Kubachi and Niello
True niello is a deep black metallic alloy of sulfur, copper, silver & lead. This mixture is fused onto metal for a decorative effect as an inlay on engraved metal. Also, jewelry artisans use niello for filling in designs cut from metal. Niello fuses well onto pure silver and sterling silver, and can also be fused onto gold alloys. It does not bond onto copper, brass or nickel silver.
Detail antique nello silver belt buckle, Dagestan late 19th century
Egyptians get the credit for being the first to use niello techniques which spread throughout Europe in the late Iron Age. Kievan Rus craftsmen (10th to 13th centuries) were highly skilled in niello metal working techniques. They hand crafted objects including dagger and sword hilts, plates and chalices, ornaments for horses, and women's jewelry. The Kievan Rus technique for niello application was first shaping silver or gold by repoussé (hammering designs onto the metal from the reverse side), embossing, and casting. They created high relief objects and filled the background with niello using a mixture of red copper, lead, silver, potash, borax, and liquefied sulfur. They poured the mix into concave surfaces before being baking the art object in a furnace. The heat from the furnace would blacken the niello and give the rest of the ornamentation a vivid effect.
During the Renaissance goldsmiths of Florence (mid 15th century) engraved the metal with a steel-cutting chisel, after which they filled up the hollows produced by this tool with a black enamel-like compound made of silver, lead and sulfur. The resulting design was of much higher contrast and thus more visible than simple engraving.
Niello is commonly used in Tajik style jewelry of Central Asia. Master jewelry artisans of Dagestan and other areas of the north Caucasus employ niello metal working techniques in the same manner as 300 years ago. The most famous of their niello jewelry is called Kubachi from the village of the same name. Below is a hand made silver belt buckle in niello technique from Dagestan. Belt was hand made of leather and features silver kopek coins of Imperial Russia.
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