Antique and Vintage Elegance Jewellery Blog
Light and Lacey: Filigree, Ajoure and Openwork Jewellery
Since ancient times, humans have experimented with gold’s unique properties to great decorative effect. In addition to its great beauty and its resistance to tarnish, gold is a malleable and highly ductile material, very easily worked. The technique of filigree exploits these qualities and is one of the oldest forms of decorative metalwork developed in the goldsmithing tradition.
The oldest filigree work known, is from Ancient Mesopotamia approximately 5,000 years ago. Filigree also featured prominently in the jewellery of the Phoenicians (seafaring people who had settlements all around the Mediterranean coastline) and the Scythians (nomadic people of Eastern Europe and Central Asia), both of whom produced goldsmiths of exceptional skill and creativity, creating astonishingly beautiful pieces using techniques largely lost to us today.
Filigree reached its heyday with the masterfull work of the Etruscan and Greek goldsmiths around 600-300BC. Intricately detailed and of such delicate construction, it is quite incredible that any of these pieces have survived!
Many of these archaeoligical finds came to light in the 19th and early 20th centuries, inspiring successive waves of “revival” styles – or at least approximate styles as close as modern jewellers of the time could recreate.
True filigree is constructed from very fine gold wire, woven or soldered together to create a 3D lacey design, as seen in the floral drop earrings (shown opposite). Since such construction is quite delicate, later filigree styles aim for a similar look by cutting out or piercing tiny sections of a hollow metal surface to create a latticework with greater structural strength than woven filigree. Ajoure and openwork are both examples of this latter technique.
Openwork was used extensively in early 20th century jewellery, to create the light and lacey pieces we associate with that period. The piercework not only looked wonderfully delicate, it also allowed more light into the settings, maximising the sparkle of the diamonds and other precious gems.
The style appealed greatly to American tastes, and jewellers adapted piercework for rings, brooches, pendants, bracelets and dangly pendant earrings. So popoular was it, that much American jewellery of the Edwardian and Art Deco periods featured this style of decoration, initially in platinum or white gold for that fabulously sparkly white-on-white look popular in the early decades of the century, and later in yellow gold as it came back into fashion in the late 30’s (as seen on the stunning late-deco ring featured at the top of this post).
American engagement rings in particular made great use of openwork, enhancing diamond solitaires with decorative pierced bows, ribbons and garlands in line with Edwardian-era tastes, then later with angular, geometric designs as the Art Deco aesthetic took over.
Well-preserved antique and vintage filigree or openwork jewellery is much sought after today, and remains a very popular choice for unique engagement rings as well as dress jewellery.