Damascening

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For Damascened steel, see Damascus steel. For patterns on watch movements, see Damaskeening.
Some examples of damascening labour.

Damascening is the art of inlaying different metals into one another—typically, gold or silver into a darkly oxidized steel background—to produce intricate patterns similar to niello. The English term comes from a perceived resemblance to the rich tapestry patterns of damask silk.

The technique has a long history in Japan, where it was used to decorate katana fittings, particularly tsuba. Known as zougan in Japanese, it has developed its own subset of terms to describe the particular patterns, although "shippou-zougan" is an enamelling technique which most Westerners would consider closer to champlevé.

Damascened-inlay jewelry, especially of Japanese origin, is sometimes referred to as shakudo from the use of that alloy as the dark background.

The technique of niello is also famously attested in prehistoric Greece. The earliest occurrence of damascening in the Aegean, from the Shaft Graves of Mycenae, dates to the latest Middle Bronze Age/Middle Helladic IIIB period (dagger Nu-304). Ultimately of Near Eastern provenance, the technique of inlaying silver/gold was adapted to suit Aegean taste and style.

Cities that are known for a rich history in Damascening where the technique is still practiced are Malaysia, Indonesia, Toledo, Spain, Eibar, Basque Country and Kyoto, Japan.

Damascene in Toledo, Spain

Damascene arrived to Toledo from Damascus. Nevertheless, the art has long been practised in Persia, Japan and even China.

Damascene - modern style

Damascene ware - damasquinado or damasquino, in Spanish - is the art of decorating steel with threads of gold and silver. Toledo has developed a very important industry around this craft, also known as Toledo Gold. The art of damascene has passed from generation to generation within the same family for centuries, and has become a hallmark of this beautiful city. Toledo supplies to many shops in Spain where the damascene pieces are sold as a souvenir.

During the last decades the production of damascene has grown from mainly artisanal to industrialize, given the level of production made and traded. However, many shops still offer handcrafted jewels elaborated following the tradition of ancient times. It is good to know that the quality of the handmade work is far superior to that developed industrially, given that this the latter process is similar to print a drawing on steel, while the manual handicraft work is performed by embedding the precious materials in a base of iron or steel by hammering, following the sketch previously drawn in the piece.

Damascene work has conserved the traditional designs without many changes over the years, but there are a few handicraft workers who design innovative pieces of jewelry, which later are sold in some of the shops of the city (not in all). Nowadays you can find also craftmen who perform high quality pieces, commissioned by private customers or collectors.

Pendant - Gold and silver damascene

For many years the damascene jewelry has been quite unknown even to the citizens of Toledo, because the craft shops are located in the historic center of the city, in turistic and remote areas far from the daily life of the residents of the city.

The damascene style renewal comes from the descendants of ancient craftsmen, who innovate with youthful designs. At the left, two pendants in gold and silver, one of them with Swarovski crystals, based on this new style and handmade.

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Detail of damascening, in this case gold inlaid into oxidized steel, in a hairclasp from Toledo, Spain.