Replicating a Kingfisher feather hairpin…

“…many beauties take the air by the Ch’ang waterfront… their embroidered silk robes in the spring sun are gleaming… and hanging far down from their temples are blue leaves of delicate kingfisher feathers…                          …from “A Song of Fair Women” by by Tu Fu  

Kingfisher feather ornaments adorned the ladies of the Chinese court since the T’ang Dynasty.  These brilliant blue feathers came from water kingfishers and wood kingfishers, which were common in China until demand for their feathers nearly caused their extinction.

Kingfisher feather was cut to shape and inlaid into a silver or gold filigree base. Filigree was also combined with granulation to form hairpins in the shape of butterflies and flowers, which were often augmented with jade or pearls. These ornaments continued to be fashionable in China through the Victorian era.

Filigree is an ancient form of wirework which is found in both open backed and solid backed forms. Proper filigree is accomplished with an outer wire that supports finer inner wires that are soldered or riveted in place.  Since I’m not a metalsmith, I attempted to make a piece of open backed filigree as the base of this ornament. I used a continuous length of heavy copper wire which I bent into a bracket of leaves, then wove the center stem back through the individual leaves, and twisted it at the end to form the pin. I then hammered the entire piece flat with a ball peen hammer. There are no solders, rivets, or other connectors used in this piece.

An example of wire wrap

After I finished the frame, I learned that this technique probably more closely resembles wrapped wire or interlacing techniques that were practiced about 5,000 years ago. This form of wirework was used in Europe as early as the 8th century, and in later centuries in Central Asia. I was unable to document this technique to T’ang Dynasty China, I surmise that absence may have been due to the simplicity of the process. The silver piece5 shown above illustrates how wire-wrapping is used to hold looped wire together, which is a very similar process to what I used.

In lieu of kingfisher feather, I used the moulted feathers from my parakeet. Feathers from a macaw or a blue jay would work very well as they are closer in color and consistency to kingfisher. I prepared a base for the feather by gluing two layers of mulberry paper together, which I then sandwiched in a square of origami foil. Using clear glue, I glued feathers onto the foil, one on top of the other, using about ten feathers for each leaf of my bracket.

The feathers should have been layered in the same way that they lay on an actual bird, rather than one directly on top of the other. I would have achieved a more traditional texture had I used wing and tail feathers instead of the very fine and small body feathers, as well a thinner or diluted layer of glue. After the glue had set up, I pressed an insert into the back of each individual leaf in the wire form so that the grain of the feathers laid in the same direction as veining would on a real leaf. I then trimmed away the excess. My last step was to coat the top of the feather inserts with glue, and push them into the wire frame from the back, so they were slightly convex. 

Since the feather inserts were backed with foil, there was no further finishing work needed, and both sides of the ornament are equally presentable. The example shown at left shows the back of a 19th century kingfisher feather hairpin. Interestingly, I did not find this photo until after I had completed my own hairpin.  I coated the surface with glue to make the piece more durable. Real kingfisher feather pieces are not surface coated, and are very fragile as a result.  

The hair ornament that I created is very sturdy, light weight and amazingly well balanced. It took about 3 feet of wire, 70 feathers, a pair of pliers, hammer, scissors and some clear glue. Yet again art imitates life, and it was only after I had worn my hairpin for the first time, that I came across the poetic description by Tu Fu that opens this article… 

Most kingfisher feather jewelry is a much deeper shade of blue, set into a much finer filigree frame, and with more of the surface integrity of the feather exposed. I am however, quite pleased with my more rustic piece, which will serve me as a wearable keepsake from my departed and always treasured “palace kingfisher.” 

With my apologies to my readers for the poor quality of these photos, from this article I wrote in 1986. This article was originally footnoted but that formatting did not remain intact during data transfer. Sources are below.

  • The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, pg 170 translated by Witter Bynner from the texts of Kiang Kang-Hu, Alfred Knopf Publishers, NY 1939.
  • A Dragon Robe at the San Diego Museum 
  • Jewelry Concepts and Technology, Oppi Untracht, Doubleday Books NY 1982
  • Moroccan temple ornament worn by women in the Bani and Tata region, the piece is in the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart Germany. 
  • Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, CAS Williams, Charles & Tuttle Co, Japan 1974 
  • History of Wire Wrap (now an extinct link on the web) 

Crossroads Tour: The Grand Bazaar…

As of May 2021, I am migrating most of my travel journals to Daveno Travels where I am reissuing them as Director’s Cuts, with full text and previously unpublished photos. This is an excerpt from my first trip to Istanbul in 2011.

The Grand Bazaar was completed during the reign of Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer in 1461 and was enlarged during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent during the 16th century. The ornate decorations were added during the restoration following an earthquake in 1894. Touted as the first covered market in the world, it is as large and noisy as you would expect a 5,000 store shopping mall to be.

It was also far more colorful and brightly lit than I was ready for, and I reached nearly complete sensory overload in the first ten minutes. Rick Steves says to spend about 2 hours here, which is about as much time as a human has before their retinas start to melt… 

In addition to the shops that line some 60 walkways, this complex also houses two mosques, four fountains and a couple of bathhouses as well as several restaurants. Upon entering one of 27 doors, the first thing I see is a window filled with tiaras. Later on, a stall of embroidered boots, and beyond that, several shops filled with beautiful glass lanterns.  A coat from the Topkapi, replicated in blue and white porcelain tile also catches my eye. 

