In no country except Russia niello art was cultivated for so long a time and with such variety. Russian niello works, are famed for their durability. The niello art occupies a considerable place in Soviet Jewellery also.
Many museums of the Soviet Union tresure a great amount of fine specimens of nielloed works. The collection of nielloed silver objects, the most outstanding for its size and variety belongues to the State Historical Museum in Moscow, and the most precious specimens of niello work are the golden vessels in the Museum of the Moscow Kremlin.
Niello is a fusible black alloy, consisting of silver, copper (or pewter), lead and sulphur, mixed in certain proportions. The mixture, ground to a powder, is moistened by borax solution, after which ornaments, engraved on gold or silver, are covered by it, and the object is put into a furnace. Niello melts, and is durably joined with the metal. After a careful treatment of the surface, the niello remains only in the indentations of the engraved designs.
For many centuries, nearly every maker had his own recipes of niello composition: by varying the proportions of niello ingredients, different degrees of durability and colour were achieved, the colour vacillating from light grey to intensive black,
Jewellers in Old Russia knew the niello technique in X century A. D. Archeological excavations revealed niello works of XII-XIII centuries not only in the capitals of Russian princedoms, such as Kiev, Chernigov, Vladimir, Ria- zan, but in settlements and in village barrows. Niello was used in ornamenting pendants, rings, bracelets (ill. 1-9).
In XIV cent, and in the first half of XV cent, niello usually served as a background for cast, chased or engraved figures and ornament. As an exception, there are found fine patterns made by short, broken niello lines (ill. 10). In the second half of XV cent, niello ornaments seem made by a brush, forming spots, strokes and rich lines (ill. 12-13).
The Russian niello art flourished in XVI cent. Moscow gold and silver smiths of the period achieved particular perfection in nielloed engravings on gold. Silhouettes of nielloformed figures are equal to the best specimens of painting of the period by the harmony of their proportions, the finesse and beauty of design (ill. 15-22). In those years there existed another method in niello art - the surface of the metal was completely covered by a thin layer of niello, and on that background was carved a herb and cartouche ornament of Oriental type (ill. 14).
In the beginning of XVII cent, the fine, clear character of niello patterns was cultivated as before; only their background was no more plain, but stipped or ornamented by engraving (ill. 23-26).
A doubtless influence on the development of Moscow niello art was exercised by the arrival of Greek jewellers, who came to the Russian capital from Constantinople in 1662 and 1664. They worked in the Moscow Kremlin workshops, and taught Russian silversmiths. In the last quarter of XVII cent, niello patterns of diminutive herbs and flowers entirely cover silver objects; on such a background is spread a gilded engraved ornament of flowers and fruit, among which are seen figures of birds and beasts (ill. 27-38). The ornaments became enriched by Oriental (fan, pomegranate apple, cypress) and Ukrainian (cut flower on sappy stem) motifs.
In the beginning of XVIII cent. Moscow remained the main centre of niello art. New forms and new ornamental motifs were gradually appearing. In 1740-ies Mikhail Klim- sliin, the best silversmith of Veliky Ustiug, was summoned to Moscow with the aim of improving the niello production.
In the second half of the century can be perceived a great variety of form and ornament reflecting the images and aesthetic ideals of classic antiquity (ill. 45-50). Simultaneously the historical genre and subjects of everyday life were beginning to be depicted by the means of niello (ill. 57); sometimes the images of antique mythology were interspersed with Russian folklore images.
The most outstanding XVIII cent, niello master of Moscow was Alexei Ratkov, whose best works are now on display in the Moscow Kremlin Museum.
In St. Petersburg niello works did not undergo an extensive development, and this art was influenced dy Veliky Ustiug silversmiths (ill. 90-91).
A brilliant rise of the niello art began in the middle of XVIII cent. In Northen cities of Russia: in Veliky Ustiug, Vologda, Viatka. In 1761 a "factory" was established in Veliky Ustiug by A. and S. Popov; it produced enamel and niello works of a high quality (ill. 68-69). It is surmised that the remarkable maker M. Klimshin took part in the work of the factory (ill. 60-63). Gallant scenes, episodes depicting pastoral characters and battling knights form the subject-matter characteristic of the niello works of the Popov Factory, which existed for only fifteen years. Many innovations in the subjfect-matter of the work were made by the silversmith Alexei Moshnin (ill. 74). Towards the end of XVIII cent, niello snuff-boxes were beginning to be ornamented by plans and views of the cities of Veliky Ustiug, Vologda, Archangelsk, taken from engravings.
Up to the present time the city of Viatka was never mentioned in literature as a centre of jewellery and niello works; the works of Viatka silversmiths are characterized by their relation to popular prints and intense black colour of the niello (ill. 69-72).
It is surmised that niello art was carried from Veliky Ustiug to Siberia, where in the second half of XVI11 cent, the silver and niello works produced in Tobolsk are remarkable for an interesting combination of rococo forms and ornaments with purely local subject-matter (ill. 74-79). Besides Tobolsk, niello works were also produced in other Siberian cities: in Irkutsk, Tomsk, Yakutsk.
In XIX cent, the works of Vologda silversmiths Ivan Zuiev (ill. 100, 102, 103) and Sakerdon Skripltsin (ill. 96-97) were outstanding for their high quality.
In the second half of XIX cent, nielloed silver objects, were being produced by all large workshops and factories of Moscow and St. Petersburg: P. Ovchinnikov, I. Khlebnikov, V. Semionov and others. Their works won many prizes on international exhibitions. As a rule they are decorative vessels that imitate old Russian forms and ornaments.
In our days niello works in the RSFSR are produced mainly by the "Northern Niello" factory in the ancient centre of niello art Veliky Ustiug, and in Moscow, by the "Moscow Jeweller" factory (ill. 104-112).
Very little information concerning remarkable Russian makers, who for many centuries were creating nielloed gold and sliver works, has come down to us. In the "Dictionary of Makers" the authors included information about the life and working conditions of gold and silversmiths who used niello in their work from XVII cent, to our days; the material was gathered from existing literature and from archive documents, mainly in Moscow and Leningrad. Wherever possible, the works that have come down to us and the places where they are kept are Indicated.