What is damascene?
Damascene is usually used for sword decoration. It is also applied to plates, small boxes, bracelets and a wide range of souvenir-like objects. As the name implies, the handicraft originated in Damascus. It was later brought to Europe through Spain by the Moors, where it soon became a deeply-entrenched art. Toledo for instance is famous for its damascene. Enter the word in a search engine and you'll get Swords from Toledo results all over.
What happens when damascening?
The process is as follows: the article to be decorated is first prepared by being grooved (rayado in Spanish) or indented (picado). In other words, the surface is roughened so that the gold will adhere. A burin may be used as well as acid. The next step is the inlaying of the gold wire, or at times, silver. This is the actual damascening. Here the artisan creates the patterns and decorations. The craftsman may be as imaginative as he wishes but normally patterns are standarized. Once the gold wire has been inlaid, it is then affixed to the metal by light hammer and burin taps. Next comes the blueing or pavonado. In order to prevent rust in the steel that holds the inlaying gold, the piece is given a flame bath with caustic soda and potassium nitrate. The steel portion then turns black, while the gold or silver is unaffected. Lastly, the final touches are applied, which consist of livening up the gold area, putting it in relief using the hammer and burin again, and completing the gold pattern.
What about quality?
The difference between a well-wrought, handmade damascene piece and a tourist version is that a cheaply-made item will employ poor-quality or fake gold, and it may well rust and become quite unsightly in a short while. Such pieces are not handmade, but are instead mass-produced by machines. It is not always easy to recognize properly-made damascene. Needless to say, price is not a reliable criterion. Well then, how do the experts make the distinction? Machine-made pieces usually have a minimum of pattern detail in the gold, and leave large areas bare. An even better method of evalution is to look closely at the work. Handcrafting can be accurately noted by the artisan's hammer marks. But to be entirely sure, one has to buy a piece and have it made while waiting. This can often be done at the swordworks where damascene is also produced. Of course there is also an other aspect of quality: handwork is not always a good buy, since the beauty and detail of the design itself should also be considered, as well as the skill demonstrated by the artisan.
Isn't this called etching or embossing also?
Sword decoration handicrafts similar to damascene are etching and embossing. In etching, designs are painted on the steel surface with varnish. The piece is then placed in a nitric acid solution and the acid eats into the non-varnished area, thus producing the etching. The etched part may then be painted with lacquer of various colours.
Embossing consists of placing the metal leaf over a pattern and hammering on a burin to obtain the desired relief pattern. This is quite an expensive technique. Leather can also be embossed and is used for sword sheaths and furniture.