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Enameling, Then and Now

by Karen L Cohen - © "The Art of Fine Enameling"
The earliest known enameled pieces have been dated to the 13th century BC, when Mycenaean goldsmiths inlaid enamels into gold rings. Since then, cultures all over the world have incorporated enameling into their art forms. In the 5th century BC, Greek artisans used enamel to decorate artwork such as the Phidias statues of Zeus.

In the 9th through 11th centuries AD, gold cloisonné was popularized in the Byzantine Empire. In Germany, enameling was introduced by a Byzantine princess, Theophano, who married the German King Otto 11, and then brought craftsmen with her from her native land. Thus German enamels were heavily influenced by these Byzantine roots. In Western Europe in the 12th century, champlevé religious objects were produced. And Renaissance goldsmiths, like Cellini, created beautiful enameled pieces in basse taille and plique a jour.

A revolution in enameling occurred in the late 15th century when the family of Pénicaud innovated a new method of "Painting" with enamels. As this was developed in the French town of Limoges, the method is called limoges. This was the first time that enamel colors touched each other without the use of separating wires or metal. Using this method, portraits and other scenes could realistically be reproduced. The art of portraiture was highly developed by the great 16th century enamelists Leonard Limousin and Pierre Reymond.

Subjects and objects used for enamels are wide spread, but religious themes and objects have always been a favorite.

Other common themes are flowers and animals.

Common objects are boxes, candlesticks, Jewelry, and watches. Enameled watches were first introduced at the end of the 16th century. Enamels have also been used instead of gemstones in precious jewelry and other objects. For example, in medieval times, a style of jewelry, called the garnet jewel, was popular. In these pieces, garnet was cut flat and inlaid between a metal framework that had been soldered to a metal backing, which was then repousséd. Today, this construction is done using enamels instead of actual gemstones.

The Arts and Crafts movement, in modern times, has made a large impact in enameling. Kenneth F. Bates, an American university educator, moved enameling out of 'chobby art" and is credited with influencing a multitude of modern enamelists. Schools like the Kulicke Stark Academy of Jewelry Arts in New York City in the 1970s trained many enamelists and instilled a love of the medium. Fred Ball, with his innovative approaches to enameling, helped many students to stretch their imagination in working with enamels. Today there are craft schools and universities around the world teaching enameling. The most well known organization of enamelists in the United States is The Enamelist Society, which sponsors conferences every other year, publishes a magazine, and has members in countries around the world. Local guilds exist, but the number of enamelists still remains small.

Through the years, a variety of enameling techniques has been developed. Some involve how the metal is prepared and some involve how the enamel is applied. The following defines the most prevalent, but by no means all, techniques:

Basse Taille: French for "low cut." A technique in which a pattern is created in the metal backing before enameling. See Metal Patterning for Basse Taille on page 26 for information on how to get patterns onto the metal.

Camaieu: also called "en camaieu," a term dating from the mid 18th century describing a grisalille like technique which uses a buildup of white enamel to create highlights and light areas. However, instead of using a black backgroud, as in grisaille, transparent enamel is laid in first, beneath the whites. This technique is frequently used on snuffboxes, watches, and medallions.

Champlevé: French for "raised field" or "raised plain." A technique in which enamel is inlaid into depressions in the metal, leaving metal exposed. The depressions are typically made by an etching process, although other methods exist. First done in the 3rd century AD by the Celts decorating their shields, this technique has been one of the favorite forms of enameling.

Cloisonné French for "cloison" or "cell." A technique in which metal wires are bent to form a design; enamel is then inlaid into the resulting "cloisons." Although this can be done in copper, contemporary cloisonné is most frequently done in silver or gold. The Byzantine Empire, 6th century AD, was the setting for gold cloisonné pieces of a religious nature. In the same time frame, the Japanese were producing scenes of nature. In China, cloisonné has been used since the 13th century AD.

Ginbari Foil: a technique, developed in Japan, using a foil design made with an embossing plate. This is an excellent technique for reproducing a design, as the embossing plate is reusable. It somewhat has the look of cloisonné however, the "lines" are not wire, they are embossed foil. See the Ginbari Foil Embossing project on page 68.

Grisaille: French for "greyness." A form of "Painting" with enamel in a monochrome, using a black background with a buildup of white overlays. See the Grisaille project on page 74.

Guilloche: French for "engine turning". Englne turning is the mechanical cutting of lines on metal to create a design. Because the pattern is engraved, the reflection of light through the overcoating of transparent enamel is enhanced, and its brilliance can be seen as the piece is moved from side to side. The best known, but not the first, artist using this technique was Fabergé, in Russia, who, when showing pieces in Paris in 1900, brought a new interest to this technique. Guilloche was a dying art until Pledge & Aldworth Engine Turners, an English firm, revived it in the 1970s.

