You know how sometimes a piece of jewelry catches your eye immediately? Okay, well that happens for me plenty (learning jewelry making kinda ramped this up a few notches). It definitely happened at a vintage clothing shop in St. Louis last year, where I discovered two pieces that introduced me to a unique, and it turns out ancient, metalworking technique.
When at a swing dancing weekend, the Nevermore Jazz Ball, I unexpectedly won a best dressed prize from Retro 101, a vintage shop in the neighborhood. I was wearing a 1940s goldenrod, white & brown print dress, yellow back-seamed stockings, and French heel shoes (no pictures to share, sadly). With my prize money, I settled on a striking set of clip earrings and an unusual cocktail ring in a jewelry style I had never seen before. Bright gold, delicately etched, and contrasted against a matte black background. I could not for the life of me figure out how it had been made, whether the black was enamel, or a stone of some kind, or what.
The shop girl didn’t know much about them, but said a lady had come in recently and recognized them as being from Spain when she studied there long ago, and that they might be from the 1950s. So at least I had a clue to go on. After a bit of research, I discovered what it was: Damascene, a technique of inlaying different metals into one another, often gold or silver within a base metal. Indeed found in Spain, and primarily in the historic town of Toledo, made in a range of renaissance and arabic designs.
The surprise came when I learned that Japan also has a long history of this technique, with their own distinctly asian designs. Damascene originated out of Greece and the Middle East a couple thousand years ago, spreading east to Japan via the Silk Road and west to Spain via the Moors. This art form is said to have specifically come from Damascus, Syria (hence the name), though it may possibly be named that because of its visual resemblance to the tapestry patterns of damask silk – which most definitely came from the town of Damascus. I have read that you won’t find artisans of this craft in the present day in that part of the world, however. I will have to investigate further…
A good 35 years ago the New York Times published a long article profiling this art form within the town of Toledo. Artisans there create not just jewelry but many decorative pieces using this technique, including plates, picture frames and swords.
I was amused by this quote to describe it: “Damascene is a serious form of decoration in a serious city. No one ever called either damascene or Toledo pretty. No one ever called them charming. Both are regal, arresting, and unconventional.”
Though I can’t speak to the city of Toledo, I do think Damascene is rather beautiful, in a dramatic way. The design on the earrings I found are in a lovely floral motif (but they are oh so uncomfortable to wear!). The symbol on the ring was intriguing to me … it looked like what I understand to be the Star of David, a very Jewish symbol. In fact, it is called the Seal of Solomon, being 3D with interlocking triangles (as opposed to 2D for the Star of David). In my research on the subject, it appears to be a symbol that many world religions use or have used, including Islam and Christianity. Which would make sense if it was made in Spain.
As for how these pieces are made, the black part is actually steel which has been oxidized over high heat. Blackened to a crisp, it sounds like! I’ll post links to some demonstrations from artisans and workshops once I’ve done a bit more research.
What stands out to me about this art form is how ancient it is and how it traveled across the globe to cultures and regions which made it their own. After being obscure for many centuries, Damascene was rediscovered and became popular during the Art Deco period in the 1920s and 30s, which is my favorite era of all time. Art Deco is an artistic style which expressed itself in a fascination for history and the exotic (no wonder it’s my favorite!).
Now that I know what I’m looking at, I was able to spot a Damascene ring with a bird on it amidst a huge pile of costume jewelry at an estate sale this summer. It’s like a treasure hunt!
If you can’t make it to Kyoto or Toledo and fancy going on your own treasure hunt, I have seen these pieces available on Ebay and Etsy. Be sure to first check out an article or two (links coming) about how to differentiate between the true artisan made work and the cheap mass manufactured stuff passing itself off as Damascene. Have fun!