Sunday 27 December 2015

Ancient chain weaves

The favourite chain weave of all ancient European civilizations was the so-called loop-in-loop pattern.  It has been used in jewellery from Ancient Sumer through most of Ancient Europe and Middle East, including Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Byzantium.  It disappeared in Medieval times only to be revived in the 1800s with all other things "Etruscan" and ancient.

Because of my anachronistic tendencies, I have always wanted to possess and wear necklaces of this type. In 2014 I got a chance to learn how to make them, and so far I have made six of three different weaves and four different alloys of gold and silver.  My technique is based partly on the one described in the well-illustrated and practical book “Classical Loop-in-Loop Chains” by J. Reist Stark and J. Reist Smith, partly on the experience and advice of jewellers I consulted, and on my own personal trials and errors.

The wire was made by a professional jeweller (assisted and photographed by me as you can see below).  The chains themselves were fused and woven by me. 


In ancient times wire was made by rolling twisted metal strips between two heavy slabs of stone or metal creating a characteristic spiral seam. From Medieval times jewellers started using drawn wire, pulling metal rods through a series of holes gradually diminishing in size. This is the method I watched and photographed at a jewellery studio:


First the 24k gold grains are weighed in correct proportion to the grains of silver and copper. The mould is then prepared by rubbing it with machine oil and warming it up.

Reist Stark and Reist Smith in their book suggest a recipe for 22k gold with a high proportion of silver for ease of fusing (the so-called eutectic gold: 91.6% Au, 6.3% Ag and 2.1% Cu). In my experience, the standard 22k gold alloy (91.6% gold with the remainder evenly split between silver and copper) was easier to fuse.

The authors also state that their 22k alloy is close to that used in Greek and Roman chains, but from what I read in other sources, the alloys used in antiquity were extremely varied, from under 18k to nearly 24k, and seem to have been around 23k most of the time.  The conservation journals and books I read did not have specific results for chains, so I still don't know what the typical alloy for chain wire was in the Antiquity.


The gold silver and copper shot is then melted in a crucible while being stirred with a graphite rod (graphite is used because it doesn't transmit heat). The liquid metal is then poured into the mould. The clamps are released, and the resulting 22k ingot is removed.


This ingot was then rolled on a rolling mill to reduce its thickness to 1.5 mm at which point the draw plates could be used to reduce the diameter of the wire even further. The wire was annealed when it got too work-hardened by these manipulations.

After the final annealing, the jeweller rolled the resulting wire into coils on a lathe (not shown), and from that point I took over.



First I cut the springy gold wire coils into links. Then I butted the link ends together and made sure there is tension between them to keep the gap small. I laid out the links on a piece of charcoal, and fused them with a small and very convenient micro-torch (ES-1000) using a small and “bushy” reducing (low-oxygen) flame.

The hardest part of the process is fusing the links: any blinking or breathing at the wrong time can make you miss the split second in which the link melts and turns into a cute but useless little torque with shiny beaded ends.  Part of the links always get spoiled this way, especially if they are silver, but the process itself is not difficult to understand.  It took me only about thirty minutes to learn how to consistently produce viable fused links.

After fusing, links need to be tested by pulling them into ovals with round-nosed pliers.  As the links are stretched, the badly-fused ones break, ricochet on all available objects, and fly to the far corners of the room. Despite precautions, some of my chain-making time was spent on the floor sourcing scrap metal.
The links that passed the test are pinched in the middle and curved into a butterfly-like shape. After the butterflies are annealed, the weaving can begin.


The only tool needed for weaving a standard chain is an awl to open spaces between the links and to pull on the open ends of each freshly inserted link to tighten the chain. The first chain I made (a commission for a client) was a thick “double loop-in-loop” (still oxidised and unpickled on my neck in the central picture, pickled and shiny to the right).  For weave comparison, the silver chain section on the top right is the “single loop-in-loop” weave, the simplest of all, where each link is connected to only two other links instead of four.

