Thursday, July 2, 2009

Today's Vintage Jewelry Word - Nielloware

Our word of the day today is Nielloware. The term Niello is used to refer to a method of decorating metal objects, where by engraving techniques are used. In this process, a design is engraved into sterling silver and then copper, silver, sulphur or lead is rubbed into the engraved pattern and then the whole object is fired. Once this is finished, the piece is polished and darkened areas remain for a decorative effect.

This technique is often used in Siam Sterling Jewelry and there is a whole collecting area of vintage jewelry referred to as Siam Sterling Nielloware. However, the process is not unique to just Siam and Thailand. Certainly, a large amount of the Nielloware jewelry does come from this country, but the Niello process has been used for hundreds of years dating back to the 13th century and before. Some researchers believe that Niello was originally produced in Egypt, as far back as the 4th century B.C.

Siam sterling Nielloware pieces are marked in a wide variety of ways. Markings may include: Made in Siam, made in Thailand, Siam Sterling Silver, or Siam Sterling 925. Normally, the markings are made directly in the metal instead of on cartouches. The name of the country can't be used to definitively date the piece. Even though Siam was the name of Thailand prior to 1939, the markings for Siam jewelry continued to be used for many more years. Here are pictures of a few of the markings.

Strictly speaking the Niello process results in a black background. There are many sterling silver pieces from Siam which use other colors such as blue, green, red, pink, white and yellow. While these are collectible in their own right, they use a less demanding enameling procedure. Designs of Nielloware often displays Nekkala, the Goddess of Lightning from the Hindu legend Ramayana.

There are other designs as well, although they are not as commonly seen, including monkeys, elephants and other symbols from Thai culture, folklore, religious lore, and spiritual beliefs. Here are pictures of two Nielloware designs as well as the blue enamel sterling silver design which is not a true Nielloware design, but resembles it. The blue leaf, although not Nielloware, does use the Nekkala motif that one often finds on Nielloware pieces.

Much of the Nielloware jewelry available in the USA came from husbands and boyfriends who were on leave during the Vietnam War and sent gifts of Siam Sterling jewelry to their girl friends and wives. A lot of this jewelry was completely hand made. While not especially valuable as jewelry pieces, Nielloware jewelry pieces are wonderful keepsakes and often will hold sentimental value for the bearer.

For the full article on Nielloware, please visit the resource library on my main site: Vintage Jewelry Lane. All pieces shown in this article are for sale on my site too. You can find them on the Nielloware specialty page fo the site. Prices range from $19.99 to $54.99.


  1. thank you for this great post! I inherited a pendent from my mother many years ago and always wondered what the background was. Recently I was in Brighton, England and stumbled upon a street fair where I picked up several pieces. I have never seen it anywhere before, except for the piece from my mom. And now I finally understand the history! thank you for that!

  2. I also inherited a silver box with niello decoration, I believe a family member was in the RAF in Egypt in the 1920's and sent it to his mother. Until today I had little understanding of the manufacturing process and what methods were used........... it is very decorative and has scenes of sailing boats on the Nile. I thank you for your background history lesson.