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Letters on Sterling


All, I have the plan of making a pendant in gold and in Sterling. I
would like the Sterling to be very white (which is not a problem),
and then I would like to have some text on it, written (‘type’ style)
with black letters. The problem is that I no clue on how to do this.
Ideas would be very welcome. Thank you and best, Will


If you had lived a few centuries ago there would have been no
problem - there are several ancient recipes for writing in black
letters on silver.

Weeding out the ones based on conventional pigments, the best were
just a form of ‘painted-on’ niello. There are various surviving
examples from ancient and more recent times - remember deliberate
black surfaces were not unusual on Russian and some European silver
in the 19th century. (So, budding conservators out there - the black
on old silver is not always unintended)

Back on track … there are recipes for panted niello from Roman
period Egypt, but perhaps the most useful, in, modern terms, is that
of Theophilus writing in the twelfth century who describes niello for
painting on silver made from silver:copper:lead, in the ratio of
4:2:1, (plus sulphur, of course) applied using borax as a flux.
(Theophilus Bk 3, ch. 27 , 28)

I guess you grind it up fine with borax, mix in a little gum
tragacanth or such-like and paint it on. But there must be more
ingenious way of applying such stuff nowdays (various types of
masking, silk screen??? Perhaps even some type of localised laser
fusing, leave that up to the more practical guys.)

Mind wandering, but why not mask surface with thin layer of wax or
such like, engrave through it with mechanical or laser engraving
tool, paint thin layer niello mixture over surface, remove wax with
organic solvent that leaves niello mixture in place over non-masked
areas (because water soluble glue used as binder)then heat to fuse
niello. No idea if it would work, but the engraving provess would
have the added advantage of leaving a roughened surface which would
aid adhesion of the stuff… Maybe…

Anyhow, good luck, and by the way Theophilus recommended saliva
followed by ear wax for polishing niello work. (Theophilus Bk 3, ch

Jack Ogden


You could etch the sterling silver with either nitric acid or ferric
nitrate (Orchid archives will have a ton of info on these techniques)
using PnP Blue Transfer Film (I get it from Electronix Express in NJ

  • they have a website). You can then produce your text on a computer,
    reverse it and photocopy or laser print it onto the PnP Blue Transfer
    Film. You then iron the ink onto the metal and etch ( the package
    comes with instructions and I have notes on etching - using ferric
    chloride and ferric nitrate -on my website
  • see techniques section) .

If you want the letters to be black - they must be recessed and
patinated - so invert the colours on your printer so the background
is black and the letters are white. That way the background will not
etch (and remain silver) and the text will etch and be recessed and
then you can use an oxidizing compound, or fill with enamel…

Hope that’s helpful.