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) 

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