Cloisonné Beads of Fine Silver

I have been making my cloisonné beads since 1996 in a variety of methods with fine silver and wires of fine silver or 24K gold for the designs. My method of fusing two domed halves of fine silver requires fewer metalsmithing skills than the other methods I use, which is why I have chosen to explain this one. Although I currently create my beads the way I describe here, the door is always open for experimentation.

I make 1/2″, 3/4″ and 1″ beads. The beads usually have a cloisonné design on them and require anywhere from six to 20 firings. A rule of thumb is the smaller the piece, the thinner the gauge of metal. For a one-inch bead I use 20 ga fine silver. For the cloisonné wires, I purchase 20 ga fine silver, round wire and 20 ga to 26 ga in fine gold. The wire is rolled to the size I want to use. I start by drawing the design for the cloisonné wires but I do not cut and form them until I have made the bead. I finish the bead by inserting a short piece of sterling tubing into the hole I have drilled and flanging the ends of the tubing. This protects the edges of the enamel. If I use gold cloisonné wires, then I make gold tubing. I mostly use my 9″w x 9″h x 12″d electric kiln with a pyrometer.

Center bead, 3/4″ dia, enamel, cloisonné on fine silver.
Chain is hand woven fine silver. All metal hand fabricated.
Hap Sakwa Photography

To support the bead or beads while applying the cloisonné wires and for the firing, I make a bead jig using an 8″ square of stainless mesh. Two opposite sides are bent up 2″ high, which leaves a 4″ x 8″ bottom. I use a wire cutter to remove every other wire from the top edge of the two bent up sides, which gives slots that will support a wire that goes through the bead. I can fire three beads at one time with this jig. For the wire going through the hole of the bead, I use a 41/2″ length of clothes hanger wire which I have coated with Amacote, a firescale inhibitor. My firing setup is a 6″ stainless mesh (the corners have been bent down 1″) with a square piece of mica on top of it to catch any dripping. The 4″ x 8″ support that holds the beads on the dry coated wire is placed on top of the mica.

To make the bead, I cut out two circles, drawn with a circle template, with a jeweler’s saw. Alternatively, a disk cutter can be used or the circles can be ordered precut. The silver disks are annealed on a charcoal block with a propane/oxygen torch, quenched in water, dried and then domed in a dapping block with punches to begin forming the bead. I gradually move deeper in the dapping block and anneal between each depression. This process continues until I have two halves that make a sphere. On the underside of each dome, I center punch and drill a hole that will just accept the clothes hanger wire and the tubing that will line the hole. I clean up the burrs in the drilled holes with a round needle file. I make a small handle with masking tape at the top of each piece to make it easier to hold the pieces for sanding. The edges of the two halves are sanded on a steel plate with 280 grit sandpaper followed by a 400 grit sanding stick. The goal is a perfect fit. The pieces are cleaned with a water/ammonia mixture using a soft toothbrush, rinsed well and dried before fusing them together with the torch.

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First I use a round burr to make a small divot in the charcoal block. The divot will support the bead. I place the bead pieces on the charcoal block and spray them with Cupronal flux which is specifically for silver. Using a soft flame, the flux on each piece is dried to a white powder with a soft flame on my Meco Midget torch with a #3 tip. Then the two pieces are placed one on top of the other to form the bead. You must be careful not to melt the bead. Heat the bead evenly, both the top and bottom. The silver will start to glow red. As the bead becomes almost shiny, concentrate the heat on the joint between the pieces. You will see the silver flow into the joint. Rotate the block so that you can fuse (flow the metal) all the way around. When the fused bead is cool, I usually texture it with a bud burr or diamond impregnated bits. Check again that the seam is completely fused. If all is good, the bead is pickled in Sparex 2 solution just long enough to clean off the soldering flux.

Next, rinse the bead and put it in a light solution of ammonia and water so that the solution goes inside the bead. Rinse the bead thoroughly under running water; making sure the inside of the bead is clean. Then burnish the bead with a glass brush to bring up the shine. While the bead is drying, cut a 4 1/2″ piece of straight coat-hanger wire and dip the wire in Amacote or another firescale inhibitor. When both are dry, slide the bead onto the Amacote coated wire.

The adhesive I use is CMC (sodium carboxymethylcellulose), a cellulose gum that completely burns off during the firing. CMC comes in dry form, which allows me to adjust the viscosity. You can experiment to find your favorite mixture. CMC has a limited shelf life after it is mixed with water so I only mix the amount I need for the next few weeks. I mix it by stirring the water while sprinkling in the CMC. A small enamel sifter works well for sifting the CMC into the water. CMC comes with directions, but I eyeball it for the solution.

The enamels are washed with tap water and given a final rinse with distilled water. I let the flux dry so that I can sift it on the gummed bead as a base coat. The gum is a thin coat of diluted CMC that is sprayed on. I previously used Schauer’s #2A flux but since that is no longer available I use the Japanese, leaded Ninomiya N1 flux for the base coat. I apply wet enamel inside the larger beads with either a 2/0 or 4/0 rounded tip, fine sable brush, whichever size fits in the hole of the bead. This base coat is fired at 1475°F for 11/2 minutes. After the piece is cool, I apply another thin coat of flux, firing for two to three minutes to maturity.

