The history of Japanese cloisonné

Melody Amsel-Arieli

The Chinese introduced cloisonné, an ancient art of decorating metal vessels, to Japan in the 1830s. Through this technique, artists create intricately compartmentalized designs with soldered metal wires, fill them with colored enamel, then fire, grind and polish them. Objects that are embellished with cloisonné designs, like the technique itself, are often also called cloisonné.


Vase with Panels of Florals and Butterflies, 6 1/4 inches tall, circa 1890–95, featuring superb silver wirework, and pure, multi-colored, uniform, unpitted, immaculately-placed enamels. Namikawa Yasuyuki (1845–1927), winner of international exposition awards and Imperial Artist.
Courtesy Fredric T. Schneider, photo copyright and collection identification

In Japan, cloisonné adorned small items like jewelry, architectural elements, samurai sword fittings, portions of writing sets and water-droppers. Few of these early examples have survived, however.

This highly intricate craft gained popularity in the 1850s when, after more than 200 years of isolationism, Japan initiated contact with the West. Much of the finest cloisonné was produced during the Meiji “Golden Age” (1868-1912) and into the early Taisho Period, with Japanese participation in international expositions and world’s fairs. Cloisonné production soared as demand for exotic Japanese art swept through Europe and America.

By the late 1870s, cloisonné artists, influenced by exposure to Western art, were inventing new techniques. Namikawa Yasuyuki, known for his intricate wirework and superb attention to detail, created innovative semi-transparent mirror-black enamel. Nagoya artist Namikawa Sōsuke created intensely hued, luminous, mirror-finish enamels.

Hattori Tadesaburo added three-dimensional realism to his hallmark natural motifs through moriage, the technique of firing successive, raised layers of enamel against smooth grounds. Masters Kawade Shibataro, Hayakawa