Siam Sterling Q & A by Charles Dittell



Napkin Ring             Bow and Arrow               Watch Band   
Est. Value: $45     Est. Value: $30        Est, Value: $85


Q What is Nielloware?

A: Nielloware describes the charcoal-black and silver (or gold) items from Thailand, often marked "Siam / Sterling." Technically "Niello" or "Nielloware", the pieces are created by first engraving the silver design, then carving out "background" areas of the silver, filling these areas with a sulfur powder mixture (50% sulfur, with varying amounts of copper, silver, and lead), baking the piece at very high temperatures, smoothing and polishing the piece, and finally re-engraving the silver. Called "khruang thom" in Thailand, Nielloware has had a fascinating period of popularity, especially from the 1950's to 1970's.

Although the Niello process has been utilized for hundreds of years (and was especially popular in the 13th and 15th centuries), only some pieces from Russia, India, Iran, Japan (and Siam sterling) are currently seen in antique shops and shows. Siam sterling pieces of other colors (including light and dark blue, green, red, pink, white and yellow) do not use the Niello process, but a less demanding enamelling procedure. Some Nielloware was produced using brass as the primary metal, including pins and flatware.

Even at this late date, not much is known about these items -- quantities produced, age of individual pieces, or even how many varieties were created -- so there is still much research remaining to be performed in this area. It appears that about 20 manufacturers produced about 2500 Niello designs over about 65 years, with only some large specialty pieces (not designed for export) still being produced. These very rough estimates should improve in accuracy as more information is obtained.

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Q:
Where can I find these pieces?

A: Finding Siam sterling Nielloware can be exciting for collectors and dealers who enjoy attending antique shows, flea markets, pawn brokers and antique stores. Pieces are easily found, especially dress pins, earrings, cufflinks and small bracelets. These pieces can also be found on the Internet: use one of the common search engines (such as www.yahoo.com, www.lycos.com or www.altavista.digital.com) and hunt for "collectibles silver jewelry" for a start. Also, try relevant Internet newsgroups such as alt.marketplace.collectables, rec.antiques.marketplace, and alt.collecting. And, of course, check www.ebay.com.

Flea Markets provide the best opportunity to find inexpensive Siam sterling Niello pieces, although not many items may be found. Dealers will probably find country antiques/collectibles shows more worthwhile, Some nice pieces or sets may be found at pawn brokers, although one may need to visit quite a few shops to find them. Antiques stores may have these pieces, although prices will tend to be higher, especially in the larger cities.

Serious collectors and dealers might find it worthwhile to purchase a want ad in a local newspaper or a regional or National antiques/collectibles magazine.

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Q:
Are there any patents relating to Siam sterling Nielloware?

A: This author has found only one patent mark on Nielloware. Found on a pair of large octagonal cufflinks with hinged shafts, the (small) marking on the crossbar is: SIAMESE IMPORT CO / Ster. Pat. 2472958. The marking on the cufflink back is: STERLING / MADE IN SIAM. (The "/" represents a new line). The patent date is June 18, 1948, so the cufflinks were probably made in the 1950's. The patent states that the invention "relates to jewelry findings in the form of swivel mounted bar toggles..." It appears that the Siamese Import Company imported the cufflink faces and soldered their unique shafts to it.

More recently, this author has found a tie clasp and cufflinks set with the same cufflinks marks. The set was enclosed in a fabric "pouch" on which was inscribed "Sterling / Hand Made In Siam." This inscription may indicate that the hinged shafts may have been attached in Thailand.

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Q:
What are the figures illustrated on Siam sterling Nielloware pieces?

A: The following is a listing of most of the figures seen on these pieces. This list is also printed in Overview of Siam Sterling Nielloware.

Chedi Klang Nam The Floating Pagoda
Dasakantha (Dasharatha) King of Aydohya (Land of the Giants)
Eravan (Erewan) The Three-Headed Elephant
Hanuman The "Monkey-General" (King of the Monkeys)
Lakorn Chai Classical Thai Male Dancer
Lakorn Ying Classical Thai Female Dancer
Matcha (Naninaccha) Queen of the Mermaids
Mekkala (Mekala) Goddess of Lightning
Nang Fa Fairy of Happiness
Rajas The Lion (representing the Siamese Royal Emblem)
Rama The prince, hero of Ramayana
Ramasoon God of Thunder
Ravana (Evil) Ruler of Ceylon
Sita (The Daughter of the Earth)
Suphanahongse The Thai Royal Barge
Suvarnamacha The Mermaid -- Queen of the Sea
Thepanom God of Welcoming
Typanom Dancing Angels with Rope Garland
Visinu (Vishnu) The "Preserver" (a 4-armed god)
Wat Arun The Temple of Dawn

Pictures of most Nielloware figures (shown more clearly in the Siam Sterling Nielloware books)(click here).



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