History of Decorative Metal Works

Updated on February 23, 2018
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Metal art is greatly valued for its craftsmanship and designs, thus spurring my interest in an art that has tremendous decorative value.

In ancient times, metal works were made to serve both as decorative items, like human figurines, metal sculptures, masks, and elaborate door hinges and locks, and as functional items of everyday use like hammered metal cups and bowls, utensils, dishes.

Other functional metal works are armour, jewellery, and gold and silver coins.

These early metal works of art were produced manually and made from materials dug out from the cores of the earth, such as:

  • Gold - Its element was said to have been first discovered in 3000BC. It's first use as money in the form of crudely stamped lumps occurred around 700BC. The Romans were the first people to develop gold mining methods. Gold, which is found in many parts of the world has a rich history, especially in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Africa and is a part of the symbolism of their cultures. Gold was used extensively in their artefacts and body adornments.
  • Bronze - The history of bronze discovery dates back to the time of the Sumerians, around 3500 BC. Bronze is harder than iron and is anti-corrosive, which is why it was used mainly as weapons of war in ancient times.
  • Brass - This metal was discovered much later than bronze, around 500 BC, and is a bright yellow tinted metal that is susceptible to a high polish. It tarnishes very easily and requires a high level of polishing to keep it looking bright. Brass can be rolled into thin sheets and is used as base materials for decorative metal ornaments that are thinly or thickly coated in silver or gold.
  • Copper - Copper is a metal that is found in its pure state, just as silver, gold, and tin. It pre-dates iron in terms of use and it is claimed that the ancient Egyptians used copper chisels hardened by a now unknown process; to cut their granite. According to historical facts, most nations of antiquity used copper as materials in the making of coins, weapons, statues, and household items.
  • Lead - Lead is one of the earliest metals discovered by the human race and was in use by 3000 B.C. In ancient Rome, the metal was used to make water pipes for plumbing, bath linings. aqueducts, and for cooking pots. Ancient scientists used it also in early cosmetics, paints and pigments. It is sometimes found free in nature but is usually obtained from the ores - galena, anglesite, cerussite, and minum.
  • Tin - The history of tin is very obscure and no evidence can be found to show when it was first discovered but the only records available claim that the metal was used over 5500 years ago. A relatively rare element in the earth's crust, there are tin deposits found across the world, though most of it is now found in the southern hemisphere, mainly from south-east Asia.
  • Silver - Silver is one of the first five metals (gold, silver, copper, lead and iron) discovered and used by the human race, coming second to gold in its beauty and worth. Objects made from silver date back from before 4000 BC and were found in Greece and later on, in Anatolia (now modern Turkey). The legendary precious metal began with its use by ancient civilizations and though now less used, silver is the most widely used material for coinage in history.

Decorative Metal Art as Wall Hanging
Decorative Metal Art as Wall Hanging | Source

Metal Works of the Middle Ages

In Europe during the Medieval Period, metal workers like locksmiths, took pride in their metal craft as they expended much care and effort in crafting items such as hardware, screens, gates and heavy grilles for the Cathedral Churches. During this period, it was a typical sight to see heavy hardwood doors hung on elaborate and ornate scroll patterned hinges.

Ladies had their metal craft of gold and silver jewel boxes, crucifixes, reliquaries (small receptacle made to hold sacred relics), and other objects of the faith which were crafted to exquisite perfection by the monks in their monastery cells.

Other beautiful metal artworks were produced with ornamental precious metals enhanced with jewels or enamel motifs.

The Plateresco Period of Metal Craft

The Plateresco period was named so, as a mark of honour to Spanish silversmiths whose beautiful metal works influenced other craftsmen working in other mediums apart from metal. During the Spanish and Italian renaissance, more emphasis was placed on metalware like heavy bronze door handles/knockers, lanterns, candlesticks, metal gates and lighting fixtures.

Their efforts were geared more towards the decorative and enhancing aspects of metal as opposed to the operative/protective uses of the Middle Age people’s door hinges and other metal ware.

