and frequently exaggerated. Large quantities of bullion came to Rome from their battle victories in Greece and Asia during the 2nd century BC.

Early Christian and Byzantine

The earliest Christian silverwork closely resembles the pagan work of the period and uses of the techniques of embossing and chasing. The design is sometimesclassical, decorated with pagan scenes.

Most of the silver has been found in Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Asia Minor,and Russia. It is mostly chalices, censers, candlesticks, and bowls and dishes. The techniques of chasing and embossing were often employed, but abstract patterns and Christian symbols inlaid in niello were also used. The 6th and 7th centuries saw the appearance of imperial control stamps,- early forerunners of hallmarks.

Middle Ages

Carolingian and Ottonian

In the last quarter of the 8th century the design focused on
the human figure and the use of niello (chip-carving technique.)

Examples are the Tassilo Chalice (umlnster Abbey, Austria) and the Lindau Gospels book cover (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City).

Most influential silver design was commissioned by Royalty or the church.Liturgical plate and reliquaries, altar crosses, and the like underwent no fundamental change; Ottonian work of the later 10th and 11th centuries can be distinguished from that of the 9th only in the development of style. For example, the larger, more massive figures, with their strict pattern of folds, on the golden altar (c. 1023) given by Henry II to Basel
Minster (Musée de Cluny, Paris), are markedly different from the nervous, elongated figures of the Carolingian period.


In the 12th century the church was the chief patron of the arts, and the work was carried out in the larger monasteries. Under the direction of such great churchmen as Henry, bishop of Winchester, and Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, near Paris, a new emphasis was given to subject matter and symbolism.

Gold and silver continued to be used as rich settings for enamels as the framework of portable altars, or small devotional diptychs or triptychs and shrines such as the shrine of St. Heribert at Deutz (c. 1160) and Nicholas
of Verdun's Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne (c. 1200).

The growing naturalism of the 13th century is notable in the work of Nicholas' follower Hugo d'Oignies, whose reliquary for the rib of St. Peter at Namur(1228) foreshadows the partly crystal reliquaries in which the freestanding relic is exposed to the view of the faithful; it is decorated with Hugo's
particularly fine filigree and enriched by naturalistic cutout leaves and little cast animals and birds.

The increasing wealth of the royal courts, of the aristocracy, and, later, of the merchants led to the establishment of secular workshops in the great cities and the foundation of confraternities, or guilds, of silversmiths, the first being that of Paris in 1202.

The late Gothic saw an increased output of secular silver because of the rise of the middle classes. The English mazers (wooden drinking bowls with silver mounts) and the silver spoons with a large variety of finials are examples of this more modest plate. Numerous large reliquaries and altar
plate of all kinds were still produced. At the end of the Middle Ages the style of these pieces and of secular plate developed more distinctive nationalcharacteristics, strongly influenced by architectural style: in England,by the geometric patterns of the Perpendicular; in Germany, by heavy and
bizarre themes of almost Baroque exuberance; and in France, by the fragile elegance of the Flamboyant.

The purity standards of silver became rigorously controlled, and “ hallmarking” was enforced; the marking of silver in England, especially, was carefully observed.

In the Far East the skills of thesilversmith were unsurpassed as is evident from this solid silver bowl (the photographs are 4x magnification of original item) made circa 1398 in Kampochea (Cambodia) detailing the wars with neighbouring Thai rulers.


The use of gold and silver in Islam lands was limited because it was forbidden by the Koran. Although the prohibition
was often ignored, the great value of such objects led to their early destruction and melting down. Islamic jewelry of the early period is therefore extremely rare, represented only by a few items, such as buckles and bracelets of the Mongol periods and such pieces as the Gerona silver chest in Spain and the Berlin silver tankard of the 13th century, with embossed reliefs of animal friezes.

Renaissance to modern

16th century

Using Silver from the New Americas, Spanish silversmiths, platería, gave their name to the heavily ornamented style of the period, Plateresque. England was also abundant in 16th-century secular silver, but church plate was mostly destroyed during the Reformation.


Huguenot silversmiths who left France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 brought new standards of taste and craftsmanship wherever they settled—particularly in England, where the foremost names of the late 17th and earlier 18th centuries were of French origin: Pierre Harache, Pierre Platel, David Willaume, Simon Pantin, Paul de Lamerie, Paul Crespin, to mention but a few.Silver furniture, a feature of the state rooms at Versailles, became fashionable among Royalty and noblemen. It was constructed of silver plates attached to
a wooden frame. Each suite contained a dressing table, a looking glasss and a pair of candlestands. In France such furniture did not survive the Revolution but much remains in England, Denmark, Germany, and Russia.

In the far east, Chinese silversmiths produced some of the most elegant and beautifully crafted silver jewellery some of which was exported to the Royalty of Russia.

18th century

Early 18th-century English work combined functional simplicity with grace of form, while the work of Dutch and German goldsmiths is in a similar style but of less pleasing proportions. The success of the English work, however,
is due in part to the destruction of all but a fraction of French silver of the same period. English silver in the 18th-century classical style of Robert and James Adam is of unequal merit owing to the use of industrial methods by some large producers.

Colonial America

Silversmithing in the New World in the colonial period is chiefly from England. In North America it was first brought to New England by English craftsmen in the 17th century. The most important centres were Boston, Newport, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Annapolis. Outstanding collections include the Mabel Brady Garvan collection at Yale University and those in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the American
Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. North American colonial silver is distinguished for its simplicity and graceful forms, copied or adapted from English silver of the period. Meanwhile the colonial silver of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia,
while mostly Spanish in concept, shows a blending of Iberian designs and forms,with indigenous influences that trace back to pre-Hispanic times. Most of these relics survive in churches as sacramental vessels.

19th century

Napoleon's empire brought French fashions back into prominence and the was widely followed on the Continent. England created their own more robust version of the Empire style.A recognizable Victorian style evolved in particular high-quality buttons, coins, sterling silver, and Sheffield
plate, establishing new high standards of design and of factory management and welfare services. This was followed by the craft revival associated with William Morris and the distinctive Art Nouveau style.


Factories evolved using modern equipment—for example,laser stone cutting,stamping, pressing,spinning, casting, and mechanical polishing—account. These factories supply nearly all
high street jewellery retailers. The evolution of style is now dictated by the buying public. Little has changed in the design of gold engagement or wedding rings however fashion demands have created an enviroment were the most lively designs are often those for costume and silver jewelry.

In Paris, designs by René Lalique inspired Art Nouveau, whilst in Moscow, Peter Carl Fabergé set a superb standard of craftsmanship for small ornaments. In Denmark, Georg Jensen, with Johan Rohde and others achieved not only an individual Danish style but built up several factories with retail outlets across the world, thus proving that good modern design in silver
jewellery need not be confined to artists' studios.

Jeff Hall is the c.e.o. of the silverstall which houses a large collection of silver jewellery, a selection of which can be found at

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