Where oh where is my nielloware? Good question. But first, what the heck is nielloware?
This picture will give you a good idea.
Pretty impressive huh?
Just about any guide book or tourist information will tell you that Nahkon Si Thammarat is famous for the manufacture of nielloware and has been for hundreds of years. But if you ask anyone about it, you just get blank stares. If you call it by its Thai name, khruang thom, there is usually some vague recognition, like they learned about it in school, or someone’s aunt’s second cousin’s neighbor once owned some.
Nielloware is the main reason I went to the National Museum a few days ago, which I mentioned in my last article. I’ve done a lot, and I mean a lot of Googling, and the museum seems to be about the only place you can find any – aside that is, from one jewelry store which supposedly sells new nielloware. I’ll come back to that.
So, what is it, and why do I find it interesting?
Actually it’s made in many countries and is believed to have originated in Egypt. The word niello means black in Italian and is derived from the Latin word nigellum. (Not to be confused with Nigellum Lawson, the not-very-black cookery lady.) In the Middle Ages the term nigellum referred to the amalgam of black color used in “nielloing.”
For a definition of Thai nielloware, Wikipedia is best…
The artisan would carve a particular character or pattern into the silver, leaving the figure raised by carving out the “background”. He would then use the niello inlay to fill in the “background”. After being baked in an open fire, the alloy would harden. It would then be sanded smooth and buffed. Finally, a silver artisan would add minute details by hand. Filigree was often used for additional ornamentation. Nielloware is classified as only being black and silver colored. Other colored jewelry originating during this time uses a different technique and is not considered niello.
Many of the characters shown in nielloware are characters originally found in the Hindu legend Ramayana. The Thai version is called Ramakien. Important Thai cultural symbols were also frequently used. Collecting Thai jewelry (correctly known as Siam Silver jewelry) is a growing hobby with many jewelry enthusiasts.
As you can see, there’s many processes involved, and much fine work is needed to create the design. As a result, one article can take many months to complete. The final polishing is apparently very time consuming.
Also, as you will see from the following photographs I took in the museum, gold seems to be more common than silver, so the Wikipedia definition is slightly wrong in that regard.
I think the origin of the Thai phrase, khruang thom, perhaps explains it better…
The meaning of thom is to fill up or insert. Therefore, khruang thom refers to the art of applying thom, the niello liquid, to etched portions of silver or gold objects, in order to create patterns against the black background.
None of which answers my earlier question of why I find it interesting. Well, it looks spectacular don’t you think? But perhaps one personal reason is that my father owned a brass foundry, and when I was young, the house was always full of various kinds of brass, silver and copper ornaments. And at least one Sunday a month was metalwear polishing day. So, I guess I grew up with an appreciation of metal-based art. Anyways, that’s my theory.
So where does that leave me? Well, at this point, all I can say is – I found some! Okay, that’s a start.
I also tried to find the jewelry store, but failed. Their website is in English until, that is, I went to the page with their location. Here’s the “map” – and I use the word loosely!
Not very helpful, but I think I was close. There’s only one railway line that runs into Nakhon and then stops. So I figured that yellow thing was the train station. Which would make the store about a block and half away. I’m sure I was in the right area as most of the stores sold jewelry, but I couldn’t find one with nielloware. I’ll try again.
Most of all though, I want to learn – and hopefully see – exactly how nielloware is made. I made a nuisance of myself in the museum. I’m good at that! Having assembled a small group of museum workers, who I think understood what I was asking, an important-looking lady appeared from a back office, and very politely explained I was wasting my time.
She indicated that nielloware is made in back-alley workshops that are private. But I doubt they are private in the sense that no one is allowed to go there. I don’t think the process is a secret like the ingredients of Coca Cola, it’s just that visitors are not encouraged. I don’t need to be encouraged, except that is, to keep searching.
So, I’ll have to put on my Inspector Clouseau hat, trim my beard, and search a leetle ‘arder for ze nielloware.
And from the looks of the current forecast…
…I’ll need a lot more indoor activities.