Heart of gold

It's worked by artisans in the north of Portugal and has even been around the neck of Sharon Stone: discover the ancient art of portuguese filigree.

Ascertaining its origin isn't easy: there are traces of its practice in China, Malaysia and Columbia, as well as in the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean (Greece and Rome) and even in Arab culture, where it developed in terms of style. But the art of filigree was already known and worked in Portugal in pre-Roman times, and proving that are various pieces of jewellery discovered in the country dating back to 2500-2000 BC. Of these, some can even be found on display at national museums, as is the case of three filigree torques exhibited at the D. Diogo de Sousa Museum in Braga. 

And so, whilst it can't be said for sure that this ancient art is Portuguese, filigree is undoubtedly part of Portugal's identity, a traditional craft passed down from father to son in workshops – mainly in the north of the country – and which unfolds in a rich cultural collection of objects such as shrines, boxes and sculptures or in jewellery items like earrings – without forgetting the famous Portuguese arrecada earrings –, pendants and rings. 

Although it is spread throughout the world, it's fair to say that there is no filigree like the Portuguese. Thorough and extremely perfect, national filigree can be found in two ways: as application filigree, used to decorate pieces, or as integration filigree, in which the object itself is made from filigree, such as in the traditional ornamental caravels. It is also the central element of ancient traditions such as the Romaria d'Agonia, which started in 1772 and takes place every August in Viana do Castelo, where the women parade in typical Vianese costume, decorated with arrecadas and multiple necklaces with the traditional Viana hearts in complex filigree patterns. 

From the Latin “filum”, which means thread, and “granum”, meaning grain, the term filigree describes the ancient art of working precious metal, such as gold and silver, which, in the form of threads, is rolled into spirals, circular motifs or even the letter 'S'. These are then pressed into place, making up the various sections of the filigree pieces, and applied on a plaque of the same metal and then finally soldered to ensure their stability. But even before they are actually decorated, the construction of a filigree piece is split into two stages: the setting frame, which defines the shape and main joints of the piece, and the filling, where the empty spaces between the joints are filled with the spiralled gold threads. The process is detailed and extremely difficult, requiring steady and experienced hands. 

The modern technique of Portuguese filigree owes much to religious objects from the 17th and 18th centuries, when filigree was mainly used to make shrines and crosses that embellish some of the altars in churches across the country. As for jewellery, the arrecada earrings have been one of the most explored formats, but even one of the main symbols of Portuguese filigree – the Viana heart – is linked to religion. This heart, which has been spotted around the neck of the famous actress Sharon Stone, represents not only the city of Viana do Castelo, but also the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, having been presented as an offering in the late 18th century by queen D. Maria I in the hopes that she would bear a child. It is said that the top part of the heart represents the love of Christ, which is so strong that it overflows in flames; these are often represented on the top of Viana hearts. Such is the icon status of this piece and its importance in Portuguese culture that even the renowned artist Joana Vasconcelos – whose nationality is Portuguese but whose fame is international – reinterpreted it in 2005, using red plastic cutlery. In the second half of the 19th century, Portuguese filigree evolved based on a more traditional character, becoming an adornment and a sign of social distinction. Today, this jewellery practice, which has always been more confined to the country's northern coast, remains active in municipalities such as Gondomar and especially in Póvoa do Lanhoso, home to the filigree workshop-village of Travassos, and other important production points, such as Sobradelo da Goma and Taíde. These towns have a large concentration of filigree workshops, whose production satisfies national and even international demand. 

In the last few decades, this niche industry has lost its economic importance due to the lack of competitive edge of these traditional trades in the European market, but many town and parish councils have tried to save the art, putting artisans in contact with younger designers and thus increasing the supply of filigree pieces. 

Another initiative of this kind was the creation of the Gold Museum in Travassos in 2001. Since then, the space has been holding exhibitions and guided tours, and has been working closely with schools within Póvoa do Lanhoso. Despite being a project that dated back to the 1980s, the museum was created thanks to the efforts of goldsmith Francisco de Carvalho e Sousa who, over his 50-year career, gathered various items and documentation, such as gold pieces, furniture and literature related to the art of filigree. 

The strategy seems to be working: in 2014, jewellery designer Liliana Guerreiro, originally from Viana do Castelo, saw her pieces exhibited at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. With a more simple approach to the art of filigree, Liliana works with a traditional Travassos workshop to create lighter pieces that still reflect all the mastery of this ancient art – which may or may not be from Portugal, but whose heart couldn't be more Portuguese.