Enameling is an ancient art requiring a remarkable level of artistry and skill. Involving tiny glass particles adhered with high heat onto metal, enamel is known for its unique luminosity and its range of techniques. Keep reading to learn more about the history of enamel, different enameling techniques and their applications.
History of Enameling
Forms of enameling can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, where glassmaking was practiced as early as 1300 B.C.E.
There is evidence of ancient Egyptians inlaying crushed stones into designs on jewelry and ornaments, resembling the effect of enamel, but not fired onto metal. True enameling began in the 5th century B.C.E. with the Greeks, who included inlays of enamel glaze into some sculptures. Enamel as an art form is seen across many ages and cultures, the Celts in the 3rd century, Byzantium, Renaissance Italy, 13th-century China, 16th to 17th-century Japan, and Limoges, France. Enamel is highly versatile and adaptable to a variety of styles. Enamels can be found adorning clocks, snuffboxes, compacts, vases, canes, teapots, fine art and jewelry, and decorative enamels are compatible to various types of jewelry metals.
What is the Process of Enameling?
Enameling is a process in which finely ground, powdered glass is fused to a metal surface using high heat, forming a hard and glossy material. A wide variety of oxides can be added to the glass powder before firing to create colored enamel. Different oxides result in different colors — tin for white, iron for black, cobalt and copper for blue or turquoise, and uranium and iron for yellow. Red and pink are particularly precious colors for their copper and gold content. These powdered mixtures are combined with purified water to form a paste and then applied to a metal form — usually copper, silver or gold — before being fired.
The enamel artisan must give careful consideration to the melting point when pairing enamels with metals. The piece must be fired at high temperatures to allow the enamel to properly adhere to the metal. A temperature that is too low will result in poor-quality enamel work. Too hot, and the entire piece will melt.
What are the Different Types of Enamel?
Enamels can be opaque, opalescent or transparent, which are descriptors indicating how much light is allowed passage through the glass once fired. Opaque enamel is loaded with opacifiers, substances that prevent the passage of light through the glass. This type of enamel completely hides the metal surface beneath, and they make good painting enamels. Transparent or translucent enamels allow a large amount of light to pass through, showing the metallic material beneath. This results in rich, jewel-like color tones. Opalescent enamels are essentially transparent enamels with a minor amount of added opacifiers (substances that make the glass more opaque), allowing more light to be reflected. This gives the fired enamel the iridescent visual effect of an opal. There are also enamel overglazes, which are applied after firing with a pen or brush for intricate detail work.
Cloisonné is the oldest form of fine enameling. It was first seen in the 4th century B.C.E. as practiced by ancient Greek goldsmiths, who inlaid small, imaginative designs with thin enamel coatings between outlines of gold wire. The term comes from the French “cloisons" meaning "partitioned areas," referring to the fact that the process involves placing enamel into distinct, enclosed cells with a perimeter of a base metal. This is perhaps the most well-known form of enameling technique, and therefore the term is often misused and applied to non-enamel items with designs that are merely painted with metallic outlines. The technique is often associated with East Asian enamel work, particularly from China and Japan. Cloisonné appeared in China beginning in the 15th century and Japan in the 16th century.
The Champlevé technique is similar to cloisonné in that it involves cells, but where cloisonné builds up its cells with metal wire, champlevé carves out its cells from the metal base, creating a recessed surface in which to place the enamel. This process results in a dynamic visual effect, with strong lines and a dramatic contrast between enamel and metal. The method became popular in the Gothic era, when artisans would carve out these recessed areas with a chisel and hammer. In more modern times, the preferred method for creating these cells was etching, resulting in a more elegant and clean look.
Literally meaning “low-cut,” basse-taille is a method of enameling that originated in Renaissance Europe. The metal base must be textured in some way, through metalworking techniques such as engraving, etching, stamping or chasing, and then thin layers of translucent enamel are fired onto the textured surface. This creates the illusion of depth and dimension beneath the nearly transparent enamel.
Plique-à-jour is a French term roughly translating to "open to light," and it was a popular enameling technique in the Art Nouveau period. The technique is similar to cloisonne in which viscous enamels are applied in cells. In this method, however, there is no backing to the cell, so light can transmit through the translucent enamel, giving the finished piece an exceptional radiance. Pliqué-à-jour achieved great popularity during the Art Nouveau period and was utilized by master jewelers throughout Europe and the United States, including artisans employed by Fabergé and Tiffany Studios.
Guilloché is similar to basse-taille in the sense that the metal base has a textural component. In guilloché work, the texture is achieved with an engine-turned lathe used to form a regulated engraved pattern. Enamel is then applied over that pattern in the metal. The process originated in the 17th century and became popular in the Victorian era, when it was commonly seen on watch faces and jewelry.
The name that is perhaps most closely associated with guilloché enameling is Fabergé. The famed Russian workshop elevated the status of Russian decorative arts with advanced enameling techniques and artistic inventiveness. With royal clients and connoisseurs such as Tsars Peter the Great and Nicolas II, Fabergé is best known worldwide for their elaborate guilloché enamel and jewel-encrusted eggs, although they created many other exceptional enameled objects such as canes, snuff boxes and enamel jewelry. Each piece associated with Fabergé radiates with the very finest enamel craftsmanship.
Bates, Kenneth F. Enameling Principles and Practice. Cullen Press, 2013.
Matthews, Glenice Lesley. Enamels, Enamelling, Enamellists. Krause, 2003.