A Brief History of Wirework
Wirework is one of the oldest techniques for making handmade jewellery.
Wire wrapping uses jewellery wire to frame a stone and to make components. Wire components are then connected to one another by wrapping wire around itself, with no soldering or heating of the wire – known as a ‘cold connection’. Hence the name of the technique.
Wire weaving takes the art form and the complexity to another level. Weaving involves the use of several pieces of thicker wire (base wires) and a long length of thinner wire (the weaving wire) which is woven around the base wires. There are a multitude of patterns which can be woven, most of which are ancient designs. Simple weaves may be carried out using 2 base wires, but cuff type bracelets frequently use 14 or more base wires.
Wire was originally made by chiselling thin strips from a sheet of metal. The strips were either twisted and then rolled between two flat surfaces to smooth them or wound around a mandrel. Today wire is made by pulling rods of metal through holes in a tool called a draw-plate. This method was first used in Persia in the 6th century BC but did not reach Europe until 1600 years later, when wire was first produced on a commercial scale.
Gold and silver wires were made almost exclusively for jewellery, but during the Middle Ages embroidery became their principal use. In England the two trades were governed by different bodies, the Broiders’ Company and the Girdler and Pinmakers’ Company. In the late 17th century the groups became distinctive guilds known as the Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wireworkers and the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers, or Wireworkers.
By the mid-16th century, there were at least 6,000 wire drawers in London and the first mechanical drawing machines were introduced in the UK. The method used for these machines was invented by Rudolf of Nuremberg in the 14th century and introduced to England in 1564. Gold and silver wirework flourished until the time of the French Revolution (1789-99), when fashions changed and the industry went into decline.
Despite this, wirework is still practiced in many countries around the world, especially in Africa and Mexico. In North America and Europe, with the renewed interest in folk art, the craft is enjoying a renaissance. Wirework jewellery is still relatively unknown in the UK.