Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gilding Silver in Yemen and Turkmenia


It is time to talk about gilded jewelry from the 1900s specifically in Yemen and Turkmenia.  First to note is the fact that most jewelry at that time was made of silver by highly accomplished silversmiths with very basic tools and sometimes employing hazardous techniques in making the gold layer over the silver.  Such jewelry is termed vermeil or gold plated, gold washed or gilded.  It differs from a metal alloy wherein the gold and silver would be blended quite thoroughly in the liquid state.

Here is a good example of Turkoman silversmith work in a gilded tumar/bozbend; that is a mountain symbol (tumar) with a prayer tube (bozbend) at the bottom of the tumar of this very fine piece of antique workmanship.  


See more information on this piece at my website.

Since gold plate is what we moderns are most familiar with (we are ignoring gold tone which does not use gold), we will begin there.  Gold plated and gold filled are the same kind of jewelry, only that gold filled usually but not necessarily means that there is a thicker covering of gold than with gold plated jewelry.   When I first dealt in jewelry many years ago, gold plate actually had more gold on it than did the gold filled.   At present, silver is plated with a relatively thin gold layer with modern machines that do electro-plating.  It is usually done in a factory, but it can be done in a home workshop.  

This method was not available to the West Asian people in the early 1900s.  They employed heat from a fire, first to melt the metals they were using and then to apply the gold layer to the silver in a permanent covering.  The best methods and highest skill were found among the silversmiths of Turkmenia: the Turkoman settled regions of Central Asia.  First of all, by 1900, they were able to trade with Europe for genuine silver ingots, so they began the crafting of their silver jewelry with precious metal.   

When the ingots were melted, the silversmiths began the rather hazardous work of applying the gold in a process which produced vaporized toxic material.  I provide here a very over-simplified description of the process: 

The method of applying the gilding is quite interesting, and it lasts much longer in the Turkoman jewelry than it does on most jewelry of the Middle Eastern regions. After the silver has been hammered and smoothed to the perfect thickness, the pieces cut and inscribed, but before the gemstones are set, thin gold plates are heated red hot and mixed with mercury, the amalgam being placed in water. Then it is applied to the desired parts of the cleaned silver surface. The silver becomes amalgamated with the application of certain mineral powders, after which the gilding amalgam can be applied and then heated. As the piece heats from warm to hot, the silversmith uses cotton wool to rub the piece to evenly distribute the mineral. 

Below is a photograph of a kirdan or Yemen woman's bridal necklace worn at her wedding and on special occasions thereafter.  Most of the kirdans of the early 1900s and previous were not gilded, but this piece is.  The method common among Yemen jewelers possibly used an open crucible in the heating and melting process, because the gold amalgam layer is not as durable as the process used in Turkmenia.  With long wear and exposure to weather, the Yemen gilding will simply rub off  or discolor because of the chemicals used in its application.  If it has not worn away, a brisk buffing will bring the shine back. 

There are more photos, more information and more similar pieces at my website in this section.

Yemenite gilded silver plaque and prayer amulet with fertility symbols attached.  
See more information on this piece at my website.





19 comments:

  1. As always, your blogs are very interesting and provide a lot of information about vintage/antique (not sure which to call it) jewelry. These pieces look gorgeous.

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  2. i love jewellery.really you are doing great work.keep it up.

    Men's Jewelry Store in Canada

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    1. How nice of you to stop by and comment. Thank you.
      Anna

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  3. Fascinating! You have chosen two stunning pieces of jewelry as examples of gilded silver. Such intricate workmanship came from that particular area so many years ago. Very interesting!

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    1. Unfortunately, no such work is being done since about 1950.
      Anna

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  4. Informative post as always, Anna. The gilded silver items you displayed are intricate and very well preserved. While modern electroplate can be very stable and keeps the operator safer you are correct that there isn't much gold in these newer methods.

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  5. Thank you again, Pamela, for reading the blog and making an insightful comment.
    Anna

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  6. I always wonder about the life expectancy of jewelry makers back in the day since so much of what they did often dealt with toxic materials, such as the mercury you mentioned. The pieces you highlighted are glorious - such intricate craftsmanship. Thank you, Anna, for sharing.

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    1. So much manufacturing and mining were carried out under very unsafe conditions in the early 1900s, I think. Thanks for your very kind comment on the jewelry.
      Anna

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  8. Interesting and informative, Anna! I get to learn new jargon about jewelries and gemstones.

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    1. Nat, I have learned a lot of jargon about jewelry, too. The hardest modern term for me to figure out was 'steampunk!'
      Anna

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  9. Truly an interesting post Anna and glad I came across it. It is amazing to me what they were able to accomplish so far back in the day when they did not have the modern conveniences we do today. That is what makes these pieces even more beautiful in my eyes. Looking forward to reading more of your posts on the subject.

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    1. Thank you, Kat. Am in the process of photographing and listing a couple of very interesting Turkoman gilded pieces; that is after I get a bunch of ancient Bactrian and Stone Age tools listed. My customers are clamoring for them ;) Of course, they are under no requirement to actually buy them, so we will see what happens after they are listed.
      Anna

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  10. The skills and Beautiful Creations of old are to be honored, now more than ever.

    Socially, it seems to me, that we have collectively fallen prey (and some in love with) all things mass-manufactured, which is sad in and of itself, but it's also a sign that these skills are at risk (and I'm being generous here) of being lost.

    Yet, I am grateful for the folks I know who, like you, keep our awareness up as well as those who work hard to nurture the abilities and craftsmanship of The Past.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you for your very sweet and generous comment, Rose.
      Anna

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  11. I love looking at pictures of your antique jewelry. I imagine that there didn't used to be any standards for plated, vermeil or gold filled, and probably not accurate ways to measure the thickness, especially if it was done by hand. Nowadays gold filled must be at least 1/20, or 5% gold, which is much thicker than plating. I think actually there are no minimum standards on thickness for plating, which is why the plating wears off of modern day jewelry.

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    1. The Turkoman jewelry plating is much superior to other plated jewelry of that region, other than India which was heavily influenced by the 'sterling' measure for the creations in Rajasthan. The design of much of the Turkoman traditional jewelry, especially in the Tekke tribe, had to have heavy enough gold plating that the patterns in the gilded layer would remain distinct from the basic silver layer.

      The inside of the huge bracelets, for example, wears out and has to be repaired while the exposed part of the bracelet remains as golden as it was when it was created. The Turkmen, after all, were descendants of the same Mongols who inhabited China, and were just as rigid in their traditional designs and circumspect in their methods as the Chinese, it seems. ;)
      Anna

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