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Gold Filigree in 19th Century Jewelry

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The art of filigree is one of the oldest goldsmith techniques in jewelry, with archaeological evidence proving its use as early as 3,000 BC. Deriving from Latin ‘filum’ meaning thread and ‘granum’ for grain, filigree is made with delicate gold threads or tiny beads, or a combination of the two, soldered together to elicit various artistic motifs.

A pair of Etruscan gold 'A Baule' Earrings, circa 5th century BC. Photo courtesy of Christie's

A pair of Etruscan gold ‘A Baule’ Earrings, circa 5th century BC. Photo courtesy of Christie’s

Perfected by the Etruscans and Greeks from the 6th to 3rd centuries BC, filigree had fizzled out of favor until the mid-19th century when the Italian jewelers Castellani and Giuliano revived the classical aesthetic and gold techniques from this ancient period. The many archaeological discoveries during the 19th century enabled a greater understanding of ancient jewelry, inspiring a revival of the aesthetic. From 1860 to 1880, the archaeological style of jewelry was at its peak in Europe, its design hallmarked by contrasts between shiny and matte surfaces of gold encrusted with filigree and granulation.

Gold bracelet, Giacinto Melillo, 1870s Topazi

Gold bracelet, Giacinto Melillo, 1870s. Designed as nine hinged plaques applied with filigree, granulation and bead work in the Etruscan style, signed GM for Giacinto Melillo. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

Inspired by the jewels of antiquity, Fortunato Pio Castellani and his two sons produced jewels in the Greek and Etruscan style, incorporating classical motifs such as shells, rosettes, urns and amphorae motifs rendered in jewelry using ancient goldsmith techniques. Noted for the closely replicating the lost technique of granulation, the Castellani firm produced the finest examples of archaeological revival jewels of the period. Castellani based many of his designs on original pieces in the famous Compana collection, which included hundreds of Greek, Etruscan and Roman jewels decorated with fine granulation and filigree.

Castellani

Gold and Agate Pendant/Brooch, Castellani, circa 1855. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

After working for the Castellani firm, the Neopolitan-born jeweler Carlo Giuliano moved to London in 1860 to begin his own company. Greatly inspired by the classical style of the jewelry by Castellani, Giuliano derived his own distinctive style, combining the ancient gold techniques of filigree and granulation and using stones and enamel to create rich polychromatic effects.

Pair of earrings, gold openwork with granulated central bosses, and filigree ornament. Plaque with Giuliano's first mark.

Pair of earrings, gold openwork with granulated central bosses, and filigree ornament. Plaque with Giuliano’s first mark. Circa 1865-70. Photo courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

Lasting only two decades, the popularity of archaeological-style jewelry faded by the 1880s. Today, the classical style and its ancient gold techniques of filigree and granulation are seen from time to time in contemporary jewelry. However, both the ancient specimens and those made by Castellani and Giuliano in the mid-19th century remain collectible artifacts representing two fascinating and innovative eras in jewelry history.

A pair of contemporary gold filigree earrings from Excalibur Jewelry.

A pair of contemporary gold filigree earrings from Excalibur Jewelry.

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