What is filigree jewelry? Should you buy a filigree engagement ring? What is the best metal choice for filigree? Learn this and more in our guide today!
What Is Filigree?
“Filigree” is from the Latin “filum” (thread) and “granum” (grain) for the metal threads and beads that embellish the exquisite handcrafted jewelry. Fine threads of gold, silver or any other pliable metal are twisted, plaited or curled into swirling scroll work, exotic arabesques, elaborate flourishes or lace-like motifs that include flowers, leaves, and vines in combination with tiny beads.
The result is a delicate openwork piece of jewelry or one in which a solid base of metal becomes a “canvas” for the filigree work. Either way, filigree is an intricate and sophisticated jewelry-making technique that may be the first in human history.
History of Filigree Jewelry
Filigree jewelry has been around for at least 5,000 years. In Ancient Egypt, where gold was readily available, both men and women decked themselves out in the glowing metal; filigree commonly found decorating buckles and clasps. The Phoenicians were a seafaring people, and their trade route included Egypt, where they were introduced to filigree. One of their jewelry traditions was “gold granulation,” the making of tiny gold beads. They get credit for incorporating the beads into the filigree. Although “beauty is in the eyes of . . .,” their filigree work is widely believed to the finest of all the ancient civilizations. By 1000 BCE, the Phoenicians had carried their filigree traditions to India, Turkey, and Etruria, where the Etruscans added their own techniques, including geometric designs, but they honored filigree so much that it was almost totally reserved for the deceased to take with them into the afterlife.
Whether filigree made its way over the 7,000-mile Silk Road from India to China or whether the technique was independently created by the ancient Chinese, filigree inlay art appeared in China during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE).
It was in the late 4th century that the next major innovation occurred. The ancient Greeks made filigree even more elaborate and elegant with the addition of gemstones, such as pearls, garnets, and sapphires.
By the 17th century, filigree metalwork created by master craftsmen was thriving in France, Portugal, and Italy and eventually used to garnish the sacred vessels and ornaments used in religious rites and folk costumes. By the 19th century, Campo Ligure in Italy became the “Filigree Capital” with more than 30 master jewelers in the small town. Filigree made its way to the Americas as the Europeans explored the New World.
Interestingly, the filigree ring did not appear until the Edwardian Era (1901-1910). Filigree was perfect for the time when Edward VII reigned. It was a carefree time symbolized by the delicate elegance and airiness found in filigree. The era also introduced a monochromatic filigree design by combining platinum with colorless diamonds.
Filigree reached the height of its artistry during the Art Deco era. It was never more popular, and the technique was perfected when die-cast machines began to be used in the 1920s. The designs incorporated synthetic stones as well as natural, and platinum and white gold was used to bring a whole new aesthetic to the jewelry. It is all but impossible to replicate the crisp, refined filigree work seen in Art Deco jewelry because most rings today are made in wax molds.
How Filigree Jewelry is Made
The artistry that creates filigree jewelry requires concentration, patience, dexterity and a genuine and deeply felt love for the technique. The process begins with the jeweler stretching out the metal into a very fine thread, sometimes as thin as a hair. He then takes a small piece of the thread and twists, curls and bends it into a delicate lacy pattern, usually, but not always, adding teeny-tiny beads to the design to give the piece more character. The threads are then melted together with a blow torch.
The beauty of handmade filigree is that the threads will never be curled or bent nor the beads positioned in precisely the same way—each piece is unique. There are pieces made by a machine that are called filigree, but machines will never be able to do what an art passed down for generations can do. Perhaps the most important thing that manufactured filigree lacks is the love.
Filigree Engagement Rings
Filigree engagement rings are a popular choice for brides-to-be because they offer a romantic and ornamental quality. A filigree setting suits those of us who love exquisitely detailed jewelry.
You can find filigree settings in vintage and antique jewelry, as well as in modern day jewelry. I personally fancy antique and vintage filigree jewelry, because the level of hand craftsmanship is hard to beat with today's machines.
If you think a filigree engagement ring might be the right choice for you, there are a few things you should know in order to make an informed decision.
