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History of Decorative Metal Works

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

Decorative metal works

Decorative metal works

Metals in Ancient Times

In ancient times, metal works served as decorative items and were used to make objects like human figurines, metal sculptures, masks, and elaborate door hinges and locks, and as functional items for everyday use, like hammered metal cups and bowls, utensils, and cooking pots. Other works made of metal in the olden days are armour, jewellery, and gold and silver coins.

Early metal works were produced manually and made from materials dug out from the cores of the earth. They are:

  • Gold - Its element was first discovered around 3000BC. Its 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, 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 artifacts 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 susceptible to a high polish. Because it tarnishes easily, it requires a high level of polishing to keep it bright. Brass can be rolled into thin sheets and used as base materials for decorative metal ornaments thinly or thickly coated in silver or gold.
  • Copper - Copper is a metal found in its pure state, just like silver, gold, and tin. It pre-dates iron in terms of use, and there are claims 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, metal was used to make water pipes for plumbing, bath linings, aqueducts, and cooking pots. Ancient scientists used it also in early cosmetics, paints, and pigments. It is sometimes found free but is usually obtained from the ores - galena, anglesite, cerussite, and minim.
  • Tin - The history of tin is very obscure, and there is no evidence of when it was discovered. The only records available claim that the metal was used over 5500 years ago. A relatively rare element in the earth's crust, tin deposits are found worldwide, though most are in the southern hemisphere, mainly from southeast 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 before 4000 BC and were found in Greece and later in Anatolia (now modern Turkey). The legendary precious metal began with its use by ancient civilizations. And though it now appears to be 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

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 metalware.

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 mould must be broken to reveal the bronze object.

During this period, the clay mould needed to be 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

Ten different basic metals 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 from a combination of copper, tin, and zinc.
  • Pewter: Made mainly of tin with additions of bismuth, antimony or copper. Modern pewter which is of inferior quality from classic pewter contains some lead.

There are several 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 labelled as collectors’ items.

Decorative metal art as these include:

  • Table silver like antique silverware, tankards, porringers, kettles, chocolate pots, and punch bowls.
  • Pewter. Examples include drinking vessels, dishes, candlesticks, table and ornamental ware, etc.
  • Sheffield plates. Tableware and products that imitate silverware.
  • Firebacks. Made of cast iron with ornamental motifs of ships, mythical creatures, trees, coats of arms, and family events.
  • Brass, like small metal ornaments, statues, finished hardware, etc.).
  • Copper (fireplace accessories, candlesticks, clocks, etc.).
  • Hardware, for example, escutcheons, handles, latches, and locks.

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

© 2012 artsofthetimes


Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on August 27, 2015:

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 (author) on February 08, 2012:

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.


Flickr on February 08, 2012:

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