Impasto: a technique in which acid resistant painting enamel is applied to a bare metal surface, then fired. Multiple layers can be worked to build up a relief design, which can be sculptural in effect. Finally, the piece is covered with a transparent color. Other colors then can be added in thin layers only.

Limoges: a technique of "Painting" with enamel in which different enamel colors are put next to each other without the separation of wire or surface metal.

Plique a jour: French for "membrane through which passes the light of day." A technique that resembles miniature stained glass and is reminiscent of its Art Nouveau and old world influences. There are two basic methods of plique a jour: surface tension enameled and etched enameled.

The surface tension enameled method has two different styles of metal construction: the first is pierced.

The etched enameled method is called Shotai jippo, and sometimes "crystallized cloisonné" in Japan. It is done somewhat like cloisonné with a copper backing and silver wires, but after the piece has been finished, the copper backing is etched off. Plique a jour pieces, because of the open back, are more fragile than other types of enamels.

Raku: a technique in which hot enamel that includes oxides is put through a reduction firing, resulting in iridescent colors. The technique can be used with or without silver nitrate crystals.

Sgraffito: a technique in which lines are drawn through a layer of unfired enamel, exposing the fused enamel (or bare metal) underneath.

Silkscreen: a technique in which designs on material mesh, such as silk, polyester, or nylon, are transferred onto an enameled base; this is similar to silkscreening on cloth.

Stenciling: a technique in which a design is cut into a material, such as paper or Mylar, through which the enamel is applied to, or removed from, the metal. Thus, the "holes" that are cut can be either the positive or the negative space of the design. That is, one can sift enamel onto the metal, lay down the stencil, then use a brush to remove the enamel in the cut out area (negative).

Torch fired: a method of enameling in which a torch is used for the heat source, instead of a kiln.:

China Paints: low fire compatible ceramic materials that can be used on the top surface of enamels.

Overglazes and Underglazes: finely ground pigments used either over or under the regular enameling layers. Underglazes are particularly effective, in a basse taille design.

Copper Screen or Pot scrubber Mesh: elements for use on top or under transparent enamels, giving a wonderful texture to a piece. The screen can be used to give an interesting grid effect. If used slightly under the enamel surface, when the surface is ground down, screening can give the effect of woven fabric as the stoning picks up the high parts where the warp wire crosses over the weft wire, leaving copper glints that give a textured pattern on the surface.

Decals: designs or pictures printed on specially prepared paper for transferring an image to enamel, glass, wood, etc.

Foil and Leaf: come in both fine silver and gold. In addition, leaf, which is much thinner, also comes in palladium. These elements can be placed under the enamel or on a top layer.

Gemstones: can be added in an enameled area, using a metal bezel, which adds relief to a flat piece. See the Stone Setting Within an Enamel project on page 130. a Granules: small grains of fine silver or 22k or 24k gold that can be used for top layer embellishment of an enameled piece. See the cloisonné Brooch project on page 52. Note that these small balls can be "granulated" (fused) to a thin back plate and then enameled around.

Glass Beads and Balls: can be purchased without holes and fused to the top of enameled pieces. See the Liquid Enamel and Glass Ball Additives project on page 88.

Lumps and Threads:"lumps" are odd formed chunks of colored glass and "threads" are filaments (short or long, thin or thick) of colored glass. Each can be fused into an enameled piece. See Torch fired Beads project on page 142.

Lusters: metal colors thinly applied on the top layer of an enameled piece. These sometimes fire with a crackle maze effect, allowing the enamel underneath to show through. Some fire iridescent and some opalescent.

Metal: small pieces of shaped metal can be added on the top layer of an enameled piece. They are embedded in a similar way to granules.

Millefiori: cross sections of glass canes that include intricate patterns. Millefiori is best known in Venetian glass objects such as vases, paperweights, and lamps. There are some methods of enameling that do not fit into either a technique or a decorative additive, but are a combination of the two. These include:

Firescale Enameling: the use of the oxide buildup on a metal. Some pieces are completely done through firescale manipulation (by painting with a holding agent, sifting transparent enamels, and building up the resulting firescale lines), and some pieces are enhanced by the additive use of firescale (could be from a flaked off piece that is reattached).

Separation Enameling: a special type of enamel that when applied over regular enamel, indents the enamel and changes its color. See the Separation Enameling project on page 114. In reality, any of these techniques, decorative additives, and methods can be combined to make a piece that is truly unique. Simply let the imagination soar.


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