Originating in Syria and exported to Spain during the Moorish conquest in the early 700s AD, damascene is an artform that has literally been around for centuries. It was first started in Damascus, hence the name. Damascene jewelry is often handcrafted and depicts scenes with doves, flowers, and geometric shapes.
The labor-intensive technique is a surface decoration of engraving and metal plating. The jewelry is often made of steel or other base metal in which precious metals (usually 18 and24 k gold) are placed in groves on a small surface, the hammered in place. The black background is created by the oxidation of a very hot solution used to darken the background, creating magical scenes and stories.
Note that damascene work was also introduced throughout Asia between 710-794 AD. It was extremely popular in Kyoto, Japan during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) when it was used to decorate sword handles before it became popular in jewelry. Japanese damascene is also referred to as shakudo, and is most often composed of 75% copper and 4-25% gold and 5-20% antimony. It is not to be confused with Siam sterling, while similar in style, is a different process, metal, and spiritual meaning. Asian damascene depicted scenes such as temples, fans, landscapes, flowers and Mount Fuji. By the end of WWI, more than half of the damascene jewelry produced in Japan was exported by UK and American tourists.
During the past century, “toledoware” became en vogue, which is a less expensive production or “faux damascene” that imitates the look of damascene but is made from tin, painted with black enamel, and includes raised designs painted in white and other colors. Without a trained eye, it can be difficult to determine the difference between damascene and toledoware. It was coined toledoware due to Toledo being the epicenter of damascene jewelry in Spain.
To care for your damascene jewelry, use a damp cloth, rubbing the jewelry gently. You may also use a mild dish detergent if your pieces with very dirty. Make sure the piece completely dries so you don’t lose the gold plating or rut the metal. We often zap our jewelry with a hair dryer to make sure it dries completely.