Bezants!

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Just had to share -- I'd bought some materials and tools to try making some "bezants" -- those little shiny things (sorta like sequins but different) used to decorate fancy medieval robes, boxes, belts, hats and so forth.

You can see at right the robe of the Sarnen Christ Child figure, a famous statue in Sarnen, Switzerland. It dates from about the fifteenth century and is thickly strewn with plain round bezants, religious medals, animal badges, and decorative bezants with stamped decoration.

It was remarkably easy to make something that looks just like these! All it took was:
(1) A concrete step or porch (or similar firm surface);
(2) A hammer;
(3) A few pieces of thick, soft leather for padding;
(4) Some pieces of soft 36-gauge sheet brass from the hardware store;
(5) Metal stamp tools and punches, the type used for decorating leather.

All I did was lay a piece of leather down on the step, cut out a convenient sized piece of the sheet brass, put that on top of the leather, plonk the stamping tool down onto it somewhere, and give it several good whacks with the hammer (being careful not to let the stamp move). Presto!

The sheet brass was remarkably easy to find; I thought I was going to have to mail-order it, but my local big-family-owned-not-a-chain hardware store had it -- a 12 by 30-inch roll for something like $11, which will make a TON of bezants. It is labeled "soft" brass and is 36 gauge. (If you try this with "hard" brass I suspect it won't work because that's much less bendable -- in fact I did try it with some metal "paillettes" I'd ordered from Fire Mountain Gems and they're definitely too hard, the stamp made almost no impression.) In fact I was worried that this "soft" brass would be too soft, till I remembered that silver and gold (the period materials) are even softer.

The 36-gauge brass is thin enough that it can be cut with ordinary scissors, and you can poke holes in it with a medium-sized needle -- though I found it was easier to pre-punch the needle holes with a slightly larger needle than the one I was using to sew with. All I did was put the bezant down on a piece of leather, put the needle point where I wanted the hole, and press firmly with a thimble.

I sewed my first bezants onto some heavy wool, and they were quick to do. You do have to watch out for sharp edges, though none were sharp enough to cut me (I'd think a little gentle filing would round them off). I expect you can't use this decorating technique on anything fragile or anything that would get crumpled, but the bezants seem to hold their shape just fine through ordinary handling.

I also found that a round leather punch will cut the brass with a few good whacks from a hammer, and it produces a nice little "domed" circle Just Like The Ones In The Pictures <g>. Of course I also expect that metal will dull the edge of the leather punch much faster than leather does, so I have to figure out how it can be re-sharpened.

Tandy Leather carries a wide range of leather-stamps, including several that are dead ringers for the medieval bezants in my pictures, so I'm definitely going to make more!

For lots more pictures of medieval bezants, check out the Medieval Beads site!

Robe of the Sarnen Christ Child figure (partial view)

My home-made bezants of sheet brass

Above, my first attempts! (I didn't make the stars, but I did make the rest.)

Closeup of some of the bezants from the Sarnen robe

A closeup of some of the bezants from the Sarnen robe.