The Island Gallery
irwan williams
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THE TECHNIQUE of TATAHAN (REPOUSSÉ)

There are many ways to make a piece of jewelry: carving directly into a block of metal; twisting and soldering wire; welding various units together to form a larger shape; and numerous recent additions to jewelry-making via modern technology such as pressing, casting, et cetera.

One of the most ancient techniques is that of repoussé, a technique well-known in the ancient worlds of Egypt, Greece and Rome and of which there are numerous remarkable examples housed in the great museums of the world. But this technique is of such a tedious and time-consuming nature that it is now hardly practiced at all – in fact it has all but died out.

In Java, however, where patience is still a sought-after virtue, and where material gain has not yet quite become the pre-eminent goal of life, the craft of the repoussé worker (“tukang tatahan”) is still practiced. The technique itself is a basic one. First the metal must be decided upon, the alloy mixed, and the material hand-beaten into a flat sheet just the right thickness to allow the tools to work the design, but not so thin that the tools will pierce the sheet of metal. For a large piece the alloying, beating and preparing can take a full day before the repoussé work itself can begin.

The sheet is then warmed and mounted on a block of specially prepared pitch. This pitch must be just the right consistency - not so brittle that it will crack and chip during the repoussé process, and not so soft that the metal sheet will slide around or move in any way.

The tools are a small hammer and a number (from 40 to 50) of spike-like instruments, each a different-shaped point. Using great dexterity in fingers and wrists the points are guided back and forth over the piece being worked, and the design slowly and meticulously is hammered into the metal.

In the work of a master craftsman the lines are so even and the patterns so true that at first glance you think you are looking at a machine-made or cast article.

To produce a fine piece of work with good, high relief up to eight or ten turnings of the plaque may be necessary so that the work proceeds evenly, half the time from front-to-back and half the time from back-to-front.

After the repoussé process is finished the plaque must be trimmed, filed and sanded and then mounted to form the desired type of jewelry piece, whether it be a bracelet, buckle or whatever. The final mounting entails the addition of a backing, perhaps a frame, and the necessary findings, all of which must be soldered with extreme care to avoid damaging the repoussé work. If opals or other stones are added, this takes another full series of steps until the piece is truly completed. Some of the larger, finer pieces take up to two months to finish.