I’d never been particularly interested in gold jewellery until a visiting friend of mine dragged me round every jeweller’s in Coimbra. She was convinced that Portuguese gold is of better quality than what’s readily available in the rest of Europe (she’s right, by the way).
In doing so, she introduced me to some exquisite filigree pieces including some curious curved hearts. Since then, I’ve made it a point to find out more about both the metal and traditional Portuguese jewellery.
Portuguese gold is quality stuff
Gold manufacture in Portugal can be traced back to the third millennium BC. At that time, reserves were plentiful from the Tagus River basin. Once those were depleted, prospectors discovered other sources throughout the country.
These mines have been fully exploited although there was a flurry of excitement a few years back when a Canadian company reckoned they had found fresh reserves in the Alentejo region. Their attempts to extract it have been thwarted since the negative consequences of mining there would have outweighed any benefits for local people.
In terms of quality, pure gold is too soft to work with so jewellery is made using a blend of metals which affect not only the colour but the hardness of the gold.
Most of the gold that’s sold in Europe is 18 karat, which means it’s 75% gold and 25% other metals. Portuguese gold, on the other hand, is 19.2 karat, or 80% gold.
Personalised wedding rings
With this in mind, Mike and I decided to buy our wedding rings in Coimbra and were introduced to a lovely Portuguese tradition. The jeweller had our rings engraved with the name of our future spouse and the date of the wedding.
We have no excuse to forget our anniversary although we both did just that last year!!!
Filigree jewellery in Portugal
Thanks to my friend, I also realised that filigree is quite an art and makes a fine gift from Portugal, whether for yourself or a loved one. Over the subsequent years, I’ve seen several goldsmiths in action and recently learned more about the process and history at the Museu da Filigrana (Filigree Museum) in Largo de São Carlos in Lisbon.
We were greeted by a smartly dressed young man who offered to talk us through the museum exhibits. The display cases contain the tools and examples of the gold and metals in various stages of the production process. He explained how the gold is melted into rough bars then made into wire. This wire is then extruded three times to make a fine thread, which is then twisted to make it strong enough for the jeweller to work with.
He went on to talk about the Viana hearts and custodias, both of which hold deep religious significance – see this post for more about the history of Viana hearts. As you can see from these images, on festival days, local women would wear the family’s gold on their chest and ears to show off their respective wealth.
As well as display cabinets and information panels, the filigree museum has a replica kitchen workshop. Many skilled goldsmiths worked from home when they weren’t needed for agricultural duties. I can’t imagine how they managed such intricate and delicate work by the light of oil lamps.
Last but not least, our guide gave us a brief and basic demonstration of how a filigree heart is formed and filled before leaving us to browse the pieces for sale.
Where to see and buy Portuguese gold filigree jewellery
You’ll find some filigree pieces in jewellery shops throughout the country although Viana do Castelo is a good place to go if you’re looking for the traditional Viana heart.
Don’t worry if you can’t fit that into your itinerary. Lisbon’s Museu da Filigrana also doubles as a jewellery shop and sells beautiful gold plated and real gold pieces.
As well as Viana do Castelo, another centre for filigree production in the north of Portugal is the town of Gondomar, near Porto.
Aware that some people are interested in seeing the process and learning more about this exquisite art, they have developed a Filigree Route (Rota da Filigrana). As part of their efforts to promote the route, they’ve made this rather nice video:
This article was originally written as part of my Personal A to Z of Portugal and updated in 2018.