Forgotten Craft: Niello

As I explore my home country afresh I enjoy the little surprises in places I thought I knew. One of these discoveries came in a demonstration of niello work at Booz goldsmith workshop in Schaephuysen, a village near the German-Dutch border.

Niello is a technique to create black inlays on engraved or etched metal, especially silver. The word also describes the mixture used to achieve this effect, and its orgin is Latin nigellus, a diminutive of niger ‘black’. You may have come across the term in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where he depicts a lot of the finer weapons and armour as decorated in niello.

For the demonstration at atelier Booz, Peter Booz’ journey woman Lena Hollweg prepared some silver pendants as a base to decorate. The niello needs to be applied to a groove of some kind, so it is usually an effect added to engraved or etched metal. But in this case, Lena decided to create a more minimalistic look with bolder shapes. She cut out two circles from a silver sheet. From one she cut out a crescent moon and, using the other circle as a base layer, soldered the two layers of silver together.

The niello powder is made up of copper, silver, sulphur and lead. The sulphur reacts with the silver in the niello mixture, sulphurising it and turning it black. Mixing it with ammonia solution lowers the melting point of the powder so that the niello melts before the silver medallion can. Journey woman Lena applies the crumbly substance to the groove until it forms a mound so that it can sink in while melting. As Peter Booz heats the silver pendant, dross forms on the surface and Lena carefully lifts it off. Once the metal has cooled, Lena files all unwanted black traces off the surface.

Such a simple technique with so much design potential – hope I’ll get to try my hand at it some day!

Goldsmith and owner Peter Booz and journey woman Lena Hollweg having fun in the workshop.

Goldsmith and owner Peter Booz and journey woman Lena Hollweg having fun in the workshop.