A Hellenic Laurel Wreath

I was asked to make a laurel wreath for Ollamh Esa, OL by her peer for her elevation ceremony. Based on what I knew about Esa and the guidance given to me, I researched extant pieces at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Getty Museum. Due to a time crunch, I wasn’t able to get into contact with the museums directly, so this project was an amalgamation of several 3rd-2nd century BCE pieces.

Initial Research

While there are numerous examples of modern laurel wreaths, intact pieces from antiquity are relatively limited. Finding an existing piece that matched the desired aesthetic and included certain design elements was therefore a bit challenging. Fortunately, my Google-Fu was strong enough, and with some digging I was able to find examples that were not only appropriate to the suggested time period, but which also seemed “right”. (The “rightness” is what I consider the Art portion of Arts and Sciences).

Unfortunately, most of the existing pieces were undersized for SCA regalia and made of pure gold, which would make them extremely cost prohibitive. This meant I would need to scale up my design to be appropriate for use as SCA regalia and find an alternative to gold. Considering the construction of the extant pieces, and gold’s ability to be hammered extremely thin, I would have to replicate my design using brass leaves attached to brass wire and then gilded if I wanted to achieve the proper look and finish.

Constructing the Wreath

Having never constructed a wreath in this fashion, I set about establishing what my process steps would be (roughly) and I came to the following initial plan:

  1. Research
  2. Pattern
  3. Make Frame
  4. Cut Leaves
  5. Chase Leaves
  6. Solder Leaves
  7. Apply Gold Leaf
  8. Seal the Leaves
  9. Final Assembly

Naturally, the plan needed some adjustment along the way, but I was able to generally follow these steps with the addition of a few smaller steps along the way.

To pattern the wreath, I used the super scientific method of “Is this about the right size and shape of a person’s head? If it isn’t, can I construct it in a way to allow for adjustment?“. I decided to use an open frame for the wreath for these reasons and laid out some thick brass wire in two different arcs. These arcs, once soldered together, would allow me to wrap the outer around the inner for both aesthetic reasons and to let me weave the leaves and stems during final assembly without fear of the entire project falling apart.

Once I was satisfied with the rough frame, I meticulously patterned out dozens of leaves onto brass in three different sizes using a carbide tipped scriber. I then made the unfortunate mistake of going outside to look at some leaves and realized that not only were no two leaves alike in size, they were also unalike in shape beyond a general profile. So I took my two hours of work, flipped the brass over, and started cutting out lozenges at random until I had what seemed to be enough.

When the area around the frame looked like it would have sufficient “fullness” when completed, I started trimming the lozenges into shapes reminiscent of laurel leaves. Because they were cut with shears, and since brass seems to want to cut me at every opportunity, this meant the leaves themselves would be quite sharp so I took the time to round the edges with files until they were slightly less deadly.

Moving from inside the house to my shop, I took my roughly leaf-shaped bits of brass out to be chased. As it had been a few weeks since I had done any chasing and repousse, I needed to move some things around my crowded worktable but was able to make an assembly line of sorts for the leaves. First, I would heat my pitch with a torch to the point where I could press my finger into it and leave a discernable fingerprint without burning my fingers. I then coated each leaf with mineral oil to act as a release and pressed them into the pitch. Using one of my smaller liners, I chased the veining onto each leaf with a real leaf next to my workstation for reference. As I chased the leaves, the pitch would harden meaning I needed to constantly reheat and smooth the pitch throughout the process.

After chasing, my next step was then to solder the leaves to thin lengths of wire that had to be long enough to weave onto the frame but not so long as to be unwieldly. To solder these leaves, I filed flat a portion of wire and a matching section on the leaf. I then cleaned the area, clamped the wire and leaf, and applied flux. Once the joint had been fluxed, I carefully heated the area before adding a small pallion of solder. Slowly increasing my heat until the solder flowed, I used the flame to direct the solder where I wanted it to go. Removing the heat, I then took the leaf assembly and immediately placed it into my waiting pickle solution for cleaning and a satisfying sizzle.

Finally, after several hours in the shop, and only one leaf burnt through, I had about three dozen leaves that made the final cut and were ready to have gold leaf applied to them.

To apply the gold leaf, I first made sure the leaves had been pickled, sanded, dried, and given a base coat of paint to allow the size (gold leaf adhesive) to stick. After applying the size with a brush, I waited until it felt tacky to the touch. I then placed a piece of gold leaf onto the brass leaf and used my gilder’s brush to smooth everything out. When there were imperfections, I simply repeated the process to cover any gaps. Any extraneous gilding was brushed away and collected for future projects. When completed, I applied lacquer to the leaves to protect the delicate finish.

The final step for this project was to weave all of the leaves together onto the frame. Starting at the front, I wove each leaf and stem through the frame, striking a balance between proper tension and positioning; I didn’t want any drooping or wiggly leaves! Once both arms of the frame were covered in leaves, I chose to wrap the back of the wreath in wire to create a more uniform appearance and to prevent Esa from getting poked in the back of the head too much.

Overall, I was happy with how the project turned out and was even more pleased to hear of Esa’s excitement to wear this very well deserved wreath.