Of all the crafts of Oman, the Sultanate’s silverwork, especially jewellery, is perhaps the most beautiful. While different regions of Oman have their own distinctive styles, there is one element that binds them together — that of the fine art of filigree work. Filigree is an ancient metal-work technique, used by skilled jewellers and craftsmen, to painstakingly create impossibly intricate designs using gold or silver strands which are interwoven to produce unique pieces of jewellery and decorations. While there seem to be some discussions on the origins of this art form, it is popularly believed to have been created by craftsmen belonging to Midyat city in Mardin province of upper Mesopotamia and Egypt. Archaeologists have unearthed filigree jewellery from ancient Mesopotamian sites that are close to 5,000 years old.
Interestingly, traditional gold and silversmiths still employ ancient techniques such as chasing, embossing, engraving, piercing, filigree, and granulation. These processes require a steady hand, a lot of patience, deep concentration and of course attention to detail. Craftsmen begin the painstaking work of crafting filigree by melting silver. Once in liquid form, the metal is cooled gradually using cold water and shaped into silver bars or sheets of metal, which are then hammered into thin strands and shaped as desired.
The motifs used are typically arabesque and often mimic elaborate scroll-work, lacy flourishes and draw inspiration from nature. Arabesque is often combined with interlacing geometric and other decorative patterns. With the passage of time, the charm of filigree jewellery spread to east to Asia and west to Europe. The motifs and filigree techniques used in Oman display distinct influences from countries like India, Persia, Yemen, Portugal and the ancient Greek and Roman Empires, reflecting Oman’s long history as maritime traders.
The word filigree is derived from the Latin words, “filum” meaning thread and “granum” meaning grain, referring to the small beads typically used as part of the design. A filigree artisan will spend hours curling fine wire into shapes and fitting them into place. The final step is to cover the entire piece in a fine layer of solder dust and welding each individual element into one piece. The resulting adornment has a fragile, lace-like look that has an age-old appeal.
In the past, each piece of jewellery could be customised and individually ordered from a silversmith. The design and the amount of silver to be used was carefully discussed, weighed and paid for. To establish the correct quantity of silver being used, it was weighed against a known and acknowledged quantity, perhaps a set of Maria Theresia Thaler coins. The uniform high quality of the Maria Theresia Thaler and its near universal acceptance as a trade coin made it the world’s first international currency. The coin continued to be used as currency in Oman and Yemen until the middle of the last century and was the only silver coin that the people in the region trusted and would accept.
Silver has been used to adorn women, men and household items through the ages. Silver, and sometimes gold jewellery was gifted to women at their wedding, as part of their dowry to provide them with their own wealth and a certain sense of financial security. Omani women kept jewellery as a sort of insurance, to be used in case of financial emergencies, a tradition still common today. A woman’s jewellery indicated her financial and marital status, and often times even represents her tribal or regional identity. Some specific jewellery items were worn as amulets to offer protection from the ‘evil eye.
Traditionally in Oman, women have ornaments that are worn on specific parts of the body, including beautifully crafted pieces for the head, forehead, ears, nose, neck, chest, hands, arms, fingers, toes and ankles. So, a full set of ornaments would usually consist of rings for fingers and toes, different pairs of bracelets and armbands, anklets, necklaces, headbands, earrings, waistbands and pretty hair adornments. Each region of Oman had its own unique kind of designs.
The addition of small elements of gold decoration on Omani silver jewellery gained popularity from the 1960s onwards, during a time when vast quantities of gold were readily available from Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Gradually, Omani women’s fondness for small gilded embellishments developed into a demand for pieces made entirely of gold. Indian goldsmiths met this demand and soon established a thriving trade in Oman. The Indian influence in design is clearly visible and sometimes antique designs were recreated entirely in gold. Over time, a pattern of filigree designs using both gold and silver wires emerged and popularly came to be known as ‘telkari’. Even today, many expert craftsmen produce telkari jewellery which is highly intricate and delicate.
The ancient art of filigree making has been passed down through generations, traditionally from father to son. There are no formal schools for learning the art of making filigree jewellery and in order to become a filigree artist, one must apprentice with a master craftsman. Though there is a passion for the craft among the younger generation, there are many who doubt that it can provide a sustainable income. Consequently, at times, even those who do learn the art of filigree making move on to other professional fields in search of financial stability. This is a rather unfortunate trend and if not managed will lead to the death of this singular craft.
Unique filigree jewellery has a special appeal, there is nothing quite like knowing that your bracelet or necklace is one of a kind, and handmade. Each piece is ornately designed using intricate handiwork making it distinctive and two pieces are likely to ever be designed in exactly the same way.
While a handful of gold and silversmiths still create these beautiful and unique ornaments the art is slowly giving way to mass, factory production which is quicker. Given this scenario, traditional jewellery crafts such as filigree are slowly disappearing as it is a complicated and time-consuming technique which takes years to master.
Though the demand for filigree jewellery has decreased in the past few decades, its charm still remains the same when it’s used on traditional occasions. Due to the decline in local demand for silver jewellery, many silversmiths in Oman have taken on the role of antique dealers and the vast majority of traditional Omani silver today resides in private collections. With patronage and availability of modern designs, this art can certainly be revived to attract the attention it deserves.
STORY BY MARY OOMMEN