From a spectrum of colours to a variety of surfaces and textures, the remarkable range of effects achieved with enamel is unlimited. Enamel has the ability to enhance form and the power to mesmerize. Jewellers find the art of enamel attractive as it offers them amazing possibilities for adding colour and accents to designs.
Enamel itself doesn’t hold much value. After all, it is “only” glass fused to metal. A layer of glass is applied to a piece of metal and both are heated until the glass “wets the metal” to flow and spread out, forming a smooth surface. However, at its best it gives a piece unique characteristics and a sheer beauty, rendering it priceless.
A bit of history
The earliest sample of enamel dates from the Mycenaean period. Enameling later gained popularity at the time of the Byzantine Empire and in later periods, enamel workshops occurred in several countries most notably in Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and China. Each civilization independently added to the growth and evolution of enameling, inspiring a legacy of different techniques. However, the main techniques of cloisonné, champlevé, plique a jour and painted enamel have prevailed since ancient times.
Enamel has typically mirrored the fashions of each century, with differences in style and technique. For instance, medieval works presented with religious themes whilst the Renaissance pieces were richly decorated.
The most creative era for enameling was during the Art Nouveau period. Enamellers became absorbed in the spirit of the movement and skillfully included stylised forms of the time.
The legacy of imagery and forms from the Art Nouveau period is still in use today. The timeless themes of beauty and nature hold strong. At the highest level of skill, enamellers continue to produce examples that equal the work of the past.
In contemporary works however, the emphasis is on innovation and design. The mastery of the diverse techniques in enameling to create innovative approaches in design brings the art of enamel into the future.
Types of Enamel
Enamel is a combination of glass flux with silica, flint, soda, potash and borax. Each element affects the composition and fluidity of the enamel. Lead may also be used in clear fluxes and added in colours for brilliance whilst tin is added to give it its opaque properties.
Opaque enamels- solid colours typically used over copper.
Opalescent enamel- has a milky, iridescent quality and best used on engraved surfaces.
Transparent enamel- lets light through to reveal metal surfaces and is mostly used over silver and gold, as these metals have good reflective qualities.
Painted enamel- very finely grounded powders that are used on top of opaque, opalescent and transparent enamels.
Cloisonné is thought to be the oldest enamel technique. The method involves fusing fine wires to a base coat of enamel. The design is built up by placing the various enamel colours into the units that are formed by these wires.
The technique of champlevé requires the metal surface to be cut away to form spaces where enamel is added. Though engraving is commonly used, other methods such as etching, die stamping, repousse and good quality casting can also be used.
The painted enamel method is often referred to as the Limoges technique. Painted enamels consist of finely ground metal-oxide pigments painted and then fired, usually into a white, opaque enamel base. In the grisaille painted enamel technique, very dark grounds are used as a base for monochrome works.
Plique a jour
Plique a jour is frequently referred to as the stained-glass window effect. There are three methods of creating the compartment structures for this technique:
- piercing a design from sheet metal.
- soldering wires together to make a frame.
- fusing wires into copper which is covered with flux base, then removing the metal by etching.
The pierced method is commonly used whilst the other two techniques are interesting but way more difficult to make.
Plique a jour requires a lot of planning, as the construction of the full piece is needed before applying the enamel. Pale, transparent enamel colors are usually used as lighter the color the greater the effect of transiency achieved.
Check the website of my favorite Taiwanese enamellist, Wu Chung Chih who does incredible plique a jour pieces.
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