Info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
An introduction to Siam Silver jewellery – what exactly is it?
If you’ve ever come across big black enameled jewellery depicting dancing figures, then it might be a piece of Siam Silver jewellery. These stunning creations were hand made in Siam (now called Thailand), and the figures, buildings or animals created in the jewellery usually depict characters and scenes from Buddhist and Hindu tales and religious text. The country of Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939, changing it back to Siam in 1945, and then was finally renamed Thailand in 1949. The above photo shows a typical “Mekkalah, Goddess of Lightening” Siam Silver vintage niello brooch. Jewellery is usually stamped ‘Made in Siam‘ on the back, though later pieces were could be stamped either ‘Siam’ and ‘Thailand’.
Most Siam jewellery you find is made from some grade of silver (often 925 sterling), with black ‘enamel ‘ style detail. The black and silver jewellery is called Siam Silver nielloware, after the black enamel style technique called niello used in its creation. Occasionally you may see fabulous coloured Siam Silver, with green, blue, red and white enameling instead of black niellowork.
It’s generally believed that Siam Silver jewellery became fashionable in the Western Hemisphere between the 1930s -1970s. One popular theory is that people visiting Thailand brought home this beautiful jewellery as gifts for loved ones, and collections grew from there. I’ve also heard from a couple of other people that they remember Thailand-made jewellery being sold in the China Towns in larger USA cities during the 1960s. It’s important to note that Thailand has a rich history in metal work, niello and enameling techniques; Thailand niellowork has been collected in aristocratic and royal circles for centuries.
What do we mean by Niellowork?
This is a special type of black colouring technique dating back over 3000 years. No one knows for sure who invented it, though Egypt, Cyprus, Syria and Thailand all lay claim to its discovery. Types of niello technique have been used in other countries too, including Great Britain.
Niello is more like an amalgam/ metal alloy than a true enamel, usually being a mixture of silver, copper, lead and sulfur. The term ‘niello’ has Latin origins (developing from the words nigellus, Latin for black).
(Safety precaution: Due niello containing lead, do not use it around or to contain food, nor to hold cigarettes. Keep it away from children – lead ingestion can be fatal. Wash hands after handling niello. Repair of nielloware should only be taken by an expert who follows professional industry health and safety precautions for handling lead/ lead dust).
To make niello jewellery, a highly trained artisan carves out the metal so the it has a raised border and raised character, picture or pattern. The hollow area (ie the bit they have just carved out) is then filled with the niello compound, and baked in an oven until hard and set. The jewellery is given a final buff and polish and any final details to the characters are added by engraving techniques. Though basic in theory, this technique can produce some truly spectacular results. Actual recipes for the niello used in Siam Silver were a guarded secret of the artisans, which may explain the difference in quality and lustre of the jewellery.
What is the story behind Siam Silver jewellery?
The main characters you will see in Siam Silver jewellery are Mekkala, The Goddess of Lightening, and Ramasoon, the Thunder God. I read on a Thailand forum a few years ago, that they are from a mythological tale told to many Thailand children about the origins of thunder and lightening (and not from the Ramayana, as is sometimes suggested):
Ramasoon fell in love with the beautiful Mekkala, but she didn’t love him back. In a jealous rage, he threw his axe at her so he could injure and capture her, but Mekkala was able to defend herself with her famous magical crystal ball. As the axe struck this ball, it created a massive flash of light. This was the first ever lightening. Defeated, Ramasoon created darkness and rain so he could retreat undercover. He still waits for Mekkala to this day. When he sees her, Ramasoon once again throws his axe to injure and capture her, though is always thwarted by the crystal ball that defends Mekkala and flashes brightly as the axe hits it.
This story is so well known in this region of the world that in 2002 and 2008 two major tropical storms were named after Ramasoon.
Many other images depicted are based on characters from Ramayana legend (aka the Ramakien, which is the Thai version of this massive and complex epic). It is ancient Indian/ Hindu in origin, and tells the story of Rama, who is a reincarnation on earth, of the Hindu God Vishnu. Though Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, the Ramayana is one of the most important works of literature in the country, telling moral tales about conflicts of duty, the concept of dharma and obligations in life.
Characters in Siam Silver Jewellery. Characters marked
1. Mekkala(h), the Goddess of Lightening – shown with lightning bolts coming from her hand. A well known figure in Thai culture. This is by far the most common character depicted in Siam jewellery, and is the theme you normally see in Siam jewellery.
2. Ramasoon, the God of Thunder – shown with an axe in his hand. Often shown with Mekkala. Common.
3. Nang Fa, the Fairy of Happiness – looks like she’s dropping stardust from her hand to the floor. Uncommon
4. Matcha, the Mermaid Queen – has a fish/mermaid tail instead of legs. Sometimes shown with Hanuman, she appears with him in the Ramakien. Common.
5. Hanuman, King of Monkeys – a clothed revered monkey-diety holding a sword. Sometimes shown with Matcha. This is due to a Ramakien tale of Hanuman being sent by Prince Rama to build a bridge over Queen Matcha’s Sea Kingdom, but the Monkey King falls in love with her instead. Common.
6. Thepanom, a Thailand Guardian Angel deity – sits devoutly with hands in prayer position, with a flame like motif behind the head. Common.
7. Erawan (aka Airavata), Three Headed Elephant: a multi-headed elephant king, well known in Hinduism. Erawan carries Indra (the Hindu God of rain and thunderstorms) on its back. Mentioned in the Ramayana. Uncommon.
8. Phra Samut Chedi (a.k.a Phra Chedi Klang Nam), The Floating Pagoda, a world famous temple pagoda building in Thailand (located in the Phra Samut Chedi District) which floats on water. Common.
9. Suphanahongse, The Royal Barges; a collection of ornate boats now housed in the Royal Barge National Museum on Bangkok Noi Canal. Common.
10. Lord Rama, (Prince/ Lord) – revered Hindu God who is central to the Ramayana epic; depicted with a bow and arrow. Rare.
11. Dancing Angel – depicted with a long curved garland (looks like rope) held behind the back. Were possibly warriors who were magically turned into angels (Ramayana). Common.
12. Garuda (Garunda) – a winged mythical creature – a cross between human and eagle and is found in both Hindu and Buddhism. Can be depicted on own, or carrying the Hindi God Vishnu as his mount. It forms part of the national symbol of Thailand and is an emblem of the King of Thailand. Uncommon.
13. Sword dancer – figure holding up two swords. Using a sword in both hands is a method commonly used some Thai martial arts and in many traditional dances. Uncommon.
14. Kinnara (Kinnaris) – a celestial half-woman, half- swan like bird creature. Her upper body is that of a woman, her lower body and legs are that of a bird. Rare.
(please note that the some names have different spellings – I’m told that Ramasoon is more known as Ramasura, and Mekkala is more known as Manimekhala, in parts of South Asia).
Siam Silver can occasionally show subjects such as animals (mainly elephants), signs of the zodiac, dancers (male and female), and symbols (often special commissions).
Types of Siam Silver jewellery – beginning a collection.
One of the wonderful things about Siam Silver is the sheer variety of jewellery. No two pieces are exactly the same – each is unique. Even the most common types that depict Mekkala the Goddess of Lightening show her in an almost infinite variety of settings and surrounding filigree metal work.
When collecting you will mostly see brooches, pendants, earrings, cufflinks, tie-pins, and bracelets. More rare are bangles, rings and necklaces. Black nielloware is usually seen, though coloured enamels are sought after by collectors too.
Price depends on many things, including the jewellery size, shape, colour, characters depicted, or jewellery type – each collector is as different as the jewellery itself! Mekkala, Goddess of Lightening niello brooches are a great starting point for budding collectors as they can still be purchased for a reasonable price, and there are a huge variety of styles to discover. Expect to pay slightly more for the pendants, earrings and bracelets. Fancy necklaces, bangles and Siam Silver accessories such as cigarette cases usually fetch the highest prices.
The Future of Siam Silver Jewellery
The sheer beauty and variety of designs are what makes Siam Silver jewellery popular to wear and collect.. However, many people love it because of its cultural, religious and spiritual significance too. Whatever your reason for buying Siam Silver, one thing is for sure – you’ll treasure this amazing story-telling jewellery for years to come.
No Siam nielloware article is complete without a reference to vintage niello researcher and Siam silver expert Charles Dittell and his website www.siamman.com, with thanks for sharing with the world his ground-breaking research into the genre. Please do check his wonderful website out. I also recommend Charles Dittell’s eBook about Siam Silver called Survey of Siam Sterling Nielloware (which is available for download via his shop or Amazon) . His eBook is packed with so much info I’d never come across before / info that’s not found online – it’s a must read for Siam lovers and collectors.
Further reading/ references:
Info about Mekkhala Goddess of Lightening:
Info about Kinnara:
Info about the Royal Barge:
Info about the Floating Pagoda:
Info about Garuda:
Lots of info on nielloware in Thailand:
Info about the Ramayana:
Info on Matcha and Hanuman: