Ethnic Jewels

An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment

This post grew out of a rich discussion of a Bulgarian pendant posted by Cordelia Donahue and my own realisation that I needed a simple framework to help me think about the sources of ethnic silver. It is not meant to be authoritative but I hope it will be useful. Do please offer corrections and extensions.

Silver is classified as a noble or precious metal along with gold and platinum. All other metals, such as copper, zinc, tin etc. are classified as base metals.

1. Pure silver or bullion. Bullion, available in the form of ingots, has 100% silver content and is recovered from mining and smelting. It is hardly ever used for jewellery in its pure form because it is too soft.

2. Silver alloys or amalgams.

    (a) Using bullion plus. Other metals such as copper and zinc are usually added to pure silver in small quantities to make it harder, more malleable and better able to acquire an attractive finish. The advantage of using pure silver as a starting point is that the silversmith can control the process of making an alloy with the appropriate qualities and can control the quantity of silver which is needed in some places to gain a hallmark.

    (b) Using coin silver. Where bullion was not available, coins, particularly those that were known to have a high silver content were used for making jewellery. For instance, in Turkestan, Russian, Persian and Chinese coins were used; in Yemen Maria Theresa thalers were specially imported for the purpose. The coins were melted down by the silversmith.

       With cupellation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupellation). In some cases, the liquid material underwent a process of cupellation which separated the silver from the base metals. On completion the silver could be treated in the same way as bullion in that base metals could be added by the silversmith giving him greater control of the process.

       Without cupellation. In other cases, the liquid metal was used immediately. The metal composition of the coin would then be reflected in the metal composition of the jewellery. Since the silver content of coins differed from place to place and was also reduced over time, the content of silver in jewellery would also have varied along these lines. But the jeweller himself may have intervened in this process by adding to the mix.

    (c) Using old jewellery. Old pieces of silver jewellery, no longer wanted, were a common source of silver. Melted down they provided the material for new necklaces, bracelets, rings etc. in much the same way as coins did.

3. Silver substitutes. These look like silver and sometimes pretend to be silver.

   (a) Those with a recognised composition. These are forms of nickel silver and are called by various names.

       Paktung. This is an alloy of brass with 5-10% nickel added. Invented by the Chinese, and imported in small quantities to Europe and elsewhere, its composition remained a commercial secret until the second half of the eighteenth century when  nickel was identified as the vital element.

       German silver. This is an alloy of copper (60%), zinc (20%) and nickel (20%). It was discovered in 1823 in Germany by an industrial chemist called EA Geitner and was marketed under the trade name 'Alpacca'. The name Alpacca was used in Europe until around 1918 when it was replaced by the more commonly used name, German silver. It had many industrial uses but was also adopted later for the making of tableware and jewellery

      Maillechort and New Silver are other names for nickel silver alloys which are used for making jewellery

   (b) Other silvery alloys. I'm guessing here (I could find no direct references) but I suspect that silversmiths (a) melted down coins which did not contain silver and (b) had their own recipes for making silvery materials for jewellery.

The term gilit is often used, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to describe these silver substitutes.

To make these substitutes look more acceptable and attractive, they were sometimes covered in silver plate.

One more term... white metal. This is a description, used by the Fine Arts trade, of silver that does not have a hallmark. It is however, recognised that the item contains silver and it is priced accordingly.

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Comment by Thelma on April 6, 2017 at 11:49

Thanks, Betty. I originally wrote it for myself but then I thought it might be useful for others. Since I wrote it, I've remembered other ways of taking about ethnic silver, for example, the terms 'old silver' and 'tribal silver' .... as in the descriptions of items for sale..... 'made of old silver'.... meaning made of low silver or no silver. And this is where Lynn Ardent's work on the analysis of the metal content of some her pieces is so exciting because it unravels these terms by shedding a revealing light on just how much silver is used.

Comment by Thelma on April 6, 2017 at 11:25

Don't worry, Joost. I have a similar problem when I'm typing while looking at the screen... and then quickly pressing the Add Comment button. It seems to  be a common feature of posts on the internet. But it would be good if there was an Edit button for comments. Maybe Cordelia would know something about this.

Comment by Betty on April 5, 2017 at 20:20

Great and educational summary, Thelma. Many thanks!

Comment by Joost Daalder on April 5, 2017 at 13:29

Thanks, Thelma. Reading through what I wrote I feel embarrassed by the number of typos which I should have spotted and didn't - really irritating. And the worst is that I cannot set them right, as you can - if I am not mistaken - do that only by saving the document, then correcting it, and then pressing "Add Comment". I don't think you can do it after that, in situ. Which means that I should, of course, have proofread my text properly before pressing "Add Comment". It is really my own fault - but I do hate those typos. Thank you very much for an interesting discussion. And for a great blog post.

Comment by Thelma on April 5, 2017 at 9:51

Thanks Joost. There's an interesting book on Paktong by Keith Pinn, called 'Paktong: the Chinese alloy in Europe 1680-1820' , published in 1999 by ACC Art Books. Like all these specialist books, it seems to be quite expensive.

