Thai silver jewelry, especially nielloware jewelry, is instantly recognizable. Detailed illustrations, often of animated figures in ornate dress, cast a striking silhouette against dark backgrounds, framed in bright sterling silver. Though the niello technique was used centuries ago in Europe, it is best known by today's jewelry collectors for its use in jewelry such as this. From the skilled craftsmanship, to the mythology, there is a lot more to these pieces than just their aesthetic appeal.
Nielloware, also called niello enamel silver, refers to that dark background on silver. Niello isn’t technically an enamel, which is made from a glass compound, but rather a kind of metal alloy typically composed of silver, copper, lead, and sulfur. However, like enamel, the compound is added to the design as a powder or paste and then fired at a high temperature to melt it into the engraved metal. Another distinction of most nielloware, is that the niello is added to the negative space around the engraved design, rather than filling in the design itself. Although the finished product is more of a gunmetal color, the word niello derives from the latin word for black.
Related Article: The History of Enamel Jewelry
The Thai nielloware technique involves carving a design into the silver, usually gods and goddesses, then using niello to fill in the negative space. The piece is then baked in an open fire to harden, cooled, and polished smooth. Additional fine details would be added by hand by a silver artisan. The effect is a high contrast emphasis on the motifs, making them pop forward.
The niello technique and Thai silver have slightly mysterious histories, with varying accounts as to their respective origins. While some scholars believe that niello was used as far back as the Bronze Age, others contend that it wasn’t until the Roman period that it was used on metalwork. Although evidence of Thai metalwork dates to antiquity, not much is known about how the niello technique was introduced to the country.
The early work of Thai silver artisans was mainly fine flatware and serving ware. Craftspeople from the hill tribes of northern Thailand, such as the Shan and Karen tribes, migratory Hindu artisans, as well as Burmese silversmiths, all contributed to the fine silver pieces that would become unique to Thailand. Thai sterling is known for its high silver content, usually ranging between 95% and 99.9% purity (silver must be a minimum of 92.5% purity to be labeled "sterling"). While the legacy of Thai silver is indisputable, the origin of the niello technique in the country remains a mystery.
The vast majority of vintage Thai niello silver jewelry that is on the market today dates to the post-WWII era through the 1970’s. Often it was introduced to the U.S. by soldiers sending back jewelry to their sweethearts. During the 20th century, niello silver was being mass produced in Thailand, but since the jewelry wasn’t marked with individual makers (just the generic “SIAM STERLING” or a variation), it is hard to pinpoint how many manufacturers were producing this jewelry and in what quantities.
The figures and scenes typically depicted in niello jewelry are from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana (also known as Ramakien), one of two important allegorical tales in Hindu religion. One of the most common stories you will see is the story of Mekhala, the goddess of lightning, and Ramasoon, the god of thunder. Though there are many variations of this tale across different southeast Asian cultures, the main theme is the airborne pursuit of Mekhala by Ramasoon. Ramasoon, frustrated by his fruitless chase, threw his ax at Mekhala to weaken her. Mekhala deflected his blow with the crystal ball in her hand, creating a bright flash of light across the sky. The collision caused a booming rattle, thus creating thunder and lightning.
In Thai jewelry, Mekhala is typically depicted with a crystal in her hand, with radiating lightning bolts, while Ramasoon is depicted with his ax. To find out more about the figures on your jewelry, look for different details in their dress or things they may be holding. These clues can guide your search for the history or mythology surrounding the specific illustrations.
The goddess Mekhala on a nielloware brooch, depicted with her characteristic crystal and lightning bolts.
Thai silver jewelry will usually have variations on the hallmark "Siam Sterling" or "Thailand Sterling". The reason for the variation, in addition to the difference in manufacturers producing in the 20th century, was due to the back and forth naming of the country. Before 1949, westerners referred to Thailand as "Siam", while the Thai themselves commonly referred to their country as "Mueang Thai". In 1939, Thailand officially adopted the name "Thailand" in part to establish itself as a unique culture. In 1946, the name was changed to Siam, and then in 1949, it was once again named Thailand.
Knowing these dates may help give you a sense of when your jewelry piece was manufactured, depending on what type of hallmark is stamped on the back. However, as there is so little historical documentation around the manufacture of these pieces, this dating technique is by no means definitive.
Vintage Thai niello jewelry is relatively easy to find on the market, but it is still a favorite among jewelry collectors. Its style and motifs are so distinct and striking, it never fails to catch your eye! It isn't hard to start a collection of your own, just be sure to look for that "Siam" or "Thailand" and "Sterling" stamp on the back of the piece. It can be fun trying to collect all the different characters or scenes depicted on this type of jewelry, and it will give you an appreciation for the craftsmanship to look closer at the engraved details. While we have a small selection of Thai nielloware on our website, most of our collection can be found in our different brick and mortar stores, click here to find a location near you!