Introduction to Siam Sterling Nielloware for Collectors
The following article has been excerpted from Charles Dittell’s book, "Overview of Siam Sterling Nielloware:"
AN INTRODUCTION TO SIAM STERLING NIELLOWARE
Siam Sterling Nielloware: Basic Information
The jewelry and related items called “Siam sterling Nielloware” are unique, attractive, and fascinating collectibles. These gray-black (charcoal black) and silver items reflect facets of recent and ancient Thai culture, and illustrate skillful Thai craftsmanship. From about 1933 to the late 1990s, hundreds of types of Niello items, from jewelry to kitchen and household items, were created, primarily for the foreign market. Only a limited number of non-jewelry, rather expensive items (such as urns and tea sets) are still created (by Thai Nakon, the “original” commercial Nielloware producer). A very few Niello jewelry items are currently crafted anywhere in Thailand. There are almost no Niello craftsmen left to continue this Thai national tradition.
Collectible Sterling Nielloware
Called “khruang thom” (or “kruangthom,” or “thome”) in Thailand, sterling Nielloware has had an impressive period of popularity, primarily from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. Although the Niello process has been utilized for hundreds, indeed, thousands, of years (and was especially popular with the nobility in the 13th through 15th centuries), only some items from Russia (and Siam sterling) are currently seen in antique shops and shows.
Siam sterling items of other colors (including a variety of shades of blue, green, red, pink, white, yellow and multicolored) do not use the Niello procedure but a less demanding enameling process. Some Siam sterling items were produced with black enamel. Black enamel Siam sterling is more deeply black and shiny than the grayish, slightly sparkly charcoal black of Nielloware. Side-by-side comparisons will usually (but not always) clarify these differences. A few items of Niello-like jewelry -- primarily pins and bracelets -- were produced using brass or bronze as the primary metal. In addition to Nielloware and enameled items, many all-sterling jewelry and related pieces were also produced, often with designs similar to Nielloware.
Where to Find Niello Items
Finding Siam sterling Niello can be exciting for collectors and dealers who enjoy visiting antique shows, flea markets, pawn brokers and antique stores. Items such as dress pins, earrings, cufflinks and small bracelets are easily found. These items may also be located on the Internet, using one of the common search engines and then hunting for “collectibles silver jewelry Siam” for a start. Also, relevant Internet news groups, such as alt.marketplace.collectables, rec.antiques.marketplace, and alt.collecting can be useful. On-line auctions, such as www.ebay.com also include Nielloware, as well as other Siam sterling (and brass) items.
Flea markets provide an excellent opportunity to acquire inexpensive Siam sterling Niello items, especially cufflinks, earrings, pins and small bracelets. Dealers will probably have better luck at country antiques/collectibles shows, where some of the larger and more ornate items are often found. Some nice items or sets may be found at pawn brokers, although one may need to visit many shops to find them. Antique jewelry stores occasionally have these items, although prices will tend to be higher, especially in the larger cities.
How Nielloware Is Created
Technically “Niello” or the Thai “Nielloware,” (or, as written in some English language Thai publications, “Niello Ware”), these items are created using two distinct processes.
First, the Niello amalgam is created. Although formulas for the Thai Niello amalgam filling have varied; each includes 50% sulphur. The two recipes I’ve come across are:
Silver Copper Lead
12 parts 2 parts 1 part
3 parts 5 parts 6 parts
These metals are melted at about 300 degrees C. for about four hours, and then the sulphur is added and mixed with the metals. After the mixture cools and dries, it is crushed to small pellets, which can then be used or stored for future use.
Second, the sterling silver item is shaped, carved and chiseled (or acid etched), forming the silver design. The Niello amalgam, mixed with soldering flux, is then heated and “painted” on the carved areas of the item, baked at high temperature, then smoothed by filing and sandpapering, then polished, usually with charcoal and metal polishing wax, and finally washed and wiped clean.
It appears that only Thailand used the Niello process primarily as a background to its compositions on sterling items; other countries used Niello mainly as accents to their silver (and gold) designs.