31 Jul 20

Fragile beauty: emu eggs in early Australian gold and silverware

The NGV collection of early Australian gold and silverware is magnificent and intriguing. A fascination for the Australian flora and fauna, which feature so prominently in some of the early works, combined with an excellence in craftsmanship and skill have led to the creation of these uniquely Australian pieces. The Collection provides insights into personal impressions of European gold and silversmiths when they arrived and settled in Australia in the mid-19th century.

This group of works is currently subject to an initial research project and will expand into a detailed examination of the materials and techniques employed in creating these distinctive and curious pieces.

Metalsmithing, encompassing gold and silversmithing, is an ancient craft and the importance of metals and fascination with precious metals remains part of our cultural life today. Like other ancient crafts, the basic tools and aspects of the techniques used in metal fabrication have not changed much over time. One of the most distinct properties of metals is their character of fluidity, meaning that metals can be heated and formed repeatedly to achieve the perfect outcome or else to produce something entirely different. Some of the metalworking techniques are physical requiring a degree of strength, especially when it involves hammering for creating larger shapes such as vessels. Often only the texture on the perfectly finished surface indicates the somewhat rough and rudimentary process the finished piece has gone through; the heat, sweat and physical power necessary to craft a piece to perfection.

Using emu eggs to create vessels, or as simply decorative objects, can be traced back to as early as 16th century European gold and silverware where ostrich eggs featured in art objects. Ostrich eggs were valued for their rarity and rich symbolism. For the European-trained gold and silversmiths who arrived in Australia in the 19th century, the emu egg offered the opportunity to draw on this tradition and to celebrate the uniqueness of their Australian environment.

German silversmith Henry Steiner, born Johann Heinrich Steiner in 1835, arrived in Adelaide on 3 February 1858 where he settled, married and had two children. He had a business in Rundle Street that he sold in 1884 before returning to Germany the same year. He travelled to Australia a second time from 1887 returning in 1889 and died in Hannover, Germany in 1914.i

Steiner was one of several European gold and silversmiths who incorporated emu eggs in some of his works. This unlikely material combination without a doubt presented challenges during the assembly when the heavy and robust silver trimmings had to be carefully attached to the fragile and lightweight structure of the emu egg.

Interesting facts about emus

Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae is at 1.6 – 1.9 m Australia’s tallest Indigenous bird and arguably also its most iconic. Emus weigh about 30 – 55 kg and live throughout most of the continent preferably in open plains. The breeding season is winter when both male and female court and build a nest. The female lays between 5 and 20 eggs which are then incubated by the male for a period of approximately 55 days. During this period the male does not leave the nest. It is also the male who looks after the chicks once they hatch while the female emu wonders off to breed again.

The emu egg

Emu eggs vary in size and are about 13 x 9 cm on average with a weight of 400 to 700 grams. The shell of the egg provides mechanical protection for the embryo and acts as antimicrobial defence. The shell is made primarily from calcium carbonate and is porous to allow exchange of respiratory gases. The colouration is caused by deposition of pigment molecules onto the eggshell while it is formed in the bird’s oviduct and can vary in colour. The pigment oocyanin is thought to produce blue and green colours.ii

Sawing an emu egg into two halves allowed me to inspect the structure and to examine the inside and extract some useful information. I was able to measure the thickness of the shell, which averages 1.3 mm. In comparison with an ostrich egg, with a shell thickness in the range of 2.5 – 3.0 mm, this is approximately half the thickness.

The inside of the shell consists of multiple evenly coloured off-white and very thin layers. These are water-sensitive and turn a darker colour when water is brushed onto it. This eventually results in delamination of layers, which suggests that water-based adhesives should be avoided for conservation treatment.

From a practical viewpoint it makes sense to structurally reinforce the eggshell before attaching metal components, however, I have not been able to establish whether this was common practice before the emu eggs were incorporated into metal works, mainly because the interior is not accessible once the work is completed. This will be part of a research focus into the future.
From a conservation point of view, the wide variation in size and shape between individual eggs makes it almost impossible to replace a broken egg. This highlights the enormous skill required when assembling and attaching the metal decorations to the egg and the care required in handling these pieces.

Fresh emu eggs have a very deep green colour with bluish specks resembling a starry night sky. Exposure to light gradually causes fading of the natural pigment and the surface colour changes to a greyish brown. This also makes potential replacement of a broken egg more difficult.

To date little technical detail is known about this group of works in the NGV collection. Further material research with focus on the physical properties of the emu egg and on the metal fabrication techniques and attachment methods employed by the goldsmiths and silversmiths. Technical observations could potentially also be of interest in regard to local differences, supply chains and artist’s backgrounds, such as country of origin and training. It will allow us to more comprehensively understand these intriguing objects, to care for them and preserve them for future generations to enjoy and study.

Marika Strohschnieder is Senior Conservator of Objects, National Gallery of Victoria



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