Nielloware Art in Thailand

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Nielloware art and jewellery have been very popular in Thailand. In my opinion, it is one of the most elaborate and beautiful Thai art handicrafts. However, the niello technique does not seen to have originated in Thailand. It is said that this artistic craftwork was introduced by the Portuguese or the Persians to Thailand since both countries had an early presence in Siam. Thus, nielloware became a speciality in the southern Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Nielloware Art in Thailand

Nakhon National Museum Thailand Nielloware Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com )

Nakhon National Museum, Thailand- Nielloware Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com )

The tradition of presenting nielloware objects as State gifts goes back to the reign of King Narai of Ayutthaya (1656-1688), since niello objects are considered as luxury articles. In Thai, niello objects are referred to as ‘khruang thom’. This term is derived from the Pali word ‘thompa’ and the Sanskrit term ‘sathompa’. Hence, ‘thom’ means ‘to fill sth. up’ or ‘to contain’. Thus, ‘khruang thom’  refers to the art of applying the niello liquid which is called ‘ya thom’.

In fact, the process of creating niello objects is very complicated and elaborate. Hence, it requires great skill from the craftsman: the object to be decorated, commonly of silver or gold is incised with a traditional Thai pattern. The areas which are to be the background are carved in deep relief and filled with niello which is a black mixture of metallic alloys of lead, copper and silver.

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

Afterwards the niello is fused with the metal of the object by heating. The object is then smoothed by hand with a file and polished. Additional details can also be incised during the filing and polishing process. In the finished article, the silver or gold base of the object stands out and contrasts with the matte black background.

It is also important to note that in particular Siam sterling nielloware often depicts scenes from the Ramakien which is the Thai epic tale of Rama.

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

The following video demonstrates the process of making niello objects and relates the history of this handicraft. The video is only available in Thai, however even if you don’t understand the language, you can understand how niello is made and how painstaking the process is.

In a nutshell, we may say that the art of nielloware in Thailand is very elaborate and a supreme handicraft. It is truly impressive how delicate the pattern on niello objects is. Hence, they are indeed luxury articles unique in the world 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Treasures from The National Museum Bangkok, Selected by The National Museum Volunteers Group, 4th reprint 2006)

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1 Response

  1. 22. April 2015

    […] it is also based on the Ramakien. It is also important to note that in particular Siam sterling nielloware often depicts scenes from the […]

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