I traveled to China a few years back and came home with an abundance of enameled goods – earrings, vases and a little box that’s too big for a pill box but too small to hold much else. It’s so pretty, though, I couldn’t resist. Recently I acquired a pretty enameled Hidalgo ring, which had me wondering just how they achieve the rich colors and designs of enameled jewelry and other objects.
What is enamel?
With a little research I learned that the enameled look is achieved by fusing powdered, colored glass to a surface, usually metal. Other surfaces can be used if they can take the heat, but metal is by far the most common surface used in enameling – in particular gold, silver or copper. The most common types of enameling used in jewelry applications are cloisonné, champlevé, basse-taille, painted enamel and grisaille.
Cloisonné is one of the oldest types of enameling and one of the most popular for jewelry applications. In the cloisonné method, narrow strips of metal wire are soldered or glued to the base metal, creating cells. The cells are then filled with the different colored enamels selected for that jewelry design, giving the jewelry a stained glass window look. Cloisonné jewelry is popular in China and is commonly found in Chinatown gift shops around the world.
In the champlevé method, recesses are cut out of the base metal and the colorful enamels are placed in the recesses. Cloisonné is preferred for jewelry, while champlevé is more commonly seen on larger pieces like vases, although it is sometimes used for jewelry as well.
The basse-taille technique is similar to champleve in that recesses are cut from the metal and filled with enamel, however in basse-taille pieces a design in relief is cut into the base of the metal. When the enamel is placed into the recesses, the top of the enamel is even, but the relief design of the base can be seen because the varying depths lead to shadowing and gradations in the enamel.
Painted (Limoges) Enamel
Painted enamel is also known as Limoges enamel. In this method designers use a convex copper plate for the base and then coat it with white enamel, which is then fired. Afterwards, they draw the design onto the white enamel and apply the colors with a brush or palette knife. In the painted enamel method there are no walls between the colors, so they must be carefully applied to avoid running together when fired. To achieve depth of color, many layers of enamel must be applied and the piece must be fired after each application.
Grisaille is a form of painted enamel that uses dark and neutral colors to achieve a monochromatic effect. In this case the base is coated with black enamel, fired, then topped with a coat of white enamel and fired once again. This leaves a grey surface which is then painted with other colors of enamel, usually brown, purple, gray and black. This method of enameling is most often seen in brooches and pendants, but is also used in earrings and other forms of jewelry.