Sunday, May 15, 2016

Conecting with the Middle Ages - in the Philippines

Well, not really, but a lot of aspects of life in the Philippines are very much reminiscent of the way things would have been in medieval Europe. From abject poverty rubbing right up against immense wealth, buildings in every state from brand new, to near total collapse in the same city block, and craftsmen working with simple hand tools to produce all manner of finely made products.

Four gilt copper gem housings for my 9th century box
there will be a piece of lapis lazuli in each

It is the last aspect, which I want to focus on in this blog posting, as I made a new friend in the jewelry district of Chinatown, Manila, whilst on my recent holiday. He gave me a helping hand with some of the metalwork which I need to do for my 9th century box. The box will have embossed metal foil borders around the imitation ivory panels and the junctions of those strips of foil will be covered with gems and semi-precious stones, just as the more expensive caskets, and treasure bindings of the Middle Ages were made.

Nestor, a very talented goldsmith.
I took more than a hundred pictures as we worked to make the housing for four oval and four rectangular stones. It was hard to condense all those pictures down to one blog's worth. I will try to keep the text to a minimum and let the photos tell the story.

I couldn't resist getting in on the action as well

The work begins with square wire which is made with this wire drawing
machine; on the left, square wire can be made; or round wire on the right

Repeated passes, through the machine, and repeated annealing every other pass
eventually produces a suitable gauge wire. It is then passed through the flat
part of the rollers to transform the square wire to thin strips.

The strips are cut and bent to form the sides to the housing

Here one of the rectangles is being formed

Once the sides are formed, they must be soldered together. This is done with
silver; the little lump at the end of the flame

A long piece of stainless steel wire with a sharp point serves as a soldering iron

The finished solder joint

Filing the joint flush, notice the little work surface tenoned into the bench;
old worn-out sandpaper compensates for too much wear on the tenon

Some copper for smelting
Much like in medieval times, materials are usually more expensive than labour in the Philippines. I was not surprised to see Nestor collect every grain of gold and silver and re-melting it, but when he began doing so with the copper I felt guilty. I could easily bring him pockets full of the stuff from wire trimmings the electricians throw away on job-sites here in the West. He gets his copper from the scrap dealers because he cannot afford to buy new wire from the hardware shops. Every scrap he has left, he smelts and reuses. Hopefully, the cost of the fuel used to melt it is less than the value of the recovered copper.

This was not the same batch, but it shows borax being added as a flux;
this allows the copper to melt into a lump, with no impurities

Ordinary automotive grade petrol is the fuel used for smelting as well as

Just as in medieval times, a bellows provides enough oxygen to raise the
heat to melting point. Of course in the Middle Ages, the fuel was charcoal;
blacksmiths here actually still use that.

One cannot get much more medieval than a simple un-glazed clay bowl
used for smelting

If  too much heat is lost for a large batch, a pot shard serves as a lid, creating
a miniature smelting furnace 

Once the copper is melted, it is poured into a form, to produce a miniature

The resulting "ingot" and the wire which served as the valve

Another very medieval looking piece of equipment; the anvil, set into a log

Repeated rolling and annealing produces a thin flat sheet for use in making
the 'floor' of the housings

Trimming the sheet to width

Cutting rectangular plates for the housings

Another "anvil" this time the face plate off of an antique flatiron

Once the parts are made they are "pickled" in a borax solution to aid in the
soldering process

Soldering is done by picking up a bit of molten silver with the point of the
instrument and allowing it to wick into the heated joint of the parts

Soldering a rectangular housing

The oversised bases are to allow for an eventual beaded wire border, a detail
I forgot about with the first batch of oval housings

The only thing powered by electricity in Nestor's shop were the lights

Four oval housings, with holes bored to be able to eventually attach them
to the box; once I manage to find some tiny hand forged copper nails

The parts being scrubbed to remove any foreign contaminates before plating
Very much as it would have been in medieval times, each person specialises in a particular task. If I had wanted any sort of engraving, repoussé or chasing work done, that would have been done by a different artisan.

Once the pieces were formed and soldered, he handed them over to an old woman who works there polishing the pieces and doing electroplating. (I could have had them plated in the old fashioned mercury amalgam method, but then I would have had to wait a week, and that process is done in a village some distance from the city where there are no laws prohibiting the use of mercury). I opted for the un-medieval method of electroplating.

So I lied; this is powered by electricity as well. This is the liquid which
contains dissolved gold, which by some magic art... 

involving electricity...

Causes it to materialise and adhere to the object being plated

The finished rectangular housings 
Except that they are not finished, because oddly, they had no device for making beaded wire. In the book of "Diverse Art" written by "Theophilus" in the 11th  century, (and mostly reciting practices which were much older) he explains a method of making a stamping die for creating beaded wire. For some reason, no one in the Philippines seems to have a need for, or thought of such a device. If I had wanted him to add the beads around the borders he would have made and soldered them one bead at a time. I did not want to spend that much time on the project, and am planning to make a device to take back to him which will make authentic medieval beaded wires the next time I return.

I share this story and this series of photos because I really want to point out the contrast of the amazing things which can be made with the most "rudimentary" equipment in the hands of skilled craftsmen, compared with how most westerners seem to think they need a super high tech machine for every single task they do. A perfect example of that being the touch screen (really???!) controlled 100% automated KEY CUTTER, which I just witnessed two days after I returned.