Comment by Joost Daalder on April 4, 2017 at 18:34

Dear Thelma, - With respect to "paktong": this - indeed invented by the Chinese - actually most frequently is held to contain simply copper, zinc and nickel. To desribe it as brass plus nickel is less clear than mentioning the three components involved. Whatever proportions used at the very beginning, in practice they came to vary considerably. As I wrote earlier, Wikepedia gives quite a good account of its history, and it is particularly important to realise that in essence it was imitated in Germany as early as c. 1750 (and had been known there as a Chinese alloy well before). The confusing name "German silver" refers to a metal of the specific proportions which you mention, but the combination of the three metals into one alloy was already employed several decades earlier. "German silver", or - to use the better term - "Alpacca", was indeed developed in 1823, with the proportions defined as you mention, and thus became known as an "official" metal. Broadly speaking, Alpacca is nothing other than a specific form of the paktong which the Chinese had developed centuries earlier. This is also why there is confused use, in trade etc, of the  terms "paktong" on the one hand, and "German silver" or Alpacca on the other. What many are not aware of is the kinship, only the presumed difference. To make matters yet more complicated, in China the Miao - for example - have also for long used a combination of "paktong" and silver. It makes sense: if you have an alloy consisting of copper, zinc and nickel which already looks similar to silver, you don't need to add a lot of silver to make the resulting alloy appear like a far better quality silver alloy than technically it is. Even 80% paktong plus 20% silver will look most convincing, and if you use 30% silver (as often happens) and 70% paktong, the resulting alloy looks extremely impressive.  I re-quote the Wikipedia passage for the sake of good order:

"Nickel silver was first known and used in China.[10] During the Qing dynasty, it was "smuggled into various parts of the East Indies", despite a government ban on the export of nickel silver.[11] It became known in the west from imported wares called bai-tong or paktong (, literally "white copper"), for which the silvery metal colour was used to imitate sterling silver. According to Berthold Laufer, it was identical with khar sini, one of the seven metals recognized by Jābir ibn Hayyān.[12]

"In Europe, consequently, it was at first called paktong, which is about the way pai t'ung is pronounced in the Cantonese dialect.[13] The earliest European mention of paktong occurs in the year 1597. From then until the end of the eighteenth century there are references to it as having been exported from Canton to Europe.[13] German imitations of paktong, however, began to appear from about 1750 onward."

Comment by Joost Daalder on April 4, 2017 at 17:59

Thanks, Thelma. - I was not aware that the British use "white metal" for what is not "acknowledged" as silver by British standards, but the term "white metal" is a most unfortunate one to describe metals which are in fact silver alloys. The important distinction British law wants to make is between the Britannia standard (95%, if I remember correctly) and the more common sterling silver (92.5 %% silver plus 7.5% copper) on the one hand, and anything containing less silver on the other. However, to describe any alloy containing a lesser amount of silver as "white metal" suggests that no silver is present at all, and is very unhelpful, both to the Britsh themselves and to others. A more intelligent description would be "silver alloy", which would surely be highly appropriate for anything containing at least 50% silver. In the world at large, so to speak, "white metal" is used to describe any metal which contains no silver at all, but of which the exact composition is not known, or not considered important. I do recall, by the way, dealing with British tribal jewellery sellers who did use such terms as "silver alloy" when selling tribal pieces which clearly had a silver component in them (not necessarily even 50%, in which case - if they felt it was less - they would usually say "low grade silver"). Some would call anything less than sterling "low grade silver", as to them the only thing that could legitimately be called just "silver" was sterling (or better). It's a confusing area!

Comment by Thelma on April 4, 2017 at 15:34

Dear Joost, Thanks for this. Yes you are right. The description you gave of 'white metal' is the most commonly used one and it should have been given preference. What about an addition like 'This term refers to light-coloured alloys containing metals such as tin, antimony, zinc etc. which are mixed in varying quantities according to purpose.'

But in addition, the term 'white metal' is used by dealers in the UK to describe metal which does not have a hallmark. I think I must have missed out 'in the UK' when I retyped the piece onto the blogspot on the site. Looking back at my notes, I have a quotation which reads as follows: 'In compliance with British law, the Fine Arts trade uses the term 'white metal' to describe items which do not carry the British Assay Office marks but are nevertheless understood to be silver and are priced accordingly.' The quotation appears under some notes taken from the papers of the International Gem Society but I haven't yet been able to locate the specific paper in which it occurs. I'll let you have more precise details if I can find it. I hope others will come forward with comments too.

Comment by Joost Daalder on April 4, 2017 at 9:13

There is much of value here, Thelma, but I fear I must disagree with you on the meaning of "white metal". That does NOT, in fact, in my experience refer to an alloy which contains silver, but is used to distinguish the material that LOOKS like silver from it. Wikipedia has as useful a description of how the term is used - somewhat variously: "The white metals are any of several light-coloured alloys used as a base for plated silverware, ornaments or novelties, as well as any of several lead-based or tin-based alloys used for things like bearings, jewellery, miniature figures, fusible plugs, some medals and metal type." In no instance is silver present, and as I have never come across "white metal" as an expression for "silver" (in whatever form), I wonder where you found it used in that way?? Even in the case of so-called silver-plate it does not  refer to the silver which covers the "metal - whether just one or a combination - 'underneath'", but to just that basis for the covering which is actually silver.

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