Chris Manning makes niello recipe

Materials World magazine
28 Aug 2019

A canadian self-taught jeweller has made a lead-free alloy that acts as blank ink.

Tin has been swapped for lead in a niello formula that still yields a highly prized black colour, making the mixture less toxic. A blend of silver, copper, tin and sulphur was developed by Silver Hand Studios Founder and Jeweller, Christopher Manning, Canada, after previously using lead.

Manning used niello to fill in etching patterns on his pieces, in particular fountain pens. To make the material, Manning first melts the silver then adds each metal one at a time. Next, he pours the molten alloy into powdered sulphur and forms the material into a rod, beofre a repeated process of melting, pouring it into sulphur, forming and re-melting until it is black throughout.

The prepared niello is fused into the depressions of the piece being worked on. The base object, in this case a pen, is heated to a point that allows the niello to melt upon contact, so it flows into and overfills the depressions. The object is allowed to cool and the niello is filed back to make it smooth and level. Once filled, Manning sands and polishes the object, leaving the niello’s black colour to contrast against the base material, creating a beautiful engraved pattern.

Manning explained how niello is versatile as it can be turned, milled and engraved after it has solidified, much like other metals. ‘The advantage it has over other methods for producing high-contrast patterns in jewellery is the black colour goes through the entire piece of niello. It is not just a surface layer like a patina or anodisation,’ he said.

Manning took inspiration from many areas, the earliest being Egyptian artefacts. The first common use of niello was by the Romans, but it was most prolific among Italians during the Renaissance. Manning said the original version of niello, as described by 1st Century Roman author Pliny the Elder, was a mixture of silver, copper and sulphur. But that formula had a high melting temperature, making it difficult to work with. Then, by the 6th Century, some artists had added lead to help lower the niello’s melting temperature, which helped when fusing it to the base object.

Manning experimented with various niello mixes, including a silver, copper, lead and sulphur. After writing a paper on the material, Niello: an introduction to an ancient material for the modern jeweler, for the 2017 Santa Fe Symposium, Manning received feedback to help develop a lead-free version.

Additional inspirations for his designs came during a trip to India in 2012. The Taj Mahal work line patterns and the Red Fort in Jaipur inspired the flower pattern, pictured. ‘I initially read about niello 12 years prior to using it in one of my pens,’ Manning said. ‘I read about the material in the treatises written by 16th Century Italian Goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini and 12th Century German Author Theophilus Presbyter, the pseudonym of Roger Of Helmarshause.’