I later made another chain from 24k gold (seen in the picture second from the top), and it came out looking more irregular and loose because the links were softer and stretched more during the weaving process. I did enjoy the gleaming polished gold look as it came out untarnished from the flame.

My favourite alloy to work with was the standard half-copper half-silver 22k gold. It was easier to fuse, slightly harder to weave but produced a very strong, even-looking chain:

Fine silver, on the other hand, was the hardest material to work with. I used it to create the more difficult “two way” double loop-in-loop chain for myself, and had to constantly fight links not fusing well and breaking.  In the process of weaving, a two-way double chain looks like a cute little monster with its mouth open:


After the chains are woven they need to be annealed, pickled, tamped with a hammer or pulled through a wooden draw-plate to make them more dense and uniform. After such treatment they become stiff like sticks, and need to be massaged and bent in all directions until they become flexible and sensuously serpentine. I found that my fingernails suited that purpose best, and additionally the procedure gave them this cool look:

To conclude, the process of ancient chain-weaving demands a lot of concentration and patience, even if you start with ready-made wire. The beautiful results make up for the effort completely and are definitely worth it, especially for those who enjoy wearing and touching history like I do.


Wednesday 30 September 2015

Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action. An Artist's Review

One of the best exhibitions I have seen, "Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action" is, at the moment of this writing, travelling from the Getty Museum to the Frick Collection where it opens on October 5 for the lucky viewers there.  

While star paintings are always on display in museums, drawings, no matter how beautiful, are hidden away in the vaults because of their sensitivity to light. This fact makes this show is a unique opportunity to see this rarely exhibited Renaissance master's most rarely exhibited works from world collections.  For an art historian or any educated artist these drawings are so iconic and familiar from reproductions that it is a dream-like experience to see them "live" all in front of you together with several of his magnificent paintings. It took me a bit of time before my head stopped spinning from being surrounded by such celebrities, and I could concentrate on studying in those magical rooms.

I'm very grateful for the inspiration and schooling this incredible show provided me with. Below are some of the copies and reconstructions I made at the show or inspired by it.

To learn, an artist in the "classical" representational tradition has to copy. When you copy from a colour print or a computer screen, you cannot compare the two drawings well because of size and medium differences.  But when you are standing in one room with the original drawing, and you have a piece of genuine red chalk or a substitute and some paper in your hands, it's a learning experience like no other.

Technical information:

For the copies appearing below genuine red chalk (Elba, sold by Zecchi) and genuine black chalk (France, sold by Kremer Pigments).  For some drawings I used the substitutes as noted.  For paper I used the Fabriano Ingres laid as well as Strathmore "toned tan" (which is sadly smooth but has a beautiful irregular colour), both not authentic, but then authentic paper is not to be found anywhere.

The chalk comes in chunks that I then saw into thin sticks.  Considering some of the filigree lines on del Sarto drawings he must have sharpened his chalks very well for certain passages.

Red chalk - the lighter one is from Russia the darker from Elba
and some tools to saw it into sections

What I also noticed is that del Sarto (as well as Rubens and many others from 1500-1600s used a harder red chalk than is available now.  The closest ones in hardness (though still not hard enough) are modern artificial waxy pencils such as Pitt oil base, Cretacolor oil and Koh-I-Noor Gioconda, but they don't work well because they are nearly impossible to smudge.

Original on the left, Genuine red chalk copy in the middle, Cretacolor "oil" pencil on right

Copy after del Sarto 
Pitt pastel pencil - maybe a little softer or as soft as genuine red chalk

Red chalk from Elba on Fabriano Ingres

Genuine black chalk on Strathmore toned tan

Study of the Head of a Young Woman, about 1523,
Elba sanguine on Fabriano Ingres paper

Red chalk from Russia. Beautiful colour, but too soft.
(this drawing wasn't in the show,
but I stumbled upon a very good quality image...)