In the Deccan, an area in the south center of the Indian sub-continent, metalworkers have been creating jewelry and other goods, including weapons, for centuries. The city of Hyderabad has been the trading and manufacturing center of this area, as Maryalice Ditzler referenced in her article on Deccan enameled buttons. In the fourteenth century, Alauddin Bahamani II invited Moguls from Bijapur to set up a metalworking center in Bider, a city 60 miles northwest of Hyderabad that produced goods that had impressed him when he had received them as coronation presents. This type of work became known as bidri after the city. While this method is most often found in household goods such as pitchers, bowls, and plates and earlier, handles for weapons, buttons were also manufactured. Typically black bidri buttons are inlayed with silver designs and often confused with niello. However, the two metalworking processes are very different, although the results resemble each other.
The process of making bidri buttons begins with the formation of the base metal which is jasta, pewter with a high concentration of zinc, combined with copper and lead. This mixture is heated until the metals are fused into the base. This is poured into molds that include the shank and allowed to cool and then covered with blue vitriol (copper sulphate). After the edges are shaped and smoothed, the buttons are passed to the inlayers who scratch the design in the metal’s surface and then chisel larger channels. The silver inlay is then fitted into the openings. The button is completed with a coating of ammonium chloride and potassium nitrate that gives the permanent black surface and a high polishing which enhances the black surface color and the shiny silver inlay. This is depicted in an article in the National Button Society Bulletin in October, 2003.
The designs on the buttons mirror those on other goods made in this style. Since this is a Moslem region, these designs depict non-human designs such as florals, geometric/conventional, and animals. Further, the designs are usually simple since the inlayers are working on a small area. However, in an article in the National Button Society Bulletin in October, 2001, buttons depicting the important Moguls of early India were shown.
Most of the buttons are in the ½” to 1” size, but in the late 1990s Oregon button dealer and button artist Kay Ferguson commissioned bidri buttons, including the Moguls of early India shown in the October, 2001, article, when she visited her daughter’s family in India. These buttons are 2” rectangles, circles, and ovals with inlaid painted designs in a bidri frame.
Many resources and collectors confuse niello and bidri buttons and group them together because of their black and silver appearance. Basically, bidri is an inlay of silver into pewter/zinc. Niello is an enameling process on silver to enhance the silver design. Because of the coating of ammonium chloride and potassium nitrate, the back of the button is black with a one-piece construction that includes the shank. Niello buttons are silver on the back with a fused or inserted shank.
In the next article in this column, Maryalice will explain the process of making niello buttons in more detail.
· Edgerton, William and Indian Museum. Illustrated Handbook of Indian Arms. 1880.
· Rich, Jack. Materials and Methods of Sculpture. 1988.
· Agrawal, D.P, and G.S. Dashila. “Technology of Medieval Crafts: Bidri Ware.” http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/t_es/t_es_agraw_crafts_frameset.htm
· National Button Society Bulletin. October, 2001, p.218.
· National Button Society Bulletin. October, 2003, p. 235.
About the Authors
Nancy Fink and Maryalice Ditzler, who have previously contributed articles to this column, have been friends for 30 years. Their button adventures have entertained their families and friends, and they volunteer each other for various button projects in the national and state societies. One of these projects was the authoring of the book Buttons: The Collector’s Guide to Selecting, Restoring, and Enjoying New and Vintage Buttons published in 1994. They also are each other’s personal shoppers, securing buttons for each other at shows and flea markets. Their husbands, Wayne Hubbel and the late Bill Fink, just shook their heads and went along for the button ride.