Thanks to the region’s rich natural resources and its geographical location, Georgia developed metallurgical traditions which go back to the Early Bronze Age, namely the fourth to third millennium BC, when the Mtkvari-Araxian Culture (c. 3500 – 2400 BC) emerged on the territory of the East Caucasus. Unearthed artifacts from this period already demonstrate the advanced skills both in bronze metallurgy and in working with precious metals. These skills were further developed during the Middle Bronze Age, particularly during the era of the Kurgan culture. Tools and jewelry found at the early Kurgan culture sites of Martkopi and Bedeni show an unusually high level of workmanship.
Alongside these artifacts a 23rd - 22nd century BC golden lion statuette, found in one of the kurgans in the Alazani Valley, is particularly noteworthy; it is the first sculptural image of its kind unearthed in the Transcaucasus area. The later Kurgan period, known for its Trialeti culture, demonstrates the further evolution of pre-Christian culture during 20th - 16th century BC. Rich burial gifts discovered include valued metal items, golden beads, standards, a golden goblet decorated with precious stones, and a famous silver bucket and goblet, the latter of which depicts ceremony scene.
During century BC, known as the late bronze-Early Iron Age, two great cultural centres formed on the territory of eastern and western Georgia, the latter of which, called Colchis, was distinguished for its production of so-called Colchian axe heads. These pieces are adorned with a peculiar style of graphic ornaments that demonstrate both advanced metallurgical skills and artistic values. The middle period of the first millennium BC was notable for the wide use of iron in Colchis. Due to its especially advanced ironwork skills, one of the Georgian tribes – khalibs – were regarded by ancient Greeks as the founders of iron technology.
Between the sixth and third century BC, the western state of Egrisi, the legendary `Colchis` preserved in ancient Greek mythology and literature, and the eastern state of Kartli, called `Iberia,` flourished. The development of local goldsmithery was made possible, in part, by the regions’ rich resources: gold-mines in southern Kartli and gold-bearing rivers in Egrisi. The latter, according to Greek authors, was especially `rich in gold`. These authors reported on the method of collecting gold, a method that is still practiced in the mountainous Svaneti region, from the Egrisian Rivers: using sheepskins as sieves, so that the gold grains would get caught in the fleece. Such a fleece might be the inspiration for the Golden Fleece of Argonauts. Examples of Colchian gold work from the earliest eighth to ninth century BC include temple pendants, richly decorated with granulation and sculpted heads of predators, which have been found at Ureki on the Black Sea coast. These fine metal pieces attest to the high level of skills among craftsmanship.
Gold granulation attained great variety and technical excellence in the fifth and early fourth century. Outstanding examples, discovered in Vani, include exquisitely crafted gold diadems, with braid-patterned holders; diamond-shaped plaques, adorned with repousse images of fighting animals: earrings; arm rings and temple pendants. All suggest the work of a skilled master. The plethora of such objects offers clear evidence of the existence of a distinct and original Colchian goldsmithery style that emphasizes extensive use of the granulation technique in combination with filigree.
Meanwhile at Iberian sites contemporaneous with Vani, the evidence of Achaemenid Persian influence becomes more pronounced, as can be seen in a splendid fourth century BC pectoral discovered amongst the Akhalgori treasure from northwest of Tbilisi. Indeed, perhaps the most extraordinary of the Akhalgori treasures is a pair of pendants designed to hang from a horse’s bridle at the temples, crafted in the shape of two horses, with chains and acorn shapes hanging below.
The further advancement of the metalwork in eastern Georgia is demonstrated by the first century AD discoveries in Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia. In addition to the abundance of unearthed golden jewelry, such as gorgeous necklaces, earrings, rings and bracelets adorned with precious stones and engraved gemstones.
The cloisonné incrustation with multicolored stones found in richly decorated objects discovered at Mtskheta is considered as a progenitor of cloisonné enamel, which became very popular in medieval Georgia.
