Saturday, 26 November 2016

Filigree: A Forgotten Birmingham Craft*

Filigree nutmeg grater, probably made by Samuel Pemberton
in Birmingham, c. 1790-1800. Held at the Assay Office.

Birmingham may have been the ‘city of a thousand trades’, but some of those trades are more well-known than others. One that is less recognised is that of filigree making, which involved using flattened wire soldered together to form decorative and delicate patterns, usually in the making of jewellery and small boxes. These small filigree items were popular in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, and many examples survive; though because silver filigree was not required to be marked, their place of production is frequently guesswork. There is evidence though, that Birmingham was central in England’s filigree making during this period. The Encyclopaedia of Geography (1837), for example, highlights the main trades of the town as ‘pins, buttons, nails, paper trays, filigree, and toys’; the other trades are well researched, but information concerning the filigree trade remains elusive.

Matthew Boulton’s Soho produced a great deal of filigree goods. When, in 1774, Thomas Percival was researching how lead could poison those working with it, he visited the filigree workers at Soho (who used a lead-based solder), one of which had been making silver filigree for thirty-five years, so, since the 1740s at least. An inventory made at the Soho works in 1782 recorded a wide range of silver filigree, including smelling bottles, thimbles, handkerchief pins, purse runners, buckles, tea measures, toothpick cases and money boxes. Some of the merchants buying Soho’s filigree were Theophilus and Thomas Richards, who ran the fine toy-shop on High Street, which William Hutton called the ‘toyshop of Birmingham’. Thomas was a filigree worker, so the Richards’s probably bought from Soho to top-up their stock. Another local filigree worker was John Moody, who had run the Richards's toy-shop since the 1740s.

I will be added a selection of filigree articles over the next couple of week, to see what's been added, click here.

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