What is milgrain? Learn the history of milgrain and how this embellishment can add decadence to your ring, as well as pros and cons.
What is Milgrain? (Also Spelled Millgrain)
Milgrain (French for “a thousand grains”) is a decorative border of tiny raised bead shapes applied to the edges of a piece of jewelry or to a section for an antique and elegant look. The texture and complexity that milgrain adds to a jewelry design raise it above a mere embellishment. Milgrain sets off, frames or highlights particular elements of the design, such as a center diamond in an engagement ring or an intriguing shape of a pendant. Most often, milgrain is one row of raised “bumps”; other times, it is two or more rows; on very special pieces, whole surfaces are covered with precisely placed rows of milgrain.
Milgrain comes in various sizes. Some beads are large enough to be an integral element of the design; others are large enough to be seen but not so large they intrude upon the design; smaller beads serve as accents (these are the beads that we see most often); some are close to microscopic—you can feel them but not readily see them. The thing about milgrain is, whether you can see them or not, you will see a great difference between a piece with and one without milgrain. It may not be a difference you can put your finger on, but it demonstrates the beautiful effect of milgrain.
History of Milgrain Jewelry
Milgrain dates back to the Etruscans, a civilization that flourished from the 8th to the 3rd centuries BCE in what is now Tuscany. They were masters of jewelry making, and fortunately, some pieces can be seen in museums today. They created intricate patterns by fusing high-carat gold granules and placing them in rows along the borders, each tiny bead meticulously placed for the design to be perfect.
Milgrain has also been found among the artifacts excavated from ancient sites in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, it was earrings that were first discovered with a milgrain design, unlike the rings that were found at other sites. Milgrain remains popular in Indian and Chinese metalwork.
Milgrain did not become wildly popular among the masses until the Edwardian Era (1901- 1910). The delicate, finely detailed ornamental element perfectly suited the tenor of the times and its fashions. It was the “Gilded Age,” where, particularly in America, every man could become wealthy—or so it was thought. During that time, platinum became the most popular metal for jewelry, and the invention of the acetylene torch enabled jewelers to create the most intricate milgrain ever seen. In addition, platinum milgrain has a sparkle as bright as some gemstones.
The lure of milgrain continued until its popularity peaked during the Art Deco era when it was used in the exciting geometric designs of the day. Platinum still reigned, but its “bargain basement” substitute, white gold, allowed milgrain jewelry to be worn by ladies of all financial means, including those newly liberated “flappers” who worked and had their own money to buy fashionable jewelry.
How Milgrain is Made
There are three ways to add milgrain to a piece of jewelry. The first two are time-honored traditions used by master craftsmen throughout the ages. They would surely be astounded by the third, computer-aided method.
The first method is painstaking and time-consuming. Each tiny bead is crafted by hand, individually placed into its position in the design and hand-soldered. It is the strict attention to detail and the time, energy and expertise used in creating the intricate detail that makes gifting your lady with a milgrain engagement ring an extremely romantic gesture.
The second method is to use a knurling tool to create the beaded pattern on a piece of jewelry. Picture a pizza cutter, and you’ll be close enough to what a knurling tool looks like and how it works. The wheel on the tool is called a milgrain wheel. When the tool’s handle is used to carefully roll the serrated wheel over the edge of a piece of jewelry, the small round “bumps” of milgrain are produced in the metal. We most often see round milgrain, but some wheels can produce oval or square milgrain and in various sizes.
The third method is through the use of a 3D-CAD computer program to create and/or modify a milgrain design. Once the design is finished, the program sends it to a special printer that produces a 3D wax mold of the piece of jewelry, which can then be cast in metal die form. It’s certainly a technologically impressive process, but really, doesn’t it take away much of the romance found in milgrain?
Popular for Engagement Rings and Wedding Bands
If your partner loves timelessness and romance, they will suit a ring with milgrain embellishments. Milgrain softens the edges of a ring, making it appear feathered and delicate.
Benefits of Milgrain Embellishments
- Milgrain brings a bit of the past to the ring. Best of all, the touch of vintage elegance when added to a modern design creates a harmony among past, present, and future.
- Milgrain adds texture and, therefore, personality to a ring, making the simplest of designs complex, intriguing and, often, unique.
- Milgrain acts as a frame for gemstones or elaborate metalwork on the ring and guides the eye toward them more beautifully than a spotlight would.
- The small polished spheres of milgrain add just the right amount of sparkle to the design, one that complements the center gemstone without distracting from it.
- Milgrain is synonymous with artistry and hand craftsmanship and, therefore, suggests good taste and loving care in the selection of a beautiful ring.
- Milgrain makes the ring look expensive (whether or not it was), but milgrain, for all the beauty it adds to the ring, does not necessarily increase the cost.
- One of the many benefits of milgrain is that you need not decide right then and there if you are unsure, it is an embellishment that can be added later.
Things to Know Before Buying
There are some things you should know before you decide if a milgrain embellished ring is right for you:
- Milgrain can be hard to clean - dirt and grime can get lodged in between the milgrain beads, reducing the sparkle of the metal. Cleaning every so often with warm water, mild soap, and a soft brush are enough to remove build-up.
- Milgrain has a limited lifespan - The tiny metal beads will eventually wear away from daily use. The milgrain on your ring will need to be restored about once every decade, luckily it is not expensive or difficult to have this done.
Where to Buy
I love shopping on Etsy for jewelry, both old and new. If you are looking for a one-of-a-kind, antique ring or vintage ring, we have a list of reputable vintage jewelry sellers on Esty. If you are looking for a modern ring, with an old-world touch, head over to our list of engagement ring sellers on Etsy, many of them offer custom design work.
I hope this article has been helpful for you and your desire to learn more about milgrain jewelry. Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below, we always answer!
Happy Jewelry Hunting!