Damascene jewelry is generally made by inlaying oxidized steel with gold or silver, creating intricate designs that resemble tapestry patterns. The style’s English name was likely inspired by its similarity to patterns found in damask silk, whose name has its roots in the city of Damascus, Syria. In fact, many speculate the technique used to create damascene pieces originated in the Middle East and spread to other regions via Muslim artisans as early as the 8th century.
To this day, high-quality damascene items are handcrafted, first by using a stylus to score a design into a flattened piece of steel. Thin segments of gold or silver wire are then worked into this chased void, creating a sharp edge between the steel and its inlaid patterns. Afterward, the steel is darkened, or “blued,” under high heat, the gold or silver areas are etched with additional surface details, and the entire piece is burnished. Most damascened jewelry is ultimately mounted into a gold or silver setting, but the damascene technique is also common on cigarette cases, folding knives, and decorative plates.
During the 20th century, damascene jewelry was typically created in Spain and Japan, which is also where most faux pieces originated. Sometimes called “Toledoware,” these cheap knockoffs are often made from tin colored with black enamel paint to imitate oxidation, and include raised designs painted in white and other colors.