Silver Legacies: The Making of Croatian Filigree Jewelry
Master filigree jeweler Viktor Čivljak has a gentle and humble manner despite regularly wielding blow torches and hammers in his making of Old World jewelry. It turns out that the 73-year-old Split, Croatia jeweler also has a penchant for survival, something that we would learn while spending a Saturday afternoon with him, watching step-by-step how to make a pair of intricate filigree silver earrings.
Viktor and his wife, Flora, along with son Lorenc, who is working to become the family’s fourth-generation jeweler, sell their tiny traditional silver treasures in an intimate shop, Filigran Split, located just outside of the 1,700-year-old walls of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace.
Croatia has no trade school for learning the art of making filigree jewelry and in order to become a filigree artist, one must apprentice. Typically family members carry on the jewelry-making tradition, or one approaches a master to request that he take him on as a student. Viktor’s grandfather, Josip, was the first in the family to learn the art, then came father Lorenc, and then Viktor, who began shadowing with his father at the age of 13.
In a market where industrial-scale molding is being used to mass produce the majority of the world’s silver filigree jewelry, the Čivljak’s family-owned establishment offers customers the chance to purchase entirely handmade traditional Croatian souvenirs and unique family heirlooms. It is said that he is the only jeweler in Split who crafts his pieces solely by hand.
From rings, pendants, and brooches, to scarf and hair pins, bracelets and cuff-links, Viktor even makes decorative silver spoons to welcome a new baby into the family or commemorate a visit to the beautiful city of seaside Split. At the request of a customer, he’ll even incorporate coral, pearls, jade, turquoise or onyx into a jewelry’s lacy design.
Though jewelry-making and shopkeeping in a scenic tourist town like Split might sound idyllic, things weren’t always so for the Čivljaks. Six years ago, a burglary nearly bankrupted the family-owned shop, where Viktor’s been making masterpieces out of silver since the 1980s.
“The man who broke in stole all of Viktor’s best pieces – representing tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of his work,” family friend and translator Tamara explained to us during our visit. “For a while, the family considered closing the shop, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, they survived.”
Despite the recession, the couple continues to exemplify a survival spirit, thanks to regular customers and strolling tourists that serendipitously happen upon their shop. They are also commissioned to make traditional jewelry and more contemporary versions of historic items. Each year, Viktor and Flora are asked to make buttons and cuff-links for participants in Croatia’s well-known Alka ceremony, an event that is held annually in the town of Sinj to commemorate a victory over the Ottomans. The high-profile event, which the Croatian president and other dignitaries regularly attend, has taken place since the early 18th Century. Viktor and Flora have also noticed that young Croatian couples are reviving traditional motifs and modifying them for more contemporary use.
“Some grooms are now wearing a toka button in place of a tie during their wedding ceremonies,” Flora noted, while pointing to an array of the filigree balls that are considered to be classics in Dalmatia.
When I asked the couple what they most enjoy about their jewelry business, Viktor wasted no time in responding.
“Pure creation. I love the creative process,” he said in his soft-spoken voice.
Chiming in, Flora playfully added, “And I am the advisor. Viktor consults with me as he’s making a piece of jewelry.” Indeed we noticed this partnership, particularly when Viktor was juggling several tools and needed a helping hand to lightly tap pieces into place.
For four hours that Saturday, we’d watch as Viktor’s hands carefully twirled, wove and soldered silver wires, at times sprinkling a fairy dust-like powder on them. And over the course of the afternoon, he’d transform the delicate silver thread into a stunning pair of earrings – demonstrating perfection that can only be achieved through decades of practice. By the day’s end he proudly displayed a glimmering pair of earrings in his open palms, a look of satisfaction on his face, and a twinkle in his eye at our display of wonderment. Filigree jewelry will simply never look the same anymore.
Jeweler Viktor Čivljak and his wife, Flora, stand in front of their jewelry shop, located just outside of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia. From delicate bracelets (left), to earrings, pendants and brooches, Viktor has been creating masterpieces out of silver for the past 60 years. He started learning the trade from his father when he was just 13 years old. He still uses some of his father’s tools.
Every village in Croatia’s Dalmatia region incorporates its own style into its silver filigree designs. On the left is a pendant in a traditional ball shape known as a ‘toka.’ On the right, Viktor works carefully to craft a pair of silver filigree earrings.
Viktor bent a single wire of silver in several sections to create this component of the earrings. After soldering it, as he is here, he’ll then curve this piece into a flower-like shape.
In order to make one pair of earrings, Viktor needs to craft four of these ‘flower’ shapes. With one complete (left), he works on the remaining three.
