Granulation: Reviving An Ancient Technique

Granulation as a design element in jewelry has been used in a continuum from its conception in antiquity to the present day. Absorbing and integrating borrowed concepts of granulation, successive generations have adapted the ideas to suit the mode of expression for their age.

These translations of style and technique are apparent in much of the jewelry in fashion today. However, granulation has been particularly popular in three periods: 700-500 B.C. when used by Etruscans, the mid-19th century in Western Europe and over the past several decades in Europe and the United States. It’s interesting to see how granulation has been used in each period and how artist-jewelers were inspired by the genius of those who went before.

Granulation in jewelry can be defined simply as the bonding of very small spheres or granules of metal to another metal surface in a pattern. These spheres can be placed singly, in small clusters or as a cover over a large area. The types of jewelry with granulation vary from fine pieces made of high karat gold to folk jewelry made of silver and brass. For the purposes of this article, the focus is on fine gold jewelry.

The methods used to achieve granulation vary considerably. In some examples, conventional solder is applied to achieve the bond. This is apparent under magnification, as the solder puddles up around the base of the sphere, giving it a slightly columnar appearance. In the finest examples of granulated jewelry, however, the tiny spheres are fixed to the metal substrate only at their point of contact, without an apparent solder joint and with each sphere maintaining its own integrity.

ANCIENT: THE ETRUSCANS PERFECT GRANULATION

The earliest known examples of granulation in jewelry date to the Sumerian civilization in southern Mesopotamia during the third millennium B.C. The use of granulation spread through the Eastern Mediterranean, probably introduced to other cultures by the Phoenicians, who were active sea traders in the ancient world. The early Greeks used granulation to fine effect, but the technique was brought to its pinnacle of perfection by Etruscan craftsmen in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.

The Etruscan civilization is something of a question mark even today. Other than individual jewels found in Etruscan tombs, there is no record to show how this relatively primitive culture could make such delicate and intricate pieces. Some of these items are made of repousséd gold sheet, less than an inch square, depicting winged deities, lions or women’s faces with lines of granulation tracing details of the wings, manes or hair.

For centuries, scholars and metallurgists were baffled in their efforts to discover the Etruscans’ secret for achieving granulation without any evident use of solder. Aside from the technical difficulties of making the physical bond between the grains and the metal sheet, the Etruscans used incredibly tiny granules (0.14mm as opposed to 2mm grains used by the Sumerians, 1.1-0.4mm grains used by the Trojans and 0.25mm grains used by the Greeks). Some Etruscan jewels appear to be dusted with minute gold beads covering a substantial surface area or arranged in tidy patterns. Each granule maintains its own integrity; metal isn’t welled up around it, yet it’s fused securely to the metal underneath.

Probable technique: In the early 20th century, jewelers determined the ancients probably used a technique known as colloidal (non-metallic) hard soldering or fusion welding. Essentially, the process involves mixing an organic glue (perhaps fish paste or cowhide glue – both known to the ancients) with a powdered copper mineral (possibly malachite) and using it to fix grains of gold in place on the gold sheet. When the prepared piece is heated in a reducing atmosphere (where there is little or no oxygen present), a chemical change occurs between the glue and the copper oxide. The nonmetallic elements combine and dissipate, leaving behind pure metallic copper that forms a bond at the point of contact between the grain and the gold substrate. It’s interesting to note the ancient Greek word for malachite was “chrysakolla,” which translates literally to “gold glue” or “gold solder.”

How the ancients produced such minuscule grains is another part of the puzzle. It’s generally understood by jewelers and metallurgists that when melted, small pieces of metal form spheres. Melting short, even lengths of gold wire produces small gold grains, but it’s hard to make them as minute as the Etruscans did. This is especially interesting considering that the drawplate for making very fine wire wasn’t invented until several centuries after the Etruscan culture waned.

Benvenuto Cellini, a Renaissance Italian goldsmith, mentions in his notebooks that pouring molten gold into powdered charcoal produces small gold spheres but says it’s impossible to regulate their size. Jochem Wolters points out a convincing possible alternative in an extensive research article titled “A Short History on the Art of Granulation.” Because the finest Etruscan “dust” form of granulation coincided with the invention of the iron file, perhaps they were able to produce their tiny golden grains in such uniform size by melting coarse gold filings in layers of powdered charcoal.

The culture: The Etruscan civilization overall continues to be a mystery. The culture predated the Romans by several centuries; in fact, some of the earliest kings of Rome were Etruscan by birth. Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote in the fifth century B.C. that the Etruscans had migrated from Lydia in Asia Minor. However, a later Greek historian maintained they were actually the native “Villanovan” people of central Italy who migrated to the western coast of Italy in the eighth century B.C. What little is known about them was learned from their rich burial sites. As well as cultivating grapes and grain and herding cattle and sheep, the Etruscans were also accomplished metallurgists, mining and refining copper and iron. The Etruscan mines were the only known sources of iron in the Mediterranean as civilization entered the Iron Age, so trade with the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians helped Etruscan culture to flourish.

