It’s easy to be lost for words when looking at a piece of jewellery; and not just because of its beauty! If you’ve ever been shopping for engagement rings or other special occasion jewellery, you’ll most likely know at least some of the terms and phrases jewellers use when describing diamonds and other gems; settings, clarity, cuts, and so on. When it comes to jewellery crafted from precious metals however, there’s enough terminology out there to fill a whole book - probably because when it comes to working with gold and silver, there are very few limitations to what you can do! Next time you’re on the look out for a new piece of jewellery - or just examining something for the sake of it - here are some terms to help you make sense of what you’re seeing (or to make you sound like an expert in front of other people!).
Taking its name from a certain type of lace because of the resemblance, ajoure is a design style normally used in gold pieces, particularly brooches and pendants. It is similar in look to filigree (see below), leaving open spaces in the worked metal. There is one essential difference however; with the ajoure style the open spaces are cut directly out of a solid piece of metal.
Brushed metal (sometimes called ‘dull polished’ metal) has been given a satin-like finish, achieved by literally brushing the finished piece with a more abrasive type of metal. The result is thousands of tiny grooves on the surface, which makes for an interesting texture and a lustre rather than the dazzling shine of polished gold or silver. Brushed metal can be more susceptible to corrosion, however.
This technique dates as far back as the Ancient Greeks and involves carving images onto gems or other materials (often enamel). The image was carved onto a flat plane where two contrasting colours meet - so the raised image section would be one colour while the cut-out background would be another. The carved stone would then be placed in a setting of precious metal and worn as chokers, pendants, or just as home decorations.
The casting process relates to all kinds of metalwork, not just jewellery, and is simply the pouring of molten metal into a mould of whatever shape the finished object needs to be. As the metal cools it solidifies into an unfinished but fully formed metal object, ready for further polishing, hammering or soldering.
Chasing is a technique used in conjunction with repousse (see below) in which the surface of the metal is indented from the front to create patterns or images on the piece. Chase work requires a lot of time and preparation of the metal, and an extremely high level of skill is needed to create complex patterns on small pieces of jewellery.
An ancient technique widely used in the Byzantine era, Cloisonne is a complicated technique not often used today. It involves soldering thin strips of silver or gold wire onto a metal object into a desired pattern, filling the space inbetween with enamel powder made into paste (of varying colours), and then firing it in a kiln. Cloisonne objects are often very ornate and brightly coloured.
Doming is more or less exactly what it sounds like; adding concave dome shapes to flat sheet metal. It involves the use of a curved mallet (known as a dome punch) and sometimes a dome block. Doming doesn’t require extensive preparation of the metal and can be completed hot or cold, so it is fast and efficient. Working metal too much however can make it fragile.
Embossing is a catch-all term used for metal (and paper and many other materials) which feature both chasing and repousse, i.e. elements of raised and indented design on the surface. In modern manufacturing techniques, this is achievied by placing the sheet of metal between two rollers - one to indent from the front and one to do the same from the back.
The vast majority of people, even those who know nothing about jewellery, are familiar with engraving. This age old technique is as popular as ever today, achieved by incising a design onto a hard flat metal surface by cutting grooves. Before the invention of photography engravings were the primary method for reproducing scenes and images. Today engravings are often still done by hand for a personal creative touch.
Etching is very similar to engraving, with one fundamental difference; instead of carving directly into the metal, the surface is covered with acid-resistant material and the design is carved onto that instead. The metal is then washed in acid, and the small section of metal exposed by the carving becomes indented as it reacts. The rest of the covering is then removed to reveal the finished piece.
Another ancient technique that can be seen in many ancient Irish artefacts, filigree is the process of soldering tiny threads and beads of gold or silver to the surface of an object and arranging it in artistic motifs. In Celtic jewellery the intricate interlacing patterns, spirals and zoomorphic imagery so often seen is usually executed in gold filigree - one especially noteworthy example is the Tara Brooch.
Gilding is the process of applying fine gold or silver leaf (or sometimes powder) to solid objects like wood, stone or metal. There are many different techniques used in the gilding process including hand application and glueing or using chemicals. Typically gilding is applied to an entire object to give it a fine covering of gold, but has also been used in small sections such as medieval paintings.
Granulation is an extremely time consuming technique (if done by hand) that involves soldering tiny spheres (or granules) of precious metal onto an object for a unique textured look. First the granules need to be crafted in the various sizes needed, then individually applied to the desired section of the piece in the desired pattern, then fixed into place by soldering or fusing. Not for the impatient!
Hammering is a popular technique in contemporary jewellery as it gives pieces a mottled, textured look while still allowing the metal to retain its shine. Like doming, hammering can be done to hot or cold metal and is quick and easy. It works best on flat pieces such as pendants or brooches, although if done well it can be incorporated into just about any piece of jewellery.
Inlay is an alluring style that creates contrast in a piece of jewellery. It requires two contrasting metals or materials (silver and bronze is a popular choice), with a pattern carved out of one and strips of the contrasting metal inserted into the gaps in such a way that the whole piece is flush and appears as one. It works well with Celtic interlacing designs.
Openwork is another catch all term used to describe any piece of jewellery that features open spaces in the design or see-through areas. Filigree and ajoure can both be described as openwork depending on how they appear on a piece. However, it wouldn’t be correct to call a standard ring ‘openwork’, even if it does have a large open space in the middle!
In a way plating is similar to gilding, in that a thin layer of gold is deposited onto another surface. However in the case of plating, the surface is another metal, usually another precious metal such as silver or copper. Gold plated jewellery will eventually fade in colour and tarnish unless a barrier metal layer is inserted between the plating and the base metal.
If you thought cloisonne was complicated, plique-a-jour is ten times worse! The process is similar in that enamel is applied to sections of the metal object. The difference is that with plique-a-jour there is no backing in the final product, for a translucent appearance. A temporary backing is dissolved in acid after firing, so needless to say this technique is somewhat challenging!
If part of a piece of jewellery is in relief, it means that it has been raised above the background plane. So if something is low-relief, it’s still relatively close to the background, while high-relief means that it stands out from the background to a large extent. You’ll often see carvings in relief on brooches, and often on largely decorative items like vases.
Repousse is the exact opposite of chasing - instead of indenting from the front, designs and patterns are hammered into the metal from the back, so they appear in relief on the surface. The two techniques are used together to create complex raised and lowered designs. As you may have guessed, it takes a considerable amount of preparation and a lot of patience to complete pieces with lots of repousse and chase work!
Rolled gold is again similar to plating and gilding. However, it is not a case of a thin layer of gold covering a base metal or material - in the case of rolling, several layers of gold cover the base metal and the two are then fused together with heat. An indicator number will inform you how much gold was used in the process.
Just like with most other metal objects, soldering jewellery involves joining two pieces of metal together by melting a filler metal with a lower melting point and flowing it into the joint (the filler metal must have a lower melting point so that the pieces themselves don’t melt in the process). A simple technique that has been in use for thousands of years.
Welding is largely the same as soldering except for the fact that with welding, the two metal pieces being joined together are melted along with the filler metal and fused together to form one extra strong and stable joint. Like soldering, welding is used in all aspects of metal manufacturing, not just jewellery.