Enamelists Make Plique-a-Jour Souvenirs
6 Minute Read
In the gay nineties, one hundred years ago and more now, the newly rich were off to see the world. On the Grand Tour, they promptly developed a fever for souvenirs to amaze their neighbors back home. In this milieu, collecting souvenir spoons quickly grew to become a world wide rage. By the mid-1890's, designs to tease every pocketbook appeared in shops of every town and hamlet the world over. Available spoons ranged from simple handcrafted silver to ones embellished by engraving or an enamel crest on the finial, to full enamel bowls with a picture of some local scene or personage. At the high end of the market were spoons enameled in plique-à-jour; transparent, beautiful, and often useless as spoons. Figure 1 illustrates typical demitasse sizes decorated with only plique finials. In the same shop display case, travelers would have found teaspoon sizes with plique bowls, and perhaps a plique finial too. To be sure no wallet escaped untempted, there were offered fragile confections with bowls over 2 inches across sporting elaborate stems and floral finials, all in wire and plique-à-jour enamel. Figure 2 illustrates 3 typical members of this class, which I think of as Mogul. Long before Harvard offered an MBA, these silversmiths and enamelists understood merchandising.
In 1890, there were four major European jewelers excelling in plique-à-jour enamel: three in Norway, and one in Austria. Together, based on my study, I estimate they supplied at least 75% of the market. They were: David Andersen and J. Tostrup in Kristiania (Oslo), both still in business today, and Marius Hammer working in Bergen. Georg Adam Scheid was working in Vienna. All four exported their work widely, in which case it was often unmarked or only marked "925" or Sterling.
Norwegian plique-à-jour enamel was not made by the classical method involving a temporary backing. Rather, forming the web of cells from flat wire, they depended on surface tension alone to hold the fusing glass in place. Gustave Gaudernack for David Andersen, and Thorolf Pritz for J. Tostrup mastered the ability to create large elaborate objects, standing dishes, vases, bowls, even lampshades entirely of vindusemalje, window enamel. Their work repeatedly took top prizes at international expositions, beginning with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and followed by a triumph at the Paris Exhibition in 19003. In Vienna, Scheid also did wire work plique, though he tended to use heavier wire and chose saturated, primary colors in contrast to the delicate work and pastel shades preferred in Norway. Scheid excelled also in forming his spoons by lost wax casting, often with elaborate piercing. His designs were distinctively original. My souvenir spoon collection goes back over 30 years, and in the last decade has concentrated largely on spoons and other objects decorated with or formed entirely of plique-à-jour enamel. One of the bonuses of a mature collection is the occasional opportunity to compare a new acquisition with another piece, and to find an unexpected relationship, even a hint of story hiding in the shadows cast by a century of time past. As an example, consider the pair of spoons in Figure 3.
The spoon on the right represents David Andersen's very finest design and technical enamel work. It features many cells having multiple colors blended, culminating with the opposed fans precisely formed with 5-color single cells, a tour de force. The wire work of this spoon is much heavier than standard, and the harmony of its design and the perfection of its challenging enamel leads me to suspect that it might have been made for exhibition. It seems too great an investment in primary talent for commercial inventory.
The object on the left recently came to hand. My immediate observation was its unabashed derivative design. Its maker clearly had the David Andersen spoon before him, or its drawing. Each structural element of the original, finial, stem, and bowl, is not only copied but embellished, enlarged, even distorted to the point of caricature. The bowl is perfectly flat, laid in-plane with the handle and thus it seems to void the 'spoon-ness' of the piece. It is framed with exceptionally light wire, much thinner than the stem and finial, and consequently more fragile than a typical souvenir item. It's construction is carried out very well; the wire work is excellent, the symmetry is near perfect. The enamel is likewise well done. There are no submerged wires, the enamel is bubble free and uniform in thickness.
Comparison of the color palettes of the two pieces is also instructive. To my eye, the David Andersen work is very sophisticated, a harmonious blend of pastels and primaries displayed in many multicolor cells setting off the central 5-color fans. In the other piece we find mostly primary colors in single cells, red, green, and blue, plus a few gold/yellows. The background is uncolored clear. Only the fan cells are 2-color, red/green, but the precision of these color boundaries is irregular, and far from perfect. For me, the overall effect of the piece is gaudy, even primitive. Of course, I judge it with the David Andersen piece along side.
So, what is it? Why was it made? What purpose did it serve? This is my guess:
I believe we have here a one of a kind, the work of a maturing apprentice silversmith working about 1900. His project suggests that he was well along toward mastering his craft. This might have been a milestone work. It seems to me that he was demonstrating his command of the wirework idiom and construction techniques, together with his ability to do fine plique-à-jour enamel. In both he was completely successful, and I grade him 'A'. This worker also set out to improve on the design of a true masterwork. In this effort, I can only give him a 'C-'. I do not think he was destined for the shop's design team, however, I believe he became a solid journeyman. He may have had a decade or more to hone his skill because times and tastes were soon to change.
As the 20th century dawned, Art Nouveau styles which gave rise to these exotic souvenir spoons faded. Art Deco came alive. Plique-à-jour work, at least in the form of souvenirs, disappeared by the decade before World War I, never to return except as incidental to major art work, and of course, jewelry. Today, these small treasures of twisted wire and a little bit of glass stand guard over the mute memories of the forgotten strangers who first chose them. Twice loved, they now speak to me, not only of exquisite craft still to be found today, but also of the bygone economy which made them possible. We will never see the like again.
Bob Corson, "Plique-21-Jour Enamel Souvenir Spoons, Part 1, Maker's Marks", Silver Magazine, May/June 1998, pp 32 - 38.
Bob Corson, "Plique-à-Jour Enamel Souvenir Spoons, Part 2, How They Came To Be", Silver Magazine, July/August 1998, pp 20 - 23.
W. Lightbrown, Catalouge of Scandanavian and Baltic Silver, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1975, pp 145 - 146.
Bob Corson and Will Chandler, "The Ottoman Turkish Spoons of Georg Adam Scheid", Silver Magazine, May/June 2000, pp 76 - 22.
About the Author
Bob Corson is a retired aerospace engineer, and a collector of plique-à-jour enameled objects dating mostly between 1890 and 1910. His collection began with souvenir spoons of the era and has grown to include more elaborate plique objects. His study of enameling arts has led to identifying obscure makers' marks and continuing wonder at fine art invested in souvenirs. He is not an enamelist. He lives on Camano Island, Washington, and is an avid practitioner of show and tell.
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