The Etruscans were quite advanced socially in ways that differed from other cultures of the time. Women enjoyed a more equal status in society, sharing meals and attending sporting events with their men. Also, the men and women of Etruscan noble classes wore jewelry regularly, not just for state occasions or after death as funerary decorations. During the earliest period, 700-625 B.C., the use of granulation was a key element in jewelry, and pieces made at this time are unparalleled in their delicacy. Many types of jewelry embellished with granulation have been found from this period; fibulae, earrings, pendants, beads and bracelets were typical ornaments. The fibula, or earliest form of clasped brooch, can be likened in construction to a more decorative version of the modern safety pin. Various styles of earrings have been found, notably the box-shaped a baule earring and the leech earring (a fat, tubular hoop that tapers at each end). The bulla pendant is an ornament that was introduced by the Etruscans, later adopted by the Romans and also worn during the Byzantine period. Bullae are hollow, lentil- or heart-shaped pendants suspended from a chain worn around the neck. It’s thought the bulla pendant may have been used to hold an amulet or perfume that could be applied with a stopper that was part of the construction.

Granulation wanes: The use of granulation as a decorative element in jewelry gradually diminished in the fifth century as less labor-intensive techniques took precedence. Late Etruscan jewelry, made in the third century when the culture was waning, shows strong outside influences. Because they maintained their independent city-state status and never banded together as a nation, the Etruscans were eventually crushed and their culture completely absorbed by the Romans.

The fusion technique of granulation migrated eastward and was integrated into jewelry of Iran, Pakistan, India and Indonesia, where it has persisted unchanged until the present day. Granulation was used sporadically in Europe, but granules became larger, beaded wire was sometimes used to create the same effect and conventional soldering techniques were seen.

It wasn’t until after archeological expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries uncovered the subtle splendor of Etruscan granulated jewels that European jewelers again attempted to granulate pieces in the same way as the adept ancients.

ARCHEOLOGICAL STYLE: 19TH CENTURY REVIVAL

The 19th century was a period of great expansion in the arts and sciences. Prosperity and ease of travel allowed many people the luxury of visiting countries they previously could only read about. Excavation of ancient cities and civilizations made especially popular tourist attractions, resulting in a fascination with ancient modes of decoration and ornamentation.

This retrospective view had a direct affect on jewelry design; treasures of classical antiquity provided the inspiration for many 19th century jewelers. Italian jewelers, recognizing the interest of tourists, produced jewelry for them in what came to be known as the archeological style.

Roman jeweler Fortunato Pio Castellani and his sons, Alessandro and Augusto, were forerunners in developing and promoting the archeological-style jewel. The Castellanis were close friends of Michelangelo Caetani, a well-known archeologist who encouraged them to concentrate on making jewels in the classical style.

The Castellanis were closely associated also with aristocrat and archeological enthusiast Cavaliere Campana, who was overseeing excavations of the ancient Etruscan city of Caere. Campana entrusted the Castellanis with cataloging and restoring the 929 ancient examples of Etruscan and Greek jewels found there. For purposes of study, Fortunato Castellani made replicas of each jewel in the collection. Through the following years, he made regular use of these replicas, integrating their design motifs into his archeological-style jewelry. In 1859, political misfortune necessitated the sale of the Campana collection; Napoleon III of France bought the bulk of it. The Campana collection was put on display at Le Palais de l’Industrie in Paris in the early 1860s, providing inspiration for Eugene Fontenay, Louis Wiese and other French jewelers who fabricated jewels in the archeological style.

Fortunato Castellani saw the sale of these antiquities as the loss of a national treasure and compiled his own collection of authentic ancient jewels, which he displayed in his shop in Rome for the enlightenment of customers. Actual replicas, as well as derivative jewels that combined a variety of classical motifs, were available for sale to the dazzled visitor. The shop was a busy place, patronized by royalty and illustrious celebrities such as poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. In fact, Browning mentions Castellani’s name and uses a ring he bought from Castellani in his epic poem “The Ring and the Book.”

Attraction to granulation: Of all the Castellanis, Alessandro was the one who was particularly fascinated by the Etruscans’ skill in granulation. Unfortunately, after losing an arm in a hunting accident as a young man, Alessandro was never able to make jewelry himself. His handicap may have made him a more determined scholar. In any case, Alessandro recognized that in Etruscan jewelry, the minute grains were fused to the gold ornament without the apparent use of conventional solder. He became obsessed with unraveling this secret of granulation and worked intermittently for 30 years on solving the problem.