Viktor twirls silver thread into a snail shell-like design. Once he’s made eight of these coils, he’ll place them into the ‘petals’ of the flower-like pieces that go into making the earrings. In all, he’ll need 32 coils for one pair of earrings.
Using a pair of tweezers, Viktor places the coils into the empty petals of the flower.
Viktor sprinkles a fairy dust-like mixture of sodium bicarbonate and silver dust over the four flower shapes before soldering them. This step helps to bind all the components in each shape together.
Now that the ‘flower’ has cooled, it’s time to gently tap it into a curved shape. To do that, Viktor will use this mold, a pestle-like object placed directly on top of the flower and a piece of wood to lightly tap the pestle, transforming the flat flower into one with curved edges.
The flower, after it has been lightly tapped in this mold.
Next, Viktor uses tweezers to add a rounded embellishment to the crown of the floral dome. On the right, he solders the two pieces together.
On the left, a glowing silver bead. After it cools, Viktor will carefully add the bead adornment to the dome-shaped top. He’ll combine two of these ‘domes’, using twisted silver wire, to create an earring’s signature toka shape, and then repeat the process to create the second earring.
Having joined the two domes of the ball together, Viktor uses a magnifying glass to ensure the piece’s perfection.
The almost-complete earrings awaiting another round of soldering.
The ball-shaped earrings undergo another dramatic soldering session.
Viktor uses a fine-point blow torch to solder a loop on the earrings. The straight wires on the right will soon be curved into a hook shape, and attached to the balls to form the back of each earring.
After four hours of continuous work, Viktor displays the stunning result – a pair of intricate filigree earrings.
Knowing the attention to detail that went into making these stunning earrings, it seemed fitting that Flora would choose to package them in a heart-shaped jewelry box.
Flora walks me and the family’s friend, Tamara, through their display case. Here you can see just a sampling of the silver filigree rings, decorative spoons, and pendants that Viktor has designed. Flora explained that in centuries past, families were given spoons when a baby was born. Affluent families had gold spoons, and poorer ones had silver spoons.
As afternoon turns to evening, we bid farewell to the hard-working couple. We’d have the pleasure of seeing Viktor, Flora and Lorenc for weeks to come since our Split apartment was just around the corner from their jewelry shop. Whenever we passed by, we spied Viktor hard at work in the back workshop, with Flora waving in an animated fashion.
- Viktor and Flora’s shop, Filigran Split, is located at Bosanska 4 in Split, Croatia. It’s just a few seconds’ walk from Pjaca (Narodni Trg Square), and less than a minute from the Iron Gate of Diocletian’s Palace. As it is a small, family-owned business, Viktor and Flora only accept cash payments. In addition to speaking their native language, Croatian, the couple’s son Lorenc speaks English, and jeweler Viktor speaks German.
- The price of Viktor’s jewelry varies based upon an item’s weight. Also, it is more challenging to craft smaller pieces of jewelry than larger ones.
- You can also peruse a handful of Viktor’s creations on the Filigran Split Jewelry Facebook Page. We were wowed by the hundreds of custom designs that Viktor’s created in the last five decades. Ask him to see his portfolio. He’s also happy to custom-design work based on a customer’s sketch, but be sure to allow sufficient time when ordering.
- We’ve spent two winters in Split, finding accommodation in apartments that would be packed during the summer months, but are practically empty during winter. During our first 2.5 months there, we stayed at the lovely Kaleta Apartments (affiliate link) which are located within Diocletian’s Palace. Our studio apartment (called the ‘Diocletian’s Suite’) featured much character, including Roman brickwork, and views of Old Town Split below. Owners Novica and Negri were thoughtful citizen ambassadors too. Two years later, we returned to Split, staying in the charming Varoš neighborhood, characterized by stone homes with hunter-green shutters. For those 2 months, we stayed in quaint studio apartments at the Guesthouse F (affiliate link). We especially enjoyed our tiny terrace and the kindness of our hosts, Anja and Miro. One of Guesthouse F’s apartments was originally a horseshoe maker’s workshop, which previously belonged to Anja’s grandfather. Shawn and I dubbed it the ‘horseshoe cottage’.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Croatia.
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Disclosure & Thanks:
We approached Filigran Split to request the opportunity to document the filigree-making process. As a touching and generous gesture, they presented me with the pair of earrings that Viktor made during this filming session. To say that I will cherish them would be an understatement. :)
Hvala / Special thanks to Flora and Viktor for welcoming us into the shop and for being so patient with all of our questions and photographs. At times, it must have felt as though the paparazzi was in your workshop. :) Also, many thanks to Tamara, for translating, and Robert, for introducing us to Flora and Viktor.
Jewelry design © Viktor Čivljak, Filigran Split, Bosanska 4, Split, Croatia.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.