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The bead now receives the cloisonné wire. I purchase dead soft, 20 ga 24K round wire and fine silver round wire that I draw down and roll to the rectangular size I want. One of the sizes I use is 29-30 ga x 17-18 ga rectangular wire made with the rolling mill set at .006. The wire is annealed during and after the drawing and rolling. The annealing can be done by placing a carefully coiled roll in the kiln.

The wires are bent to the design. Each wire also must be fitted to the curve of the bead; it is held in place with a thick CMC mixture. I use tweezers and my fingers to shape each piece. The cut and shaped piece of cloisonné wire is dipped in the CMC and placed on the bead that is on the coated wire. Only the bottoms of the cloisonné wires that touch the bead need the CMC: do not flood the piece.

There are two ways to put the wires on the bead. One way is to cover the whole bead with wire, dry it, and then fire, or put the wire on in sections. I start placing the wires at the top section of the bead. If one of the wires needs to be repositioned before it is fired, I dip the tip of my brush in distilled water and use it to move the wire. Each wire should be standing straight up on its thin edge. Let dry. Fire the bead for two to three minutes at 1475°F. An indication that the wires are adhered to the bead properly is when a thin glossy line appears at the base of each wire. Let the bead cool and adjust any wires that have not adhered properly. Be careful not to press the wires too hard because they could collapse.

The selected enamel colors are washed with distilled water and kept wet in small covered plastic or glass jars. Wet packing with just the tip of a fine, sable brush, I pick up and place the enamel in the cloisons. After one side of the bead is completed with the enamel packed to the top of the wires, the excess water is drawn off with the edge of a tissue. A tiny drop of watery CMC is applied to the damp enamel. Continue packing the enamels until the entire bead is covered with one layer of enamel. The bead is let dry and then fired for 11/2 minutes at 1475°F. I underfire the first layer.

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You will have to experiment with your kiln for temperature and firing time. The second firing will be for two minutes and subsequent ones built up to three minutes, which helps to ensure that the molten glass will not pool on the bead and cause an uneven surface. The layering and firing continues until the cells are filled to the top of the wires.

The enameling finished, the bead is stoned under running water. I first grind the entire surface with a 120 Alundum stone until all the wires show and the surface starts to be smooth. Then I rinse and clean the bead with a glass brush until all the small dust particles are gone. If there are any glossy depressions, those areas are re-enameled and fired for about three minutes at 1475°F. This time I stone with a 200 Alumdum stone. If there are still glossy depressions, then the filling and firing and stoning continues until they all disappear. The piece is finished by polishing it.

The bead is placed on a dop stick with wax to hold the bead easily for polishing. An enamel is always stoned or polished under or with water. I start with a 400-diamond lap wheel with a water attachment. After polishing the exposed section of the bead, I put it in the freezer for five minutes in order to remove the dop wax. The wax should just pop off the bead when you take it out of the freezer. Let the bead warm a little in your hand before placing it under running water. If there is a piece of wax that is stubborn, put the bead in the freezer again for a few minutes. When all the wax has been removed, dry the bead with a soft cloth and repeat the polishing until you have done the entire surface.

If I want to hand finish the bead, I start with 325 wet/dry sandpaper, then go to 600 and finally to 1200 grit. The bead is cleaned, under water, with a glass brush and dried before I flash fire at 1500°F for one to two minutes. The firing time depends on the size of the bead. This final firing will put a high gloss finish on the bead and will seal off any “pores” that are on the surface of the enamel. I use this finish specifically for jewelry that will be worn because I feel it protects the enamel from dirt and other contaminants.

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The last step is the insertion of a piece of sterling silver tubing. I usually make my own tubing, but you can purchase tubing. Specify that it be the size you want and thin walled. The hole in the bead is made slightly larger than the tubing for the tubing to slide easily in and out of the bead. Make certain that the bead is centered on the piece of tubing. Put a scribe into an end of the tube and swing it around to flare out the end of the tube. Do the same to the other end of the tube. To complete the rivet, I use the rounded end of a small ball peen hammer. Place a tubing end on a metal plate and gently tap first in the center of the tubing and then around until the edge of the tube is curled over the bead. Complete the rivet by doing the other end of the tube.

The tube may be burnished with a burnishing tool to bring out a shine. I use a red rouge impregnated buff on the wheel to put a shine on the wires and the tube ends. After buffing with the red rouge, I soak the bead in warm water with a small amount of ammonia and dishwashing liquid and then clean it with a soft toothbrush. I draw a cotton string or a pipe cleaner soaked in the cleaning liquid through the center of the tube. When all traces of rouge are gone, I soak the bead in warm, clear water, shake off the water and let the bead dry.

The word bead comes from the Anglo-Saxon root word “bebe” that means “prayer.” “Bidden” means “to pray.” My fondness for beads began with the rosary prayer beads when I was a young child. My beads are not always meant to be worn, but to be used for meditation and a tool in prayer.

Linda Crawford was born in Corona, CA. She has studied oil painting, drawing, jewelry fabrication, ceramics, weaving, art history and cloisonné enameling. In 1995, she turned to cloisonné enameling full time. She teaches workshops on cloisonné enameling at the California Institute of Jewelry Training in Sacramento. Her cloisonné jewelry is shown and sold throughout the United States. With two other jewelers she maintains a working studio gallery, Mendocino Jewelry Gallery, Mendocino, CA. Her themes blend the energies of spirit and nature.

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Excerpts from the book: Enameling with Professionals
A unique book for everyone interested in the art and techniques of enameling
ISBN 0 9719252 0 8
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