Ever since my fledgling Magpie days – quite a long time ago now – I’ve been captivated by enamelling in jewellery, probably subconsciously ignited by this thimble Polly made when she was a student and I was a junior at school. The colours, the light, the intricacy – everything. The idea of painting a beautiful picture with glass really caught my imagination, and nothing has changed. I still love it, and one day I’m going to learn how to do it but for now I just have to make do with enjoying the fruits of other people’s labours. But that’s not nothing…
Enamelling is made by fusing powdered glass to a substrate – copper, silver, iron, glass, ceramic, stone – in fact anything that can withstand the fusing temperature. Enamelling is a really ancient form of decoration, and probably the oldest piece ever found was from Cyprus, made in the 13th Century BC. It is cloisonné (more about this later) and is remarkably well preserved for its age. It’s generally believed that eventually enamelling was used in place of gems that were cut and inlaid, as in those found in the Staffordshire Hoard. It was less costly, easier and more colours could be included in a single piece.
There are really three types of enamel – cloisonné, champlevé and painted enamel, from which have been created all sorts of variations and progressions.
Cloisonné (French for partition) is the art of fixing very thin wire ‘walls’ or barriers to a metal surface, filling the spaces created by these walls with frit – a mixture of silica and flux to make glass – and then firing at very high temperatures. I wondered about how the metal survives these very high heats because I happen to know that the melting point for glass is extremely high, and it seems that the flux is mixed into the silica to reduce the melting
point so the glass melts before the metal. So clever. By the 14th Century this technique had reached China and it was the Chinese who moved on to using it in much larger objects like vases and bowls instead of just for jewellery. The Egyptians had their own version of this technique but used thicker wires; the Byzantines used it too and it’s thought that it was they who influenced the Chinese in this art. By the 19th Century the Japanese, late comers to cloisonné, were producing the most advanced pieces ever known.
As with all things creative, people experiment and come up with new ideas and an advance on cloisonné is plique-a-jour (looselly translating from the French as ‘letting in the day’) which is a similar technique to cloisonné where enamel is applied in cells, but in this case the backing of the piece is then removed so that the light comes through the enamel glass, like stained glass.
Then we have Champlevé (from the French for raised field) which is the technique where the surface of the metal is carved or stamped or otherwise depressed, and the enamel is put into these pits and fired, leaving the surrounding metal exposed, and the enamel is level with the metal around it. It seems to have originated with the Celtic tribes, and the Romans used it widely in everything from jewellery to armour. Champlevé enamels from Limoge in southern France are the most famous and have been since about the 12th Century. Initially opaque enamels were used because the bottoms of the recesses were rough and did not want to be shown, but progress brought basse-taille which is where the bottoms of the recesses were modelled or the surface of the metal decorated with low relief design so with the use of translucent rather than opague enamels, the patterened metal could be seen through the glass. The most wonderful example of this is the St Agnes
Cup made for the French Royal family in the 14th Century. Quite extraordinary work, and Faberge took this idea further and was the master of guilloche enamelling which is where the metal is decorated mechanically and then enamelled with translucent enamel so the wonderful patterns underneath show through.
The third sort of general group of enamel work is painted enamel which is, as the name suggests, a picture painted with enamel on metal. Limoge were also masters of this, and it was they who developed gisaille enamelling in the 16th Century which is a dark layer of enamel laid down on a metal surface and then translucent enamels built up on top creating a monochrome picture.
I think mostly we associate enamel with jewellery, but if you think about what’s in your house you’ll see that it’s used industrially a great deal too; bath tubs, washing machines, cookware etc and even lab equipment and on the top of telegraph poles, too! Certainly this is enamel paint and not ground glass fired in the kiln, but the effect is the same – glossy, durable and completely protective of the metal underneath it.
In our jewellery group, Precious Kent, we have a master enameller, Joan Mackarrell, who has made some astounding pieces using variations of all these techniques but I know her best for her painted enamels. This lucky magpie
has one of her brooches! She is among a handful of brilliant enamel artists working in this country right now and because it’s quite important to have something to aspire to, I go one better and aspire to two things; the first, as an artist, is to learn how to enamel. The second, as a magpie, is to own a piece of silverware made by one of the brilliant contemporary enamelers with whom we rub shoulders at least once a year at the Goldsmiths’ Fair in London. (Ha! see the magpies in this piece??) Dream on, little bird.