Italian Decorative Metal Art

During the Italian Renaissance, metal workers made extraordinary reproductions of miniature classical statues that were meant for interior decoration. The process of production was the "lost wax" or cire-perdue process.

These tiny beauties were initially made using a wax figure of the models, but this art was soon lost in the making of bronze casting. The process of production involved the making of wax models delicately and painstakingly carved by hand and then covered with a layer of molten clay and left to harden.

When perfectly dry, the object was heated so the wax can melt and drain out through a small hole. This results in a cast whereby liquid bronze is filled and left to set. When cool, the clay mold must be broken to reveal the bronze object.

During this period, it was mandatory that the clay mold is destroyed to avoid the sculptor repeating the exact design for someone else without having to produce a new clay cast.

French Metal Crafts

In France, the peak of the art of metal crafting occurred simultaneously with her pinnacle of decorative artworks.

They produced gilded bronze furniture enhancements, andirons, and clocks in ormolu (cast bronze ornaments surfaced with gold) that reached near perfection in design, form, and finish but soon headed for a decline by the early 19th century.

Metal Art Designs of England and America

Metals used for interior décor works in both America and England followed similar patterns and lines. In the 17th century, both countries had hardware products made of wrought iron, but far more thought was put into the English designs than that of the Americans.

In America, utilities were the main consideration and the local blacksmith made mostly latches, bolts, and hinges. On the other hand, in England, fireplace accessories, for example, were made using iron enhanced with brass ornamentation which enriched the lesser metal.

The 18th century was the silver tableware era and it was not uncommon to see silverware and other metal based ornaments in both countries. France seized the opportunity of the English and American passion for ormolu and exported shelf clocks and other decorative ornaments that had great appeal to the American and English public.

Basic Metals Used for Decorative Metal Arts

There are ten different basic metals that were used traditionally, and even today. They are:

  1. Gold
  2. Silver
  3. Aluminium
  4. Magnesium
  5. Chromium
  6. Zinc
  7. Tin
  8. Lead
  9. Iron
  10. Copper

Some of the metals listed above lack the required qualities needed for decorative arts and are often combined with other metals to form alloys. The alloys then formed have the advantageous qualities of the combined metals.

Three Principal Metal Alloys

There are a large number of different alloys, but the main ones are:

  • Bronze: Made with a combination of tin and copper, but sometimes with a mix of phosphorus and zinc.
  • Brass: Made with a combination of copper, tin, and zinc.
  • Pewter: Made mainly of tin with additions of bismuth, antimony or copper. Modern pewter which is of an inferior quality from classic pewter contains some lead.

There are a number of metal objects valued for their intricate workmanship, form, and design, even though they may not be made from precious metals such as silver and gold. They are objects of high decorative value with many of them labeled as collectors’ items.

Decorative metal art as these include:

  • Table silver (antique silverware, tankards, porringers, kettles, chocolate pots, punch bowls, etc.).
  • Pewter (drinking vessels, dishes, candlesticks, table and ornamental ware, etc.).
  • Sheffield plate (tableware, and other products imitating silverware).
  • Firebacks (made of cast iron with ornamental motifs of ships, mythical creatures, trees, coats of arms, family events, etc.).
  • Brass (small metal ornaments, statues, finished hardware, etc.).
  • Copper (fireplace accessories, candlesticks, clocks, etc.).
  • Hardware (e.g. escutcheons, handles, latches, locks, etc.).

Silver and gold are the most valuable (in terms of monetary) metals of the lot and are mainly used for jewelry, ornaments, and as plating or surfacing materials for baser metals.

© 2012 artsofthetimes


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    • jbosh1972 profile image

      Jason 2 years ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

      Fantastic! Nice to get a historical aspect of metal working. I make metal art myself. If you can gather the information, would be nice if you wrote a hub about how the ancients rolled and milled there own sheet metal.

    • artsofthetimes profile image

      artsofthetimes 6 years ago

      You are welcome Flickr. I what i love now are the jewelry pieces made from metal. Always makes me wish i studied a bit of fine metal works.

      Thanks for visitig.


    • profile image

      Flickr 6 years ago

      nicely wrote. I enjoy working with metal and smiting. Thanks for sharing.