Benefits of a Filigree Setting
- Filigree is a relatively inexpensive way to embellish a ring, this is because precious metals cost less than gemstones.
- Adds visual pop to a central stone.
- Romantic and visually appealing, filigree offers an old-fashioned and timeless beauty that will never go out of style.
- Intricate and unique designs of vintage jewelry ensure your ring is one of a kind.
Things to Know About Buying a Filigree Engagement Ring
- Modern filigree rings may be mass-produced, so if you are looking for a truly unique ring, it is better to go with something vintage or antique, or design your own ring with the help ring designer (there are plenty on Etsy)
- Inspect the ring you are drawn to. Look at the sturdiness of the metalwork, they symmetry of the design, and the precision of the pattern. If you are shopping online, look closely at photos and ask questions of the seller.
- Understand that filigree is delicate, if it gets caught on something, it can be damaged.
- Ask your seller about maintenance and repair. Will the person you are buying from be able to fix your ring should it get damaged? Do they offer cleaning?
- Filigree engagement rings may cost more than a simpler counterpart of the same weight, especially if it was made by hand. Handmade filigree takes skilled workmanship and many hours of labor.
- Read through our guide to shopping for an engagement ring on Etsy so you can find the best ring for your money.
Choosing a Precious Metal for A Filigree Engagement Ring
A variety of precious metals are used to produce filigree settings for rings, from 24k gold to sterling silver. Filigree designs with lots of openwork should use a durable precious metal, to ensure the longevity of the piece.
- 24k Gold - Gold of this karat is too soft for filigree work.
- Platinum - An excellent choice for filigree settings, it is much more durable than gold. However, it is also the most expensive precious metal.
- 14k Gold - Makes a wonderful choice for a filigree ring because it is mixed with other metals and is therefore more durable than higher karat options.
- 10k Gold - A durable and affordable choice.
- Sterling Silver - A good choice due to durability, sterling silver can support delicate filigree designs. Although it is much more affordable than other precious metals, some couples find it not special enough for an engagement ring.
How to Cut the Cost of Your Filigree Engagement Ring
- Choose a less expensive metal.
- Select a setting that isn't handmade (this will not be a vintage ring) - You can have a look at our favorite Etsy seller's, many of them offer wax-mold filigree designs for affordable prices.
- Pick a gemstone other than a diamond - Learn about alternative stones here.
- Choose a smaller diamond or a lower grade of diamond.
Styles of Filigree Engagement Rings
Filigree engagement rings come in a variety of styles. Here is a brief rundown of some of them:
Diamond Filigree Engagement Rings
We love the sparkle of a diamond, and a filigree setting is a delightful way to add interest and visual appeal. Pair a diamond with platinum or white gold in an Art Deco style for a ring that is out-of-this-world.
Learn more about diamonds in our guide to diamond cuts.
Alternative Gemstones for Filigree Settings
Sapphires, rubies, garnets, and other precious and semi-precious stones look exquisite in a filigree setting.
Vintage and Antique Filigree Engagement Rings
Many antique and vintage rings feature filigree, especially if you focus on rings from the Art Deco and Edwardian Periods.
Learn about the shops we love for purchasing vintage jewelry.
Modern Filigree Engagement Rings
Jewelers today take inspiration from the past, while forging a new future. You can find plenty of lovely filigree designs incorporated into contemporary jewelry designs.
Have a look at our favorite Etsy shops for purchasing modern jewelry.
How to Clean Filigree Jewelry
First, how not to clean..
Do not over-clean. It’s better to under-clean. You can clean an item a second time, but you cannot restore the beauty that may be lost due to over-zealous cleaning and scrubbing.
Do not clean in an ultrasonic cleaner. The vibrations can break the filigree and/or loosen any stones that are incorporated into the piece.
Do not use a commercial “dip-in” cleaning solution. The products contain harsh chemicals that can strip away the beauty of filigree, especially if it is a vintage piece, and damage any semi-precious stones.
