You have probably seen niello without knowing what it was. It looks like black enamel that has been painted into the indentations around geometric patterns on the surface of decorative silver belt buckles, goblets, candlesticks and other objects. But niello isn’t paint. It is actually a compound made of silver, sulphur and other chemicals.
Niello has been around for a very long time. Artisans in ancient Egypt and medieval Europe used it. During the Italian renaissance, niello-making was a decorative technique that all master silversmiths, including the great Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) had to master during their apprenticeships. Treatises from that period describe how a powder made of silver, sulphur and sometimes other powdered metals, was painted onto the surface of a silver item, which was then baked in a kiln to harden the niello into a shiny black surface.
Niello can add to the value of silver items in two ways. First, it contains silver and adds slightly to the silver content that can be reclaimed from them. Second, it is beautiful, which can add to their collectible value. Here are some places where you should be on the lookout for niello.
Italian Silver Items
Niello did not fall out of favor after the renaissance in Italy. It has seen continued use ever since. If you find Italian-made decorative silver items from most any period, be on the lookout for niello. You might find it on candlesticks, on religious items, on silver picture frames, or on the handles of tableware.
Antique Russian and Ukrainian Items
Between the 10th and 13th centuries, Slavic artisans became very adept at applying niello to the hilts of swords, to chalices, and to religious icons. Later on, in the 19th century, Russian craftsmen revived the use of niello to impart an antique appearance to their work. They are still doing it today. So if you own any Russian or Ukrainian-made silver items that look like they have enameling on their surfaces, you could really be looking at niello.
Modern Asian Jewelry
Niello is now widely used in jewelry from Thailand and other Asian countries – both in unique items made by craftsmen and in less expensive mass-produced items. You might find it in on silver rings that display an initial surrounded by a black background.
Modern Handcrafted Jewelry and Decorative Items
Modern jewelry-makers in just about every country are applying niello today to enhance the beauty of silver jewelry, candlesticks, and other items. Some modern craftsmen who make knives and swords use it to create an aura of antiquity. (Think a magic dagger from Lord of the Rings.)
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