Silver on the High Seas: A Brief History of Siamese Nielloware
In 1856, King Mongkut, the fourth monarch of the Chakri dynasty, sent a customary set of royal gifts to Franklin Pierce, the president of the United States, after the ratification of the Harris Treaty.
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Filling the holds of multiple ships to capacity, the sheer scale, variety and quality of the Siamese court’s carefully-curated inventory of gifts to foreign heads of state was prodigious, and represented the very acme of Thai craftsmanship. Among the assembled gifts was nielloware (kru’ang thom), a marvel of classical Thai craftsmanship and symbol of status traditionally distributed to nobility and royalty, with the bestowal of rank and title, by the sovereign. The 19th century gilded silver teapot acquired from the estate of the former Belgian ambassador to Thailand, is modeled after the niello teapot that crossed the Pacific with the Harris Treaty bounty.
The origin of niellowork in Thailand is still disputed. Some accounts begin with the influence of Portuguese traders in the 16th century, while others attribute the local presence of nielloware dating back to the 13th century to Persian mercantile activity, which was concentrated in the port city of Nakhon Si Thammarat, still known as the center of Thai nielloware production to this day. The intertwined floral pattern on the exterior of the pictured teapot, a common motif found on Thai nielloware in the late 18th and 19th centuries, resembles the floral designs found on 16th century Persian niello pieces.
After the Chakri dynasty was founded in 1782, the uses and variety of nielloware proliferated in the court. Made to the highest standard of craftsmanship by royal artisans known as chang luang, nielloware was included in sets of insignia that the king bestowed to royals and nobles in each rank of court society to ensure that they were properly attired and equipped to participate in court life. Betel sets were paramount to the optics of rank, as noblemen never appeared in public without a retinue bearing their betel set. Additionally, wealthy families collected niello tea accessories, consisting of teapot warmers, water pots and cups, which were later displayed in teaset competitions hosted by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
Niello is an amalgam of silver, lead and sulfur that is formulated differently by each silversmith. After scoring a design onto a silver surface, the silversmith applies the black niello mixture and heats the vessel. The niello anneals to the incised marks at high temperatures, leaving black lines, a process referenced in the Thai word for nielloware– thom meaning “to fill”. Traditionally, Thai artisans, including silversmiths, did not sign their works with a maker’s mark or the reign in which it was produced, so categorization proceeds through a comparison of form, design and motifs. Nielloware produced by Chinese ateliers in Bangkok between 1850-1920 can be identified by “chop marks”, which indicate the purity of the silver and possibly the name of the artisan, factory or retailer. The tan yue he mark, for example, belongs to an atelier that received commissions from the palace.
Unfortunately, changing tastes and the disappearance of cultural practices such as betel nut chewing from social life has led to the decline of nielloware production in Thailand. Only ten households in Nakhon Si Thammarat remain custodians of a fading branch of Thailand’s cultural heritage. Yet through the efforts of collectors and institutions, these artifacts of exquisite craftsmanship might still be preserved for generations to come.
A rare and fine gilded silver niello cylindrical teapot decorated with a pattern of trailing flowers alternating with birds in flight design (1 pc.)
Style: Thai, Rattanakosin
Dimensions: W 15 cm H 23 cm weight 664 gram
Circa: 19th Century
Estimated Price: 600,000 – 800,000 THB
Starting Price: 180,000 THB