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What is Damascene?

The damascene decorative technique inlays metal into metal to create intricate designs. It takes its name from the area where it was commonly used—Damascus, Syria—and is prized for its beauty and often bold colors. The first step in damascening is to cut a pattern into the substrate metal, ensuring that the sides are undercut (number 1 on the diagram shown below). Then the metal to be inlaid is cut to fit into the pattern and hammered into place (number 2). Silver, gold, and copper are common inlay metals, while brass, bronze, and steel are common substrate metal alloys.

Choosing Metals for Damascene

Damascene technique: 1) a pattern is cut into the substrate metal; 2) the inlay metal is hammered into the carved areas; 3) the process is complete, with metal inlaid into metal.
Any metal can be inlaid into another, but the difficulty of the procedure and the results can vary depending on the hardness of the metals used (see diagram below showing the hardness of a selection of metals). Usually the preferred inlay metal is softer than the substrate metal so that the hammering of the inlay into the substrate will not change the original carved pattern.


Compare the damascene decoration of the sword and scabbard shown at the right with that of the bowl shown below. The sword and scabbard are made of steel, a very hard metal, about four times harder than gold based on the conventional Vickers scale. The carving of the designs would have been laborious, but the hardness of the steel meant that the hammering in of the gold inlay would not affect the carving underneath, giving the decoration a sharp, clean look. The designer and maker of these two steel pieces, Eusebio Zuloaga (Spanish, 1808–1898), was the last craftsperson to produce arms for the Spanish royalty and is generally credited with the revival of the art of true damascening in nineteenth-century Europe. The late-thirteenth- or early-fourteenth-century bowl from Syria or Egypt, made of brass, a more pliable metal, has a softer look to its silver and copper decoration, most likely because the hammering of the inlay metals deformed the brass. As can be seen in the details of the pieces shown, some of the metal inlay (gold from the scabbard and silver from the bowl) has been lost over time.
Detail from Scabbard 1977-167-659

Presentation Saber with Scabbard and Case, 1849
Eusebio Zuloaga, Spanish
Partially silvered and gilded chiseled steel damascened in gold (saber and scabbard); leather and textiles (case)
Saber: 5 7/16 x 37 3/16 inches (13.8 x 94.5 cm) Scabbard: 3 3/8 x 32
3/8 inches (8.5 x 82.3 cm)
Bequest of Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch, 1977
[ More Details ]
Detail from Bowl 1930-1-49

Bowl, c. 1292-1341
Brass with silver and copper inlay
3 1/2 × 7 3/4 inches (8.9 × 19.7 cm)
Purchased with the Joseph E. Temple Fund from the Edmond Foulc Collection, 1930
[ More Details ]

Damascening a computer chip:
1) a pattern is etched into the substrate (silicon); 2) metal (often copper) is applied to completely cover the substrate; 3) the applied metal is planarized, or made very flat, to expose the channels that form the circuitry on the chip.

Historical Use of Damascene

Inlay techniques for a variety of substrates were invented during the Bronze Age (approximately three thousand BCE) in the Middle East and Egypt, and around one thousand BCE in China. However, the damascene technique, with its more elaborate and intricate designs, did not appear in the Middle East until the medieval period (fifth to fifteenth century). Bronze (a copper and tin alloy) or brass (a copper and zinc alloy) were common substrates into which gold, silver, or copper wire or sheet were inlaid. In Europe, damascene decorations often appeared in the steel of sword hilts (handles), shields, and other armor.

Modern Use of Damascene

As amazing as it seems, we use the damascene technique invented more than a thousand years ago to make the circuitry (wire network) on computer chips today. However, instead of choosing a metal for the substrate, which was preferred by earlier craftspeople, modern computer chip designers use silicon, a semimetal. Like damascene designs on medieval armor, damascened computer chip circuitry is highly intricate.


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