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Development of Nielloware in Thailand

Did Niello originate in Thailand?

Although Professor Sawai Suthipitak clearly stated that the origin of Nielloware remained "an unresolved question" [45] , he defended the thesis that Nielloware originated in Thailand. After reviewing a variety of possible cultures that could have contributed to the introduction of Nielloware in Thailand, Suthipitak supports the theory of Nielloware expert Professor Silappakam who posits the argument that Niello was developed in Thailand as a variation of Mék Phat. Mék Phat is an amalgam made of lead and copper.[46] Thus, it may not be farfetched to believe that it was possible for Thai artisans --in a city with a history of metalwork such as NST-- to add the right proportion of silver to Mék Phat and thus obtain ya thom, the Nielloware amalgam made of lead, copper and silver. Although there are no records or any other type of hard evidence to support this theory it is nonetheless feasible that the claim of professors Suthipitak and Silappakam is well founded.

There are no doubts, however, about the importance of Nielloware as a symbol to highlight the importance of selected nobility positions. The first mention of Nielloware in Thai recorded history comes from the Royal Family Laws during the reign of King Trai Lok Nat (1448-1488). The Three Seals Law appears in these documents. This law states that "a land-holding nobleman in the 10,000-order rank was entitled to govern a city and to hold a black Niello-ware ceremonial pedestal and tray to show his official rank" [47] Phunjabhan indicates that also during the Ayutthaya period there was a mention of Niello in Luang Ha Wat's testament (1991). [48] Most authors agree on the importance of Niello in the court of King Narai of Ayutthaya (1656 - 1688), as evidenced by the chronicles of the kingdom. The chronicles register presents sent by King Narai to King Louis XIV in France and also to one of the Popes in Rome. King Narai requested from the viceroy of NST to have one of the best artisans in the city create these special pieces.

After reviewing the work of different scholars it is still unclear if Niello production started first in Ayutthaya or in NST. Besides those two cities Niello was also made in Ubon Ratchathani and Chantaburi, although the quality and amount of Niello products from these cities are considered minor. After the decline of Niello production in Ayutthaya, during the Rattanakosin era there was a resurgence in the production of Niello. Nonetheless, the importance of Niello in the court seems to have remained constant. According to Punjabhan some of the best examples of Thai Nielloware were created in NST as presents offered for different sovereigns[49] For instance, Chao Phraya Nakorn (also known as Noi) offered a royal palanquin and a royal throne to King Rama III in 1800. During his reign, King Rama IV received from another governor of NST a royal barge and a chair made in Nielloware. Yet another NST governor made the royal throne in Niello upon request of King Rama V.

In the history of Thailand there has been a fluctuation of the popularity of Nielloware. For instance, Chao Phraya Thammasakmontri (Sanan Thepasadin na Ayyutthaya) is credited for the revival of Niello and other crafts in Bangkok during the 1910s. He initiated the Woodcarving division of what was to become the Pho Chang School (Arts and Crafts School). The Pho Chang School develop into a prime center for learning Niello. The school used an old textbook on Thom Nakhon (the type of Niello produced at NST) as the main source for research, experimentation and teaching. The governor of the school, Prince Petchaboonintharachai, invented the Thom Chutha-thut method of using screens to make the designs and transfer them onto the silver pieces. This method is still in use.

Some authors suggest that the closing of the Pho Chang School in 1937 may have been the result of the existence of the Niello Artisans School in NST, established in 1913 by the provincial bishop of NST, Phra Rattana Thatcha Muni Sri Thammarat. This school has changed names and locations through the years and it is currently known as NST Arts and Crafts College. The school is still the main institution for learning Niello.

Soon after the 1932 revolution Niello regained popularity as members of the Revolutionary Council supported the Thai Nakhorn store in Bangkok. Curiously enough, this marked a continuation of the use of Nielloware as a craft favored by those in power. As we have seen in the past Thai kings offered presents to other sovereigns in the world in the form of Nielloware artifacts. In addition to the presents given to King Louis XIV, and to the head of the Catholic church, Queen Victoria of England received Nielloware gifts from King Rama IV in 1857. In addition, King Rama presented rulers of some countries in Asia and Europe with Niello objects. In the 20th Century, King Rama IX has continued this tradition by offering Niello presents to other international heads of state.

The popularity of Nielloware has continued to fluctuate in the last decades. After a long period of decline due to the high cost of Nielloware objects and to the low appeal of studying vocational subjects, it seemed that Niello was experiencing a revival in the late 1970s. At that time the Committee of National Culture was in charge of supporting and promoting traditional Thai arts and crafts. One of the initiatives of the committee was to present awards of recognition to outstanding artists in diverse fields. One of the artists who received such distinction was Khun Heng Sophapon from NST.

Gold Nielloware bowl with lidd




[History in Thailand]