This rarer work of engraving on steel or iron, whose incisions are inlaid with gold, silver or copper, is said to date back, according to the most reliable sources, to Glaucus of Chio, around the crater offered by Alyatte, King of Lydia, to the temple of Delphi. This art was called ferruminatio by the Romans. From the Late Roman Empire onward, the peoples of the Levant became the main specialists, hence the name Damascus in reference to the famous Syrian city of the same name. Some historians propose another etymology. For some, it would be taken from the name of a famous blacksmith, Damascusqui. For others, it would be a deformation of an Arabic word meaning water.
Forgotten briefly, this know-how reappears in Italy around the 15th century and is cultivated there with talent. The pieces are now enriched with elegant arabesques and elaborate patterns. As for its presence in Morocco, it is said to be the heritage of the Muslims of Persia, who arrived in the Kingdom via Toledo in Spain. Today, this delicate art is used to adorn vases, plates, jewellery, spurs, stirrups and swords... Meknès is its temple. This city is indeed considered to be the centre par excellence of damascene. Today, there are only four workshops capable of practising this discipline, it remains one of the last cities in the world where this trade still exists. We work with Abd El Jalil, one of the remaining four practising this art.
The technique of damascene work consists of inlaying gold and silver threads in grooves previously dug with a chisel.
A long and laborious process, it involves first cutting and hammering sheets or blocks of metal, usually steel or iron, into the larger shapes required. Thin cuts are made in the metal using slender chisels, creating the outline of the desired pattern.
Next, thin threads of gold, silver, or copper are carefully hammered into the indentations on the metal surface, to embed a pattern or design in a contrasting colour. A tiny hammer must be used to achieve the fine details and every piece of damascene is unique.
After the metal wire has been fully completed on the metal surface, the item is put in a furnace to melt the thin metal strands. Alternatively, a blow torch may be used.
Once cooled, the item is then polished to remove ridges and scratches.
Lemon juice is often rubbed over the metal to help create a healthy shine. Only after this time-consuming and labour-intensive process is a damascene product completed.
Unfortunately there aren’t very many takers for this labour-intensive artisanship today - in a world where the golden hands of artisans are quickly replaced by machinery, such techniques are rare, and unfortunately a dying and disappearing art. For the remaining for that continue to use their talent and wisdom of generations - the result is magnificent. As we wandered through the lanes and by-lanes of Meknès, we learnt that by slowing down and getting lost we might not only find ourselves, but also learn how to live and flourish better on our one and only planet — before it’s too late.
The future is slow. And beautiful.
Here's a video by Mohammed Bakkali, Artisanat Maroc Meknès that shows this process beautifully -