Modern Artisans Use Ancient Techniques to Create Timeless Beauty

Toledo, 45 miles south of Madrid, is a town of many WOW’s. The only way to describe this Castilian gem is “magical”. The perfect fusion of Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures can be seen everywhere, including the stunning hand-made damascene jewelry to be found throughout the town.

Damascene adornments such as earrings, pendents and hair clasps bearing intricate patterns of inlaid gold or silver fused to a black steel background are true works of art. What really WOWed me, though, was how the process that dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Arabia and Japan is still being used today.

Simon and I took the opportunity to watch the artisans meticulously craft one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry in their Toledo workshop. Not only did they not seem to mind our intrusion, they willingly answered our questions and explained what they were doing, all without interrupting their work.

Upon entering the building where damascene jewelry was made and sold, we went down several stairs, where we found a showroom on the right. The hall narrowed, then opened into a small workshop. There we saw two men, slicing strips of gold leaf from small spools, and cutting them into shapes. They then  placed the gold on prepared pieces of oxidized steel, which had lines scored into the surface. The men sat at a long table in front of a large window. Using natural light to guide their work, they punched designs into the gold leaf with a special tool.

A Work in Progress - Manufacturing the Damascene Jewelry

A Work in Progress – Manufacturing the Damascene Jewelry

Damascene is a six-step process.

  1. The pre-cut steel shapes that will become pieces of wearable art are scored.
  2. The finely cut gold is inlayed by hand..
  3. The designs are punched into the gold, closing up the lines in the steel.
  4. The pieces are then fired, which fuses the gold to the steel, and creates the intensely black background.
  5. Bas relief is then chiseled into the gold leaf.
  6. Finally, the decorative surface is burnished.

Damascene patterns include motifs with doves and flowers, geometric designs, religious symbols and many other patterns. The designs reflect the personal interpretations of the artisans, so each piece is unique.

Returning along the narrow hall, we stopped in to see the finished pieces in the long,, narrow,  red-tiled showroom. This proved to be my downfall. You know how some women never seem to have enough shoes? Well, that’s how I am when it comes to earrings. I like to combine this weakness with my desire to have a small token from my travels.

Damascene Earrings from Toledo

Damascene Earrings from Toledo

Simon, instead of trying to curb this tendency, has turned out to be the ultimate enabler. As I examined the surfaces of the damascene pieces, which were so well inlaid that I couldn’t distinguish the individual patterns with my usually sensitive fingertips, my beloved tempted me with – you guessed it – earrings. As always, I yielded to temptation. Well, they did call my name. That’s right, I distinctly heard them say in unison, “WOW, Penny, take us home to New Bern.”

Here is a description of the damascene process. I can’t vouch for the quality of the jewelry for sale on this site, but the information on how it is made appears to be as I remember it.

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