Trends & Fashion
The Colorful World of Enameled Jewelry
The painterly appeal of enameled jewelry has earned it an esteemed place in the world of fine art. Enameled jewelry, which is comprised by fusing glass to metal, is not only seen in jewelry stores, but can be glimpsed in museums and galleries, as well. Its captivating appearance has enthralled centuries of admirers, from the ornate work of the Byzantine peoples to the cloisonné designs of the early Anglo-Saxons. Enamel work was appreciated by even the earliest of civilizations, having been discovered among the artifacts of ancient Sumer and Hellenic Greece.
Sometimes mimicking the appearance of gemstones, but more often revealing intricate colorful worlds of its own, enameled jewelry continues to endure for its dazzling effects. From the famed nature inspired designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany, to the bold and contemporary designs of FREYWILLE, enameled jewelry persists in capturing the imagination of artisans and collectors alike. Indeed, likely the most notable enamel work ever to exist can be found in the famed Fabergé eggs. During the latter half of the 19th century and leading up to the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, thousands of jeweled eggs had been fashioned by the House of Fabergé, and they were nothing short of magnificent, especially the larger Imperial Easter eggs designed exclusively for Russia’s royal family. These eggs were styled using precious metals and then decorated with an enamel coating along with, in some cases, gem stones.
Though the processes by which enameled jewelry is made have been refined over the centuries, some of today’s successful modern enamellers are still employing techniques that were in use during the 19th century. Victor Mayer is one such company. Hailing from Germany, this fourth-generation company retains the same methodology used by the company’s original founder and master craftsman, and produces high quality, sophisticated enamel jewelry and everyday objects. Spain’s Bagués-Masriera is another company that produces high-quality enamel jewelry, having revived traditional enameling techniques to create both modern enameled jewelry, as well as the Art Nouveau styled pieces for which the Masriera arm of the company became renowned.
Enameled jewelry is produced by taking powdered glass and laying it over the top of a host metal, and then firing it at high temperatures ranging from 1290 degrees to 1510 degrees Fahrenheit. When exposed to this level of heat, the glass melts and adheres to the metal. There are six historically recognized techniques utilizing multi-colored enamels. These methods have been developed over many centuries and are still in use today.
1. Champlevé: Although named for the French word for “raised plane,” it was actually the ancient Celts who originated the champlevé technique around the 3rd century A.D. Medieval craftsmen of Europe were known to use chisels to create the depressions in metal that were subsequently filled with enamel. Recessed areas covered in enamel create a pleasing contrast with the bare base metal surroundings which produce the raised edges that give champlevé its name. Today, champlevé is achieved in many ways, including repoussé, chasing, and etching to achieve the recessed areas that hold the enamel. Sometimes, a design is cut out of metal which is then fused or soldered to a solid plate of metal beneath. The negative space of the cut out design will hold the enamel.
2. Cloisonné: From the French cloison which means “enclosed cell,” cloisonné is arguably the most popular and most recognizable form of enameling. The art of cloisonné requires an adeptness at many processes including metal forming and fabrication, as well as enameling. The three basic forms of cloisonné enameling are concave, convex, and flat. Designs are fabricated from thin wires that are fused to a metal base. In concave cloisonné, the artist uses slightly less enamel so that the wire cells are prominent. The enamel may lie slightly below the tops of the wires. In convex cloisonné, the enamel is built up beyond the tops of the cloisonné wires, imparting a sculptural and rounded appearance. In flat cloisonné, the wires and enamel culminate at the same height. Early examples of cloisonné enamel include ecclesiastical jewelry of the Byzantine Empire.
3. Limoges: In 1500 A.D., the Penicaud family of Limoges, France developed the painterly technique of Limoges enameling. Colorful enamels, carefully applied with small brushes, are placed in uniform thin lines side by side over a base coating of enamel. When heated, the colors do not contaminate each other. The enameled piece must be fired many times, after each thin application of paint grade enamels. If the enamel is applied thickly, the design will often show undesirable cracking after the piece has been fired.
4. Plique-à-jour: Plique-à-jour differs from all the other enameling techniques discussed so far in that plique-à-jour does not use a metal backing of any kind. A design can be sawed out of sheet metal or fabricated out of wires. The enamel is fused in the negative space between the wires or in the pierced and sawed design. The result is an enchanting stained glass window in miniature. Literally translated, plique-à-jour means “light of day,” a fitting name for this painstaking yet beautiful technique. Plique-à-jour is prepared on a backing that is removed after firing is complete.
5. Basse-taille: Renaissance artisans originated the basse-taille technique in Europe. From the French translation for “low cut,” basse-taille employs the art of the metalsmith to create patterns and designs on the host metal. Designs can be hammered, as in repoussé, or stamped, chased, or chiseled. Carving, engraving, and etching techniques also are used to prepare the base metal for basse-taille. Richly textured, the metal is then covered with thin layers of transparent enamels, fired after each application. The result is remarkable as light hits the metal and is reflected through the enamels. Optical effects, such as chatoyance, the “cat’s eye effect,” and depth can be seen.
6. Grisaille: Grisaille enameling takes its name from the French descriptive word for gray tones. In grisaille enameling, a base coat of black enamel is pre-fired underneath an application of unfired white enamel. The white enamel is scratched to reveal the underlying dark base and subsequently fired. The white can be applied in several thin layers. The achieved effect includes the subtle gradations of many shades of gray that reveal the intended design.
While much of the nomenclature describing enamels is French, enameling is an art form that transcends culture. France, Italy, Japan, and China all possess strong enameling traditions, but for many years France was the epicenter of the enameling world. The craftsmen of Limoges set the standard for the modern art and terminology of enameling, and the region has become synonymous with the technique. Today, the look of enameled jewelry is so popular that alternative methods for achieving the enameled look are being used. Often referred to as “cold enamels,” these techniques include the use of liquid polymers that solidify under ultraviolet light. Similar to classic glass enameling, thin layers of liquid polymers are built up on top of one another and then filed and polished like their glass counterparts. An art form that has endured for centuries, enameled jewelry is certain to retain the collective fascination of humanity.
All Images by Victor Mayer