Light Cleaning with Hand Sanitizer
Apply a few drops of hand sanitizer directly onto your filigree jewelry and brush gently with a (very) soft toothbrush and rinse with warm water. The “secret” ingredient in the hand sanitizer is the alcohol, which removes light tarnish and will not harm the filigree.
Note: If the piece includes pearls, do not use alcohol. It damages pearls over time.
Deep Cleaning with Hot Soapy Water.
In a plastic or ceramic bowl, mix up a solution of a few squirts of mild dishwashing liquid and a couple of cups of very warm water (not hot—comfortable enough to put your hands into).
Place your filigree jewelry into the soapy water. Let soak for five or ten minutes. (For jewelry containing soft stones, e.g., amber or pearl, limit the time to five minutes.) Remove the jewelry from the solution and gently brush the filigree with a (very) soft toothbrush. Rinse under warm running water. If your jewelry is heavily soiled, you may repeat the cleaning process as necessary.
Once you are satisfied, do a final warm water rinse and gently pat your jewelry dry with a paper towel. Let the jewelry air dry on a dry paper towel.
Note: If you rub your jewelry dry with a paper towel, you will have tiny pieces of paper stuck into the delicate filigree wires, which may break as you try to extract the paper.
I hope this article has been helpful for you and your desire to learn more about this timeless jewelry-making technique. Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below, we always answer!
Remember to head over to our favorite Etsy shops for vintage jewelry for a list of reputable sellers, as well as our favorite modern shops for engagement rings.
Happy Jewelry Hunting!
6 thoughts on “What Is Filigree Jewelry? A Buying Guide”
I have a quick question… so being a filigree ring doesn’t make it automatically a vintage ring right? At least that’s what I’m understanding from reading the things to know section.
And if all of them aren’t vintage necessarily is there a good way to decipher which ones are authentically vintage?
Something else I found very useful was that you pointed me in the right direction to have my wife’s ring cleaned, I would have thought originally that an ultrasonic cleaner would be best to clean it but sounds like it could actually damage it.
Instead of cleaning it myself, would it make more sense to have it professionally cleaned at a jewelers? or do they use the ultrasonic method of cleaning.
Look forward to hearing your responses.
Hi Josh, thanks for your questions. Here are my answers:
Filigree is a technique used in jewelry making and it still in use today, so it is not something you will only find on vintage jewelry.
If you want to learn more about vintage jewelry and how to find authentic vintage jewelry, I have written lots of buying guides that tell you how to find true vintage jewelry.
The best way to buy authentic vintage jewelry is to purchase from a reputable seller. Here is a list of our verified shops.
If you want to clean your own jewelry, you can learn more in this article
If you take your jewelry to a professional jeweler for cleaning, they should know how to properly clean your jewelry to suit its materials, so I wouldn’t worry about them using the wrong method.
These would definitely make greater engagement rings as for me, I’ve always felt something that is handcrafted just means so much more from an engagement standpoint. Now, since these are fully handcrafted, how durable is filigree compared to their counterparts? Are they rings that require constant maintenance over time or do they hold their own rather well?
Hello Todd, Filigree rings are more delicate than a solid band or setting. Because there is less metal, they can be prone to bending, especially with daily wear and an active lifestyle. I wouldn’t say they require constant maintenance other than cleaning, they can build up dirt in their many crevices.
This was an excellent article that explained in detail what filigree jewelry is, how it is made, where it originated (or the places it may have originated), and applications in some of the pieces that are out there for customers today. In short, you have put together a post that teaches us all about the jewelry that we can reference as we go about shopping.
The options are endless as the art has been around for so many thousands of years, and it certainly adds elegance to any piece that I have considered buying for my wife over the years. I just did not know what I was looking at, and now I do. This is going to make me some points too, as the next piece I buy for her, I can talk about in depth.
She will appreciate that I have sought improvement of my sorry self by learning about filigree jewelry, and perhaps I will get a few more smiles over the days. This is all thanks to this article. It was interesting, informative, and extremely useful. I really appreciate you putting this together.
Thanks so much for stopping in and commenting, Dave!