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What is False Damascene?

False damascene (sometimes called counterfeit damascene) differs from damascene in that it is not a process of inlaying metal into metal, but instead involves applying metal on top of metal. To make a design using false damascene, a contrasting metal foil (an extremely thin, flexible sheet of metal) or wire is hammered onto a metal substrate that has been scored (scratched). Then heat is applied to strengthen the bond between the two metals. Although the name “false” or “counterfeit” damascene may give the impression that art decorated in this manner is not authentic, the nomenclature merely refers to the difference in manufacturing technique between false damascene (applied metal) and damascene (inlaid metal). Like damascened designs, those created by false damascene are characterized by their intricacy.

Moroccan craftsman Akessbi Fouad hammering silver wire onto a scored iron surface.



False damascene technique: 1) the substrate metal is scored (scratched); 2) metal foil or wire is hammered onto the scored areas to form a design and heat is applied; 3) the process is complete, with metal applied on metal.

Detail from Pen Box 2000-157-4
Pen Box (Qalamdan) with Inscription from "The Pen" Surah of the Qur'an
Pen Box (Qalamdan) with Inscription from "The Pen" Surah of the Qur'an, c. 18th century
Steel with gold and silver overlay
1 3/8 × 10 × 1 1/2 inches (3.5 × 25.4 × 3.8 cm)
Gift of Dr. David R. Nalin and Dr. Richard Nalin, 2000
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A wonderful example of false damascening is the intricate pen box pictured right, probably made in Pakistan in the eighteenth century. Visible in the detail of this box, shown above the full image, are the score marks the craftsperson made to prepare the steel surface for the metal overlay. As was a frequent practice, these marks cover the entire surface of the box. When creating the script in gold (on the top) and silver (on the sides), the craftsperson hammered several parallel wires onto the substrate to achieve the desired width of the letters. Also evident in the detail are some losses of the overlay metal from abrasive wear.

The nineteenth-century Persian helmet shown below is another beautiful example of false damascening. As with the pen box, hammered metal wires, rather than metal foil, decorate this work of art. With few exceptions, the individual wires are not visible due to the craftsperson’s meticulous work. The score marks are also hard to find, but the detail that appears below reveals such marks, showing where the gold pressed into the steel due to scoring that created grooves.

Detail from Helmet 1877-90
Helmet, c. 1850
Iranian or Persian
Steel with gold overlay
10 5/8 x 11 5/8 x 8 1/4 inches (27 x 29.5 x 21 cm)
Purchased with Museum funds, 1877
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Historical and Modern Use of False Damascene

Cutting inlay patterns into a hard metal is a difficult task. However, the false damascene technique requires only scoring the surface. As a result, false damascene became widely used to decorate iron/steel objects, such as armor and weapons, during the medieval period in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It was during that period that the process of smelting iron (extracting iron from its ore to make steel) was achieved. Before that time European blacksmiths could not make their fires hot enough to actually melt iron. Because of this technological advance the manufacturing of iron/steel and the desire to decorate it flourished. Today, craftspeople in Morocco, India, and elsewhere still adorn objects by using the false damascene technique, employing traditional methods.

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