Niello is an ancient method of ornamentation. The lines of the design are cut in a disk of silver, which is then completely covered with a black composition consisting of copper, silver, and lead. A little borax is sprinkled on, and the whole disk is subjected to heat. After cooling, the top surface is scraped and burnished, leaving the black composition in the design lines. Most niello buttons were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, although there are some with hallmarks from the 18th century.
The earliest niello buttons came from the Caucasus region. Buttons were made there for wear with traditional dress and were not intended for use as buttons but rather as decorations for men’s belts or horse harnesses. Thus, many of these early buttons are crudely made of low-grade silver and have an irregular shape. They were often made in matching sets with clasps and belt slides.
By the end of the 19th century, Caucasus-style niello was very popular in Russia and was being made by silversmiths in St. Petersburg and Moscow. These buttons were made to wear with fashionable dress of the time, not traditional costumes, and the quality of the silver and niello work is much higher. These buttons usually have silver marks but not always.
Niello buttons were also made in the region of the Persian Gulf (mainly Iraq) in the first half of the 20th century as souvenirs, and many were brought home by soldiers at the end of World War II. The craft of nielloing was introduced to this region by Russian Muslims, fleeing persecution in the late 19th century. Buttons from this region are usually of good quality sterling silver but are rarely marked. They are distinguished from Russian niello by the flat disks, the amount of black decoration, and the subject matter (e.g., camels, ancient ruins, and other typical scenes of Arab life).
A third area for production of niello buttons was Thailand (Siam). Niello is a traditional Malay decorative technique. At first it was used for court and religious items, but from the mid-19 century onward it was used for a range of domestic and tourist items. Siamese niello buttons date from the mid-20th century, specifically between 1945 and May 1949, the period when the country was called Siam. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Many of the designs on Siamese niello buttons come from legends of Siam. One of the most popular subjects is Mekala, the Goddess of Lightening. These buttons are usually made of high-quality sterling silver and are backmarked with “Sterling / Made in Siam.”
Luscomb, Sally C. The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Buttons. Bonanza Books, New York, 1968.
Perry, Jane. A Collector’s Guide to Peasant Silver Buttons. Lulu online publishing, 2007.