Filigree. It’s the foundation of jewellery making, an art that dates back thousands upon thousands of years. Originating in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3000BC, filigree quickly spread to Cyprus – where for millennia, the technique was adapted, mastered and perfected. And then it disappeared. Well, almost…
Once upon a time Cyprus was lauded far and wide for its filigree. “Filigree rings, bracelets and earrings unearthed in Engomi and near Salamina indicate that Cyprus was one of the first locations to have adapted and mastered this delicate technique,” reveals Eleni Nicolaou, the youngest filigree expert on the island. “And ancient Cypriot craftsmen and women were known for their exceptional artistry in trifourenia, or filigree-making: they created pieces of a sophistication which still fascinates experts and historians!”
Today the art has all but disappeared. Less than a handful of master craftsmen and women remain on the island, passing on centuries-old techniques to the very few who show an interest in keeping the craft alive. One of whom is Eleni, long enthralled by the traditional art of filigree…
“I realised that if the generation before me died without passing on their knowledge then there would be no one making filigree in Cyprus! So I went out, scoured the island, and found two master artisans who could teach me the almost mystical art of making filigree.”
Working with and learning from these elderly artisans, as well as drawing on family expertise, Eleni is now learning the complex, beautiful techniques herself, and has launched her own brand: Sea of Lace. Named for the sea which surrounds the island, and for jewellery so exquisitely delicate, it’s akin to lace, Sea of Lace is a dream come true for Eleni.
“I grew up,” she reveals, “around filigree. My two uncles were both artisans, very successful in their time. But they have long shut up shop and, today, you can count the remaining filigree workshops on one hand. So working with and learning from the last remaining master filigree artisans on the island has been a true privilege; a way to revive this traditional art. My whole life,” she adds, “I’ve been fascinated by filigree – always playing in my mother’s jewellery box as a child. And as I became more and more enamoured of filigree, the ideas began to flow; I realised that If I want them translated into jewellery pieces I would have to learn this technique myself.”
This, Eleni has done. And today, Sea of Lace produces fragile, beautiful, jewellery for customers all over the world. The essence of traditional Cypriot craftsmanship, her bracelets, pendants, rings, and earrings reflect the weight of history in their every intricate curlicue and slender spiral. Inspired by folk stories, Greek mythology and the island’s natural beauty – “anything can be an inspiration, from the precise perfection of an olive leaf to the distant echo of the sea” – Eleni handcrafts her designs in precious metals, often taking weeks to complete each beautiful piece.
“Silver and gold are the most famous metals used in filigree,” she explains. “And I have also developed pieces which are gold-plated. These days, the price of gold has skyrocketed, so working with gold plate offers a more affordable option for some of my customers.”
Each piece, she divulges, can take weeks of painstaking work. “Sometimes the idea, the design, and the jewellery piece will be completed in a few days. At others, it may take weeks of work. Perhaps the sample does not satisfy me or maybe I want to explore its full potential. It depends on the piece.”
Currently, Sea of Lace offers two ready-to-wear collections: ‘Heirloom’ and ‘Folktales’, as well as made-to-measure pieces for a select clientele. The first, Eleni’s initial collection, launched in summer 2019, inspired by “a part of our history, a collection which draws on Cyprus’ beauty and culture enhanced with a fresh, modern approach.” The second also references the culture of the past, offering “both modern and classic interpretations of local symbols and folk stories.”
Both collections appeal to a wide customer base: “Local women aged 25 and over, Cypriots who want to gift their foreign guests or business partners with a part of Cyprus which will last forever, and Cypriots living abroad who want a piece that will remind them their homeland,” says Eleni. “And although my main market is Cyprus, I’ve shipped all over the world before now: to Italy, Greece, Sweden, Australia, the UK, and Germany among others.”
Building on her successes, Eleni has recently opened her own showroom and workshop in Dali, where she demonstrates filigree making and showcases her collections. “It’s a space of education, creation, and inspiration where visitors can try our jewellery, purchase pieces, and also learn the story behind each – see how they are made, watch the process, ask questions and understand better not only what they are buying but why. It really is a dream that’s finally coming true, and it would make me more than happy to see as many locals as possible interested in rediscovering this important part of our cultural heritage!”
A remarkable achievement in the space of just two short years, Sea of Lace has been a triumph of perseverance for Eleni. “It hasn’t been easy,” she acknowledges. “Starting something of your own can be very intimidating for young people in Cyprus. But I know that where I’m located can’t stop me from dreaming or succeeding. “And I think the biggest measure of my success hasn’t been the number of pieces sold or my growing clientele. Rather, it’s been finding my passion: the one thing that makes my heart skip a beat.
“Sea of Lace is bringing back a historically significant technique. And it makes me proud to be Cypriot, to inherit and revive filigree: such a beautiful part of our island’s rich, artistic heritage.”
For more information on Sea of Lace, visit https://seaoflace.com/ or the Facebook page ‘S E A O F L A C E’ or the Instagram account @ seaoflacejewelry Visitors are also very welcome at the Sea of Lace workshop in Dali (Archiepiskopou Makaraiou III, Shop 25), where the ancient art of filigree can be viewed first-hand