Alessandro searched for clues in texts by Cellini, Theophrastus and other early sources. He even studied classical and contemporary jewelry made by many other cultures hoping to find the answer. His quest eventually brought him to a small Italian town in Umbria, where he found peasant craftsmen who seemed to be making jewelry in the same way as their Etruscan ancestors. He took the best of these artisans back with him to the Castellani workshops in Rome to produce archeological-style jewels.

In 1859, the same political struggle that undermined Campana forced Alessandro Castellani to relocate to Paris in political exile. He opened a shop that became the center for the archeological style in France.

While in Paris, Alessandro gave a lecture titled “A Memoir on the Art of the Goldsmith in Ancient Times” (later published as “Antique Jewellery and its Revival.”) In it, he said he was close to replicating granulation in the manner of antiquity. However, his zeal may have blinded his judgment. The granulation on his jewels now in various museum collections appears to have been soldered conventionally. The solder joints were somewhat disguised by the addition of other surface treatments such as gold enrichment and/or gilding. Gold enrichment, or blooming as it is also known, involves acid etching away the alloy on the surface. The technique leaves only the gold and gives the piece the soft, unpolished, pure gold look of an ancient jewel. Gilding is accomplished by covering the surface of the jewel with an amalgam of gold and mercury, then heating it to drive off the mercury as vapor, leaving a pure gold surface. Nineteenth century goldsmiths used both techniques to achieve the look of antiquated gold.

In the mid-1860s, Alessandro Castellani returned to Italy, settling in Naples. There he hired Giacinto Melillo, a highly accomplished young goldsmith, as manager of his establishment. Granulated jewelry made by the Neapolitan branch of Castellani comes closest to the fusion welding of the ancient Etruscans; this may have been due to Melillo’s delicate touch.

Carlo Giuliano was another notable Italian artist jeweler who made jewelry in the archeological style. Before he moved to London in the mid-1860s, he made pieces in the ancient classical style using granulation in much the same way as the Castellanis. In fact, some Giuliano pieces are so similar that some people believe he may have learned the technique of granulation from Alessandro Castellani. After 1880, Giuliano’s jewelry design gradually evolved into more of a neo-Renaissance style, incorporating opaque enamels and motifs from 15th and 16th century Europe.

The archeological-revival style was the most important theme in jewelry of the mid-19th century. Many jewelers simply borrowed some of the decorative elements, such as granulation, and melded them with other classical motifs to meet popular taste. Even though 19th century jewelers were unable to replicate the exact techniques of the classical originals, granulation as a decorative element was omnipresent in archeological-revival jewelry of this period. For most jewelers and their clients, it was the look that mattered, not how it was accomplished. Using conventional soldering techniques, jewelers generally placed their small granules individually in single rows or in small clusters at various points to create visual interest, rather than covering larger surface areas with granulation in the manner of the early Etruscans.

Though the fashion for wearing archeological style jewelry persisted until the 1890s, interest gradually diminished. Soon after 1900, it was regarded as an outworn concept and was swept aside by a dramatic shift of focus to newer and more updated concepts.

CONTEMPORARY EXPRESSION: 20TH CENTURY ADAPTATIONS

While jewelry design became streamlined, stylized and ultramodern in the 20th century, a number of metallurgists and artist-jewelers rediscovered how the ancients were able to produce granulation.

H.A.P. Littledale in London, Hans Michael Wilm in Munich and Elizabeth Treskow in Essen synchronistically arrived at the same practical method of achieving this type of granulation, based on a theory proposed by Dr. Hans Joachim Wagner in 1913. Littledale is generally credited with the reinvention because he patented his technique in 1933 and later presented his findings in a lecture titled “A New Process of Hard Soldering and its Possible Connections with the Methods used by the Ancient Greeks and Etruscans” at Goldsmith’s Hall in 1936.

Littledale was acquainted with Wilm and Treskow, as their work was on display in Goldsmith’s Hall, and they were acknowledged guests in the audience at the time Littledale presented his paper. Unfortunately, there is little in print about the work done by Littledale and Wilm. However, Elizabeth Treskow’s body of work spans more than 60 years and has been received numerous gold medals and other honors.

The earliest examples of Treskow’s granulated jewelry date from 1928 and comprise figurative representations of ancient subjects. A link bracelet with signs of the zodiac and two rings with the god Apollo and a Minoan bull are each depicted with meticulously placed granulation. While Treskow’s early work (1928-1950) interprets the ancient style, her later designs (1960-1980) incorporate granulation in a more abstract and streamlined way, reflecting the popular modern taste. From 1948 to 1964, Treskow was a professor at the School of Applied Art in Cologne, after which she retired to devote her time to her art.

In 1977, Treskow donated a collection of her work to the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Cologne along with a collection of ancient and antique jewelry she had amassed for study. The Schmuckmuseum in Pforzheim and the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg also have examples of her work.

