With more than 7,000 years of history, it’s no secret that Malta had its fair share of colonisers until it successfully gained independence in 1964. However, we cannot disregard the fact that some of these rulers brought along a handful of interesting traditions that shaped our culture and heritage.
Words by Christine Cassar | Extract taken from September's 2022 Il-Bizzilla Magazine | Read more here
We have the Phoenicians to thank for introducing the beautiful art of filigree to the Maltese Islands. This unique craft is based on the twisting of metal threads and/or beads; artisans firstly flatten the metal threads, which are then cut up and shaped to form some of the most ornate items of jewellery and ornaments.
Although the Phoenicians were the brains behind the introduction of filigree to the Maltese Islands, this art has quite a long history. In actual fact, it can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. Eventually, filigree continued to evolve over the years as the Greeks and Etruscans continuously worked on perfecting the craft between the 6th and the 3rd century BC. Nowadays, some of these items have been preserved and displayed in prestigious museums such as the Louvre and the British Museum.
As for the difference in design, items may vary from continent to continent and from one era to another. Interestingly, earrings dating back to ancient times are mostly shaped into geometric flowers and framed with rims made of gold wires. Meanwhile, you’ll find other elements in Italian filigree such as feathers and petals that are very rarely seen in ancient designs. Filigree also spread to numerous parts of Asia, particularly India. Although they had their own take on it, it is thought that they were heavily influenced by the Greeks since they chose to follow similar patterns to this very day.
If we venture to Medieval Europe, the filigree designs are very similar to those of the Byzantine era. Prime examples include the Gospel books, reliquaries, and scrolls, featuring elements such as enamels and precious gemstones. Irish filigree tends to offer more variation through its notable knots and arrangements. To name a few, the Bell of Saint Patrick reliquary and the Ardagh chalice are both regarded as some of the finest examples that truly illustrate the beauty of filigree.
In Malta’s case, the most distinguished motif is undoubtedly the eight-pointed cross. As reflected in our history, it is the most ubiquitous symbol that reflects our national heritage in the best way possible. To this day, there have been many representations of it on earrings, brooches, necklaces, and bracelets. Various filigree exhibitions were held over the years, including, Il-Filugranu f’Malta (Filigree in Malta), featuring prominent pieces such as a clock, a ship, candlestick holders and a Barbie doll wearing a full outfit made out of filigree. Adding to this, Kevin Attard - a true master of the trade, showcased some of the most intricate filigree masks in an exhibition held a couple of years ago. We also have renowned designers Charles and Ron, who also chose to incorporate filigree elements in some of their gowns and accessories.
While it is clear that efforts have been made to preserve this art, local artists have expressed their concerns regarding the future of filigree. Excluding any hobbyists, it is evident that only a select few are skilled and knowledgeable in the trade. Although it is great to see that many people choose to take up filigree as a hobby, few or none at all become masters of the trade. Since times have changed, people are also inclined to buy modern pieces of jewellery. Does this mean that filigree is a dying art? I guess, only time will tell. Over the years, the art of filigree successfully managed to intertwine itself with our history and still very much remains part of our heritage. One can only hope that it has a bright future ahead.