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Perspectives Materials


To produce a design or pattern by inlaying a softer metal into a harder one — often gold, silver, or copper into a darkened steel background.

Aug 24, 2022

Close up detail of a black iron candlestick with floral designs modeled in low relief on the surface and surfaced in a variety of silver-, gold-, and copper-toned metals.

Read about how Tiffany & Co. employed the metalworking technique of damascening with illustrative artworks and process demonstrations, or watch the video below.


Damascening is a decorative metalworking technique in which a soft metal, often gold or silver, is mechanically inlaid into a harder metal like iron or steel without heat or solder. This can be done by hammering the softer metal into a recessed area of the harder material, using the lip around the edge of the recess to help hold the inlay in place. Another approach is to cross-hatch the surface of the harder metal, creating the rough surface with tooth that can hold a soft foil or wire.

To heighten the differences between the mixed metals after damascening is completed, the steel substrate often will be patinated black. The black provides a strong contrast to polished gold, silver and copper.

According to the firm’s archival records, Tiffany & Co. used a patination solution composed of “chloride of iron, sulphate of copper, and sweet spirits of nitre” to create a black patina on steel.

Composite image of a black iron candlestick base and a handwritten document with instructions for how to blacken iron. The candle base is adorned with floral designs modeled in low relief on the surface and surfaced in a variety of silver-, gold-, and copper-toned metals.

Left: Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837–present). Candlestick (detail), 1878. Iron, silver, gold, and copper, 7 1/2 × 4 3/8 in. (19.1 × 11 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Sansbury-Mills Fund and Spencer Marks Gift, 2018 (2018.121.1a, b); Right: Tiffany & Co., Technical Manual, p. 133. Gorham Company Archive, John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

This technique requires two hands free for working, so the object to be damascened needs to be secured. In the example below, a steel coupon (a small piece of metal) has been seated into a heated, soft mixture of asphaltum and resin in a “pitch pot,” a rounded metal container. Once the pitch has cooled and hardened, the metal surface can be worked. The pitch mixture provides a hard-yet-malleable surface to work against that is pliable enough that the metal will be deformed when struck with a tool, rather than crushed. The pitch pot can be rotated and tilted, allowing the craftsperson to easily adjust the positioning of the object.

Next, the surface of the steel is thoroughly cleaned to remove any dirt, dust, or grime that might interfere with setting the gold foil inlay.

A chasing hammer and a steel chisel are used to texture the areas on the surface of the steel where the foil will be placed. The chasing hammer used below has a wide head and springy handle that allows it to move quickly across the surface of the metal. By lightly tapping the end of the steel chisel, the craftsperson creates a series of fine hatch marks in the coupon. A crosshatched surface is created by turning the pot and continuing to work.

The gold foil inlay is brushed clean and positioned on the cross-hatched surface.

The foil is pushed into the cross-hatching using a wooden tool with a flat surface. A wooden tool is hard enough to force the gold foil into the ridges of the cross-hatching without flattening them out. Next, a copper tool with a flat bottom is used to start flattening out the steel to hold the gold foil in place.

A steel burnisher—a polishing tool with a smooth, slightly convex head—is then used to flatten out the areas of cross-hatching around the inlaid gold.

A solution of hydrogen peroxide, salt, and white vinegar is applied to the surface of the damascened steel around the gold foil inlay. This solution will cause an oxidation reaction to occur on the surface, forming a thin layer of rust.

Patination is a separate but related process by which exposure of a metal surface to air and humidity creates a layer of metal oxides. One way to patinate steel is to take advantage of a spontaneous reaction that occurs between iron oxide, rust, and tannic acid, a natural compound in many plant leaves and galls (fungal growths that form on plants).

When the coupon is then dipped into a beaker of freshly brewed green tea, the rust on the surface of the coupon will react almost immediately with the tannic acid in the tea to form the black precipitate ferrous tannate.


Watch a video of the entire damascening process below:


More from Materials and Techniques

Detail of a silver tray featuring the design of a frog seated at the edge of a grassy pond with a queue of mosquitos approaching from a setting sun on the horizon. The surface has a hexagonal-shaped texture. The grass and mosquitoes protrude in a low relief on the tray surface. The front is more heavily sculpted and plated with mixed metals that are silver, gold, and copper in tone.

An Introduction to Metalworking at Tiffany & Co.

A pair of dazzling gilded and enameled cups and saucers adorned with floral designs, a coat of arms, and monogram.

Electrolytic Etching

A silver, blue, and maroon cylindrical cup with a handle rests on a matching saucer. The cup and saucer are reflective and adorned with an inlay design of a checkerboard pattern of wavy triangle shapes.

Electrolytic Inlay

About the contributors

Ruth Bigelow Wriston Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts and Manager, The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art, The American Wing

Former Research Associate for American Decorative Arts, The American Wing

Conservator, Department of Objects Conservation