Announcement of Christianity as a state religion in early 4th century marked an important turning point in the development of Georgian Metalwork. It strongly influenced the pictorial language of metalwork, moving it away from three-dimensional sculptural methods, such as volume, modeling and relish for reproducing the naturalistic forms, to a more flattened, stylized aesthetic.
The ecclesiastical objects, such as, crosses, icons, cups and manuscript covers, enable us to trace the development of this branch of art from the eighth to ninth century AD through the early 19th century.
Drawing upon the ancient tradition of metalwork that dates back to the pre-Christian period, medieval Georgian masters further developed the craft, elaborating a peculiar style beginning in the eighth through ninth centuries. Overall, examples of repoussé work echo what was being produced at that time in stone reliefs and wood carvings. Hence, this process of development is part of an organic phenomenon that encompassed all Georgian sculpture.
The Icon of Transfiguration from Zarzma (886 AD), which is the earliest surviving monument of medieval metalwork, clearly demonstrates this new trend in art: the surface of the icon is flat and relatively simple.
By the middle of 11th century, this flat and decorative style begins to become more volumetric. This is reflected in a number of superb artworks of this period, such as the Ishkhani, Breta and Brili processional crosses, and the renowned golden chalice of Bedia (999 AD), which is formed from one sheet of gold and depicts the figures of Christ, the Virgin and the Apostles all worked in repoussé. This liturgical vessel is notable for the orderly and rhythmic organization of the figures, its decorative details and for its classicistic and powerful figural style, the monumental effect of which is symbolic of an authentic indigenous Georgian sensibility. Other fine examples from this period include the plaques from Sagolasheni and Shemokmedi, a splendid processional cross from Martvili and the silver roundel of St. Mamai from Gelati. The plastic forms of the latter are modeled with great sensitivity and the proportions of the figure are held in careful balance.
A series of surviving large pre-altar crosses, which are covered with repoussé work, can be regarded as a unique feature of Georgian medieval art. Amongst these is the 11th century pre-altar cross from Mestia, which depicts the earliest known cycle of the life of St. George and is distinguished for its refined reproduction of figures, motion and details.
The 12th century marks a tendency toward more decorative forms and away from the volumetric trend typical to the previous centuries. This period is notable for its special focus on ornamental decoration and the wide use of such decorative elements as inlaid precious stones and cloisonné enamel. The stunning variety of stones and medallions in cloisonné enamel as well as ornamental motifs, which demonstrate the skillful execution of a unified artistic effect, is evident in the Khakuli Triptych of the Holy Virgin composed in 12th century.
This relish for decorativeness and ornamental embellishment is clearly seen in the late 12th century Anchi Tryptich of the Savior, executed by Beka Opizari, the famous Georgian goldsmith master who worked during Queen Tamar’s reign.
Constant invasions by Muslim neighbors during period after the second half of 13th century, restrained further advancement of Georgian metalwork. However, from the 15th through 18th century, a notable number of smaller works were produced in goldsmiths’ workshops throughout the country, with two main centers, one in western Georgia being the court studio of Megrelian Prince Leval Dadiani and the other in Kakheti marked by a distinctive technique of engraving on gold. Amongst the 19th century masters, the works by the goldsmith Pepu Meunargia are worth of special mentioning.
Alongside medieval repoussé work, rich metallurgical traditions were maintained in everyday life of local people. Racha for instance was famous as a center of blacksmithing in Georgia.
Georgians were prominent armorers as well. In the 18th -19th century Tbilisi the pattern welded arms appreciated in the whole Caucasus, Russia and Europe became very popular. This period was also marked through the extensive use of Nielo and Damascening (inlayed gold) techniques.
In the 19th-20th century Tbilisi became the center of metalwork. Silver crockery made in Old Tbilisian guilds distinguished with the variety of shapes display the style widespread in the whole Caucasus featuring floral ornaments and figural images. Contrary to the items made elsewhere these Old Tbilisian silver bowls often display local Tbilisian characters.
The rich artistic tradition of medieval repoussé work reinvented itself in the works of Georgian masterns during the Soviet time by changing religious subject matter with secular themes inspired by national motives.