I turn the corner and into the Old Market. Here the ceiling domes are exposed brick, and most of the shops are faced with glass cases. An antique store has a case containing an astrolabe and some swords. Contained in another glass case are three pair of chased silver chopines that were worn in Turkish baths.

I watch the bustle of the tea (cay) merchants, who weren’t serving customers, but instead ran from shop to shop, delivering tea in small “tulip glasses” on saucers, which they carry on silver trays suspended on silver chain. Providing tea to patrons must be a cost of doing business here and I make a mental note to only accept tea from merchants I intend to do business with…

Three Days in Florence…

I am migrating most of my travel journals to Daveno Travels. This is an excerpt from my first international trip in 2009, which started at Carnival in Venice, and then continued in Florence.

Florence. Home of the Renaissance and center of the medieval universe for banking and textile trade. Home of the Medici and the artists they patronized, many of whom felt their work to be the extension of God’s work, and who would become global legends in their own right. A city touched by the revival of Greek and Roman classicism. Within my first few minutes of walking around the city, I nearly toss my itinerary into the nearest trash can. 

I thought Venice was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, until arriving here.  I am in pursuit of architecture and sculpture and I’m not disappointed. The very first thing I see is not one, but several of the sculptures on my list, grouped together in La Loggia dei Lanzi on Vecchio Square. 

The Loggia, built between 1376 and 1382, was a forum for public debate until the Medici family turned it into an outdoor statuary gallery. This is the bronze ‘Perseus’ by Cellini, who nearly burned his house down during the casting of it. Also here is the Rape of the Sabines, in marble, by the Flemish sculptor Giambologna — the compelling depiction of a Roman soldier tearing a man away from his wife. There’s half dozen original Roman works along the back wall. Nearby is the Neptune Fountain by Ammanati, installed for one of the Medici weddings. 

It is at one of the Medici properties that I am introduced to the works of Donatello, who would become my favorite sculptor by the time I left Italy. His bronze pulpit, supported on four marble columns, rivals the relief work of the Ghiberti doors at the Baptistry.

My next stop is the Accademia. I am eager to see a singular original work that is housed here, but I restrain myself from running past several rough-hewn works by Michelangelo, and on, very slowly, respectfully, nearly religiously, to the man himself… 

…the magnificent David… 

He’s more translucent than I was expecting, 17 feet tall and standing under a softly lit dome that was build especially for him. The first thing I notice is how large and out of proportion his hands are, which my guidebook  attributes to “the hand of a man with the strength of God.” Other out-of-proportion elements are due to the forced perspective that Michelangelo used, as David was originally intended for installation on the roof of the Duomo.

David’s back, with his sling slung over his shoulder and draping down his back, is as detailed as the front. Veins, muscles, carved into stone. He is unbelievably beautiful…

Three Days in Venice…

I am migrating most of my travel journals to Daveno Travels. This is an excerpt from my first international trip to Carnival in Venice in 2009. You never forget your first time…

I have by some miracle of fate, survived my first international flight, and have arrived in Venice. A bus takes me across the bridge to the fabled city, and a trajetto takes me to where my brother Payne, in his historical garb, is waiting at the San Angelo stop, a short walk through aged alleys to the apartment they have rented on Calle Dei Avvocati (Street of Lawyers) for the next two weeks. He unlocks a massive, wooden door. I walk in to the grand foyer of what appears to be 15th century manor house.

After a couple of glasses of water and a brief sit down, I change into my Venetian coat, and we set off, winding our way through alleyways and onto San Marco Square, the Grand Central for Carnival. We turn the corner, and the landscape fills with the domes and towers of the Basilica. It takes my breath away. We stop every 10 steps when Payne is asked to pose for photos with other tourists, We find a square with a bronze statue of the Lion of Venice, which results in one of my favorite photos from the trip.

Payne and Marie hit the stage for one of the many Carnival fashion shows.

We duck into the Caffe Florian, a baroque salon in operation since 1720, a favorite haunt of Goethe, Casanova (possibly because it was the only coffee house to admit women), and later, Lord Byron, Proust and Dickens. It is filled with costumed revelers, looking very much the part of 17th-18th century lords and courtesans. We are shown to a small table in one of the ornate and crowded salons, and order hot chocolate, which arrives as rich as though it were a Hershey Bar melted into a delicate, porcelain cup. The windows looking out are filled with people looking in, and it is hard to tell which side of the glass is the more active fish bowl. A man in a white harlequin suit, accompanied by a man in black, dressed like Mozart’s father in Amadeus, start an obscene pantomime through the glass with a man sitting near us, and flirting with the man’s wife at the same time. I nearly choked on my hot chocolate…

Another Beginning…

After putting my business aside for much of last year to attend to family matters, I returned to find my website of about 6 years in need of updates.  But the more I worked with it, the more broken pieces I found, until finally tiring of wrestling with things that would never cooperate, I decided to move it.

The process will take me several weeks, as my website houses my library of research papers and travel journals in addition to my online store.

So, please bear with me as I transition from “broken there” to “bright and shiny and new here”.