Silver tobacco cases inscribed with the
words souvenir of Van in Turkish and French were once the pride of many smokers
both in Turkey and Europe at a time when smokers rolled their own cigarettes. These cases
are decorated on both sides with niello decoration, often depicting Ottoman armorial
devices, mosques, towers, Van Castle, or bouquets of flowers. After rolling a cigarette,
the smoker would place the box engraved with his own name carefully on the table in front
of him. This was an object as ornamental as it was functional, and a reminder of travels
At one time there were thousands of niello craftsmen who executed patterns on a myriad
silver objects: harness ornaments, amulets, and daggers for cavalry soldiers, bracelets,
talismans and head ornaments for young girls, and much else. Yet apart from a few names
nothing is known about these craftsmen, most of whom were too modest even to engrave their
names or to stamp their marks on their work.
The technique of niello is the ancestor of
enamelling, using a similar technique but a single colour, black. The Turkish word for
niello is savat, which is a corruption of sevad meaning black or dark.
The art has been practised for many centuries in Anatolia, and originated in Caucasia and
Daghestan. Niello is also closely related to the art of engraving, which consists of
scratching designs in a metal surface with steel tools having various shaped points;
pointed, oval, flat or notched. In Turkish niello engravers are known as savatçı,
engravers on silver as kalemkâr, seal engravers as hâkkâk, and copper
engravers as nakışçı. Any kind of engraving requires a high degree of
artistic and technical skill, and can only be mastered with long training and dedication.
Originally all silversmiths would have performed every stage of the process from
beating out the sheets of silver, to shaping the sheets into objects, and finally
decorating them. Known as kara kuyumcu, these artisans would have been skilled at
both engraving and niello. Over time different craftsmen in the same workshop began to
specialise in specific areas, and then to be regarded as craftsmen in their own right with
their own workshops. It is this process of specialisation which makes an art of a craft.
But sadly today industrialisation has pulled down the curtain on traditional
craftsmanship, which has disappeared as if it never existed.
Now to return to our subject, and explain the technique of niello decoration, which for
various reasons can be applied only to finished objects. Some craftsmen drew their design
on paper first, while others sketched it directly onto the object with a pencil or graver.
Then, with extreme care, they cut out grooves along the lines of the design.
The next step was to fill these grooves with the niello powder, which consists of one
measure of silver, four measures of copper, four measures of lead, and a varying amount of
sulphur. First the silver and copper are melted in a crucible, and then the lead added.
Once that melts sulphur is poured in a little at a time until the colour turns to dark
grey. The mixture is then poured out into a metal container and left to cool. When cold it
is turned out onto a large anvil and broken into small pieces with a hammer. These are
placed in a metal mortar and crushed to a fine powder which is finally passed through a
sieve or piece of muslin.
This powder can either be poured directly
into the grooves cut in the metal, or mixed to a paste with borax and then rubbed into the
grooves. The first method is known as ekme savat and the second as sürme
savat. The object is then heated over a brazier until the niello melts. When cooled
and hardened, the surface is smoothed down and the object polished. It is now ready for
Only silver with a high degree of purity reveals the full beauty of niello decoration,
because of the greater contrast between the whiteness of the silver and the black lines of
the decoration. Low grade silver tarnishes more quickly, and even when polished has a
darker colour due to the greater percentage of copper, so that the niello does not show up
as well. That is why knowledgeable customers in the past did not buy any niello without a
silver mark to show that it was 900 fine or above, and why in Ottoman times assay offices
were set up in eastern provinces like Van and Diyarbakır
where niello work was common to test and stamp silverware. Other provinces where niello
was carried out were Bitlis, Erzurum, Sivas, Eskisehir, Kula, Trabzon, Istanbul and