Other granulation artists: In the United States, John Paul Miller became known for stylized insects and sea creatures studded with intricate patterns in granulation. Miller studied industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, graduating in 1940, and later returned to teach classes and jewelrymaking and design for 37 years. Exhibitions of his work have been held at the Chicago Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts; the Cleveland Museum of Art, the American Craft Museum and the Minnesota Museum of Art have selected collections of his work. As recently as October 1994, Miller was awarded the Gold Medal for Artistic Excellence by the American Craft Council.

Robert Kulicke is another dedicated teacher whose enthusiasm for granulation has had a seminal effect on its use in jewelry by contemporary American artist-jewelers. His primary research and experimentation led to a technique that allowed him to granulate on a flat surface. He shared these findings with his apprentices and students, first at the Scarsdale Studio Workshop School and then at the Kulicke Cloisonné Workshop in New York City. He felt collaboration was the key to refining the process and arriving at a way to granulate on a curved surface without the granules rolling out of place while being heated.

In 1972, Cornelia Roethal, a master goldsmith who learned about granulation from Hans Wilm’s son in Germany, passed on the trick of adding flux to the glue used to fix the grains to the surface before firing. This solved the problem of keeping the minute spheres in place on the curved surface.

Kulicke continued to teach granulation to his students at what had become the Kulicke-Stark Academy. Many of his apprentices were teachers at the academy and then went on to be successful studio jewelers in their own right. They frequently formed collaborations and business ventures that brought greater awareness of granulation to the public. Jean Stark, for example, was Kulicke’s student first then became his wife and business partner in the Kulicke-Stark Academy. Both associations have since been dissolved, however, and the academy is now run by Bessie Smith as the Jewelry Arts Institute. It continues to be an important teaching establishment for granulation, as well as other specialized goldsmithing techniques.

The academy has been the starting point for an ever-widening circle of artist jewelers. Among these are Elaine Greenspan and Claire Bersani, both students and teachers at Kulicke-Stark who have gone on to be studio jewelers. Joseph English, Stephan Paul Adler, Susan Reinstein and Luna Felix are others whose collaborations significantly contributed to the art. Adler and Reinstein, bought taught by English, opened a gallery called Byzantium – a tremendous success that blazed like a comet across the jewelry scene for a few short years then vanished as suddenly as it appeared. Though short-lived, Byzantium secured a future for Reinstein, who runs two shops in New York City with outlets overseas, and Felix, who has a studio in Santa Fe, N.M., and who exhibited her work at the gallery.

CONCLUSION

The original idea of granulation has been translated in different times to suit each era. The ancient Etruscans adapted and refined the original Sumerian idea of granulation to an extent that continues to amaze us. Their exquisite jewels with intricate designs picked out in lines of fine granulation are so compelling that they still inspire jewelers.

In the 19th century, some jewelers reverentially made copies of the ancient originals. Though they were unable to replicate the ancient technique of fusion welding exactly, they produced very fine granulation using conventional soldering techniques, then masked this somewhat by the addition of other surface-enrichment techniques such as gilding and blooming. Overall, replication was too exacting a process, however, and most archeological-style jewelers made pieces in a pastiche of many ancient cultural motifs, translating the ancient examples into jewelry that had a broader appeal.

Today, jewelers again are granulating jewels in the manner of the ancients. While a few are using ancient designs as inspiration, more of them integrate the technique with modern abstractions, once again translating and updating its use.

Granulated jewelry made by many of the artist-jewelers of the past few decades share some common elements. It often incorporates colored stones, usually bezel-set. Among the many transparent stones, fancy colored sapphires, tourmalines, amethysts, garnets and beryls are seen most frequently. Chrysocolla, moonstones, opals, agates and lapis lazuli also have a presence. Diamonds, if used at all, are generally found as accents rather than a central focus. Pearls are another integral gem, used either in strands to suspend a decorative clasp worn in front or as drops from pendants or earrings.

Many contemporary jewelers who derive their motifs from previous cultures seem to echo Byzantine or Medieval ornamentation rather than early Etruscan or Hellenistic styles. Some, including Paula Crevoshay and Carolyn Tyler, have been influenced by India, Thailand and Indonesia – lands where the art of granulation has remained part of the cultural heritage for centuries. Still others have simply melded the technique of granulation into their repertoire of unique, ultramodern jewels, sometimes using granulation as one of many surface textures in the same piece. Richard Lux and Richard Kimball fall into this category.

The varieties appear to be endless, and it’s wonderful to see what the human mind can invent. Looking back through the centuries, we see granulation as an ancient Etruscan mystery that was rediscovered and imitated in the 19th century and is now being revitalized and reinterpreted. These are simply a few threads in the massive tapestry of jewelry history. Doubtless, jewelers of the future will look back and retranslate the technique of granulation into yet another marvelous manifestation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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