Info guide to vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

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.

 

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Most vintage Siam Silver is made from a mix of black niello and silver

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Occasionally you’ll find coloured enamel Siam jewellery, like this rare yellow enamel Siam Silver bracelet.

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.

 

guide to history vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

A red enamel Siam Silver brooch, showing Ramasoon on the left (with axe), and Mekkala on the right (with lightening coming from her hand).

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).

White enamel Siam silver brooch shows Hanuman (the Monkey King) and Matcha (Queen of the Mermaids).

White enamel Siam silver brooch shows Hanuman and Matcha.

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Vintage black niello Siam shield brooch which depicts a Thailand Sword Dancer.

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Vintage black niello brooch depicting the God Indra riding Erawen, the elephant king.

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Siam Silver niello cufflink which depict the Dancing Angels.

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Siam nielloware brooch shows Garunda (a.k.a Garuda), carrying the Hindu God Vishnu. Garuda is the emblem of Thailand Royalty.

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Chedi Klang Nam/ Phra Samut Chedi, The Floating Pagoda

 

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery

Vintage Siam Silver tie pin which shows Thepanom

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Some Siam silver depicts signs of the zodiac, such as this tie pin which shows the crab of Cancer.

A rare vintage Siam silver ring example of Garuda (Garunda) on his own, without the Hindu God Vishnu.

A rare vintage Siam silver ring example of Garuda (Garunda) on his own, without the Hindu God Vishnu.

 

vintage siam silver kinnera niello brooch (3)

The rare Kinnara, a mythical half woman half swan creature, who represents the feminine aspects of love, strength and courage.

 

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.

 

vintage siam silver orange red brooch enamel (2)

A beautiful orange – red colour enamel brooch showing Mekkala, Goddess of Lightening.

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Vintage blue enamel Siam silver brooch

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Unusual multi-coloured Siam silver panel bracelet

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Rare yellow vintage Siam silver panel bracelet

 

 

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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manimekhala

 

Info about Kinnara:

http://www.harekrsna.com/philosophy/associates/demons/classes/singers.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinnara

Info about the Royal Barge:

http://www.thaiwave.com/benjarong/variety/royalbarges.htm

Info about the Floating Pagoda:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phra_Samut_Chedi_District

http://www.paknam.com/tourist-attractions/phra-samut-chedi.html

Info about Garuda:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garuda

Lots of info on nielloware in Thailand:

http://www.rubenvasquez.com/niello/history.htm

Info about the Ramayana:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana

Info on Matcha and Hanuman:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suvannamaccha

Advertisements

26 comments

    1. Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist nor qualified health and safety professional, and this info is only based my very limited research as a jewelry enthusiast. I encourage all readers to do their own research and make their own decisions. If anyone can add advice to lead safety in vintage jewellery, or has further information from a professional standpoint, please do leave a comment 🙂

      Hi! Many thanks for your important question, it’s very good point to bring up regarding nielloware (and indeed some pieces of old vintage costume jewellery) which contains lead. As far as I’m aware, lead absorption generally occurs via the mouth, ie, breathing in lead dust/ particles, handling of lead and then eating food without washing hands, or actually ingesting lead (eg a small child eating a clasp which contains lead, which may be potentially fatal). In my limited lay-person research, there seems to be a bit of a grey area regarding the absorption of lead via the skin itself. There was a study on niello workers in Thailand, and in my limited understanding of interpreting research papers, the main issues seemed to be caused by a lack of basic health and safety in the workplace (ie, no washing of hands after handling lead then eating food/smoking, no dust masks to prevent lead dust particle inhalation when sawing/filing niello etc) rather than touching/ absorption via the skin.

      Personally if I think a piece of old jewellery might contain lead, I choose not to wear it. If deciding to wear vintage jewellery which contains lead, here are some simple precautions: immediately wash hands after handling it, wash the area it has touched on the skin when you take the piece off, don’t put it near your mouth, strictly keep it out of reach of children, never wear it around toddlers – they might grab / handle it and then put it or their fingers in their mouth. Also, I’d advice against using nielloware (eg a Siam bowl) anywhere around food, or to contain food, or use nielloware cigarette cases to hold cigarettes. Like I say, my understanding of lead is that the issue of poisoning lies around the ingestion of it via mouth or inhalation to the lungs, rather than solely via the skin, so for example, occasionally wearing a niello necklace for a few hours may not be too much of an issue – but if you have a habit of playing with your necklace a lot, and then smoke/ touch you mouth/ eat without washing your hands, then that’s when lead ingestion may occur. I welcome further advice and discussion from readers, as I’m not a scientist and some of the research papers I looked at were beyond my full understanding.

      Thank you so much for your important question, and I’ll be adding more safety advice to the article 🙂

      References and further reading:
      An Examination of Blood Lead Levels in Thai Nielloware Workers:
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3443697/
      https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2093791112330072
      Survey of Siam Silver: http://www.siamman.com/ebookstores.html
      Antique Jewellery University: http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Niello
      Lead Toxicity – What Are Routes of Exposure to Lead?
      https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=34&po=6
      How Lead Exposures Can Happen:
      https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/exposure.html

  1. I found a pendant in my mum’s belongings that has 7.G. SIAM STERLING stamped on the back. The pendant is all silver with no enamel and has what looks like a leaf design on the front. I’ve searched hundreds of jewellery websites over the last few weeks but cannot find anything the same as this pendant although I have seen a few pieces with the same design.I have no idea how my mum came by the pendant but would love to know more about it if anyone can shed any light on it. I am happy to send a picture if that would help.

    1. Hi! Thanks for visiting, I’m unable to receive email pictures at the moment, would you be able to link to a picture hosting site like Instagram or Flickr or post on Twitter? 🙂

      1. Great pictures, many thanks! The pendant is beautiful, and non-niello-enamel pieces are quite unusual. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anything else about the signature stamp; due to the cottage industry nature of Siam silver, it’s makers marks are very difficult to trace and I’ve never seen that one before. Charles Dittal, a world expert on Sterling Siam, has written some superb books on the subject, which might have more information on makers marks in there. His books and eBooks can be found on his website here

      2. Thank you for your reply. I think it is beautiful too. I will definitely have a look at Charles’s website as you suggest. If i find out anything further about the necklace I will let you know. Thanks again for your help.

  2. My Mom has a cufflink she had made into a ring with a siam dancer holding a flower. I have not been able to find another one holding a flower. Do you know anything about this dancer?

  3. I came across a bracelet black and silver with three different dancers on it , stamped SIAM STERLING could this be one

    1. Hi Dee,

      I couldn’t say without seeing a photo, but from the description you’ve given, it sounds very much like a Siam bracelet.

  4. TY NOW I KNOW WHY I FELL IN LOVE WITH THESE PIECES I BOUGHT,THEY ARE VERY SPECIAL .AND ALL DIFFERENT.JUST LOVE THEM .AND ALWAYS LOOKING FOR MORE RARE PIECES..

    1. A gentle hand wash with my fingers in weak soapy water (and dry with a bay-soft tissue), and then a quick light polish with a silver polish cloth is all I do, and it seems to work well. I don’t tend to polish too much as I like patina on my vintage silver! I give it just a light going over to enhance any detail to the characters depicted, and then a quick gentle buff with baby-soft tissue to remove any excess left from the silver cloth. I never use any type of liquid nor solid polish (eg, brasso, jewelers rouge, jar of silver polish, simichrome etc) and never use silver dip, as all of these can potentially ruin the enamel work. This is what I do anyway 🙂 Anyone else any tips for cleaning Siam silver jewellery?

      1. I was recently going through a box of jewelry that I’ve had for a while and found a white enamel leaf pin that I found in high school. It was very tarnished and I didn’t even realize it was sterling until I examined it more closely. All this time, I thought it was brass. I used a Q-tip, old toothbrush and liquid silver jewelry cleaner to clean it up and it came out perfectly fine. No damage to enamel work.

      2. My Grandparents gave my parents a large collection of Niello, collected when they lived in Siam in the late 40’s. Mom always said the best way to clean them was with a pencil eraser. Just buff the silver parts with the eraser, she swore that was the best way. Now I”ve inherited the collection, and I will try that way myself.

      3. Never heard of cleaning and polsihing Niello with an eraser before, do let us know how you get on! 🙂

  5. Have been fascinated with jewelry from Siam since forever. Have quite a good collection now, including a most fascinating ring! It was so nice to read about them. I look forward to collecting more pieces! Is there some place I can get price guide range for them ? Or a catalogue?

    1. Thanks for your comment – Siam jewelry collecting can very addictive!

      You can find out a bottom price valuation from Ebay, using their ‘sold listings’ search facility. Here’s how you do it:

      https://jewellerymuse.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/quick-tip-find-out-the-value-of-your-jewellery-diy-valuations/

      The Siam Silver expert Charles Dittell has written an excellent Ebook on the subject, which I downloaded earlier this month. It’s a good read with some info in there that I’ve never seen before about Siam silver. It also has a price guide in it. Here is his website: http://www.siamman.com/index.html – you are able to download his books from there.

  6. I have a bracelet that is multi colored and has Mekkala and Ramasoon, I took it to a jeweler and it appears to be sterling silver, but we can’t find the markings for silver on it. It does have markings on the clasp, but we don’t know what they are? Is there any way to send a pic to you and see if it can be identified?

    1. Hi Sharon, your bracelet sounds lovely! Send any pictures to:

      info@thejewellerymuse.co.uk

      and I’ll see if I can ID them for you. Siam hallmark stamps are notoriously difficult to identify as there is so little info available on them, bit I’ll see what I can come up with 🙂

  7. My future husband gave me my first piece of Siamese jewelry in 1963, when we were still in high school–the beginning of my collection–my favorite design I have always called “the Mermaid Lady” nice to know her name and story–thank you!

  8. Thank you…this was so interesting and a big thanks too to Charles’ site. I have inherited a beautiful brooch from my 102 yr old mother-in-law and NOW with this latest info I have discovered a whole ‘new Siam world’ AND my beautiful lady has a name ‘Matcha’. All I have to find now is the ring! Such fantastic information, not too technical, hahaha. Made me want to read more!

    1. Wow, thank you so much! And welcome to the gorgeous (and rather addictive!) world of vintage Siam jewellery 🙂

Comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.