FAQ: What Does Filigree Mean?

Learn about the meaning of filigree in antique jewelry designs.

Filigree describes delicate ornamental detail woven with strips of silver, gold, or other metals. The technique is often used in jewelry and other decorative objects, but the word can also describe any design element that features intricate patterns (like fabric with several flourishing elements). While the jewelry design technique has been around for thousands of years, antique jewelry dealers usually use this term to refer to a subset of pieces from the early 20th century.

Definition

FIL⋅I⋅GREE

/ˈfiləˌɡrē/

The word “filigree” comes from the Latin verb “fīlum” and, subsequently, the French verb “filer,” which both mean “to thread.” Generally, this term describes how a pattern is made by weaving thin strips of metal through holes in a base material. The end result is often an ornamental design of metalwork in which small loops or other shapes are formed by bending wire into various geometric patterns.

Oblong, curved sides and lid, structure of lacy, silver filigree design work, featuring a central, vertical, rectangular area with a single, long-stemmed flower and leaves, identical on front and reverse.
Filigree container from the late 19th century, via Smithsonian Design Museum Collection

In jewelry making, filigree designs are usually applied to precious metals like silver, gold, platinum, and palladium. However, they can also be found carved on non-precious materials like wood, bone, ivory, and glass.

Filigree History

The earliest known examples of filigree are found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Egyptians created filigree using copper wire wrapped around an object. They also decorated precious metals like silver and gold with lattice-like embellishments. In addition, they often added gemstones or other decorative elements.

This pair of basket-shaped hair ornaments is decorated with granulation and cloisonné.
A very early example of subtle filigree detailing from Mesopotamia from approximately 2000 BCE, via Walters Art Museum

In the Middle Ages, spiraling filigree designs were used for jewelry, religious objects, and other decorative items. They were also used for making fine furniture and architectural elements. During this time period, it became a popular technique among European craftsmen.

Antique gold gilt earrings with a filigree design, studded with three small turquoise stones and six small concave disc pendants.
Gold gilt metal earrings with a filigree design from the late 19th century, via Smithsonian Design Museum Collection

During the Renaissance, filigree began to be used on a broader scale. This trend continued until the late 18th century when it evolved into more ornamental metalwork forms using gilt and silver gilt. Eventually, filigree work became even more detailed in the early 1920s after white gold was invented.

Art Deco Filigree Designs

filigree meaning

Very specific filigree designs were used during the Art Deco era, c. 1920 – 1935. Instead of threading designs with metal strips or wires, gold and silver were die-cast into elegant jewelry pieces, each displaying a unique and intricate design. The technique became so popular that many Art Deco engagement rings have a filigree design down the ring’s shank.

When an antique dealer uses the term “filigree,” they usually reference the jewelry from this era. Less commonly, filigree is used to describe earlier and later jewelry with lacey wire work or other fine details (as pictured in the above sections).

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