Have you wondered what filigree actually is? A lot of pieces out there say they’re filigree, but what is it exactly?
According to Wikipedia, the definition of Filigree is “a form of intricate metalwork used in jewellery and other small forms of metalwork.” Helpful but, if you’re like me, you want to know – what does that mean?
That’s what this blog is all about – what filigree jewellery actually is, and what it looks like.
To start, it’s helpful to know that the term ‘filigree’ is derived from two Latin words: ‘filum,’ which means ‘thread,’ and ‘granum,’ which means ‘grain’ or ‘bead.’ Filum refers to the fine strands (or threads) of twisted metal that characterize filigree jewellery. These threads in filigree designs create beautiful airy, graceful curls that have been celebrated in many cultures, and have survived centuries of changing tastes and styles.
However, although distinctive, that airy look isn’t the only choice for filigree.
Those ‘threads’ of fine filigree wire can also be tightly wound into a frame, creating a concentric pattern and filling the space entirely. Or they can be placed on the surface of a solid piece of metal, creating an intricate layered look, without the open, airiness. Ancient filigree pieces found in museums are great examples of this.
Are these pieces still filigree?
Why? It’s because filigree isn’t based on a specific look or design. What makes it filigree is the use of those ‘threads’ of precious metal to make or embellish the piece.
Filigree designs are not only beautiful, they're beautifully versatile. They can stand on their own, act as a frame for a larger gemstone, or can be accented by little gems or tiny beads.
The heart of all filigree design is those fine silver and gold ‘threads’. They may look delicate, but they’re tougher than that. That being said, a well-designed piece of filigree jewellery will have a strong frame, and good supporting elements within.
The large frame wire curl in the centre of this filigree saddle ring, not only provides visual beauty, it also adds support for the ring
Why, you ask, when you just said that those threads are tough?
It’s because the threads that characterize filigree design are made from either fine silver or high karat gold wire. This, plus their smaller size makes them much softer – on their own they bend very easily - than say sterling silver or 14k gold.
Conversely, the frame wire is made of either sterling silver or a lower karat gold alloy, and is much thicker than the filigree threads. Plus, the inner frame wire elements are often formed as spirals, creating additional supports for the piece. Think of an egg holding up a stack of books without breaking (yes, it’s possible). The same principle is in effect here.
Together, the frame wire and the filigree threads create a piece that may look delicate, but, when properly constructed, is actually quite sturdy. It has to be otherwise it could never be shaped into rings, bracelets or beads.
The filigree threads are also not as tall as the frame wire. This is deliberate. When constructed, the filigree threads are soldered in place at the back of the frame so that the frame can act as support, as well as protect the texture on the filigree threads. If you’re ever uncertain which way a filigree design goes, knowing that will make it easy to remember.
After all of this, I bet you’re wondering where the second Latin word ‘granum’ fits in?
Filigree design is sometimes embellished with little balls of precious metal soldered onto the surface. These little precious metal balls are sometimes referred to as ‘grains’. It’s these little ‘grains’ of metal embellishment that provide the ‘granum’ part of the filigree equation.
The 18k gold balls in this Filigree Fish Pendant are examples of 'grains' added to filigree designs. This Fish and other beautiful filigree designs will be available in our upcoming Collection.
Now you know that true filigree jewellery isn’t defined by its appearance, but by the technique used to make it. True filigree designs require fine, twisted threads of precious metal, either placed into a frame or soldered on the surface of the piece. It’s those threads that make it filigree.
In its many incarnations, those beautiful threads in filigree designs have woven themselves into traditions all over the world. They’ve also been embraced by artisans like me, who use this technique in precious metal to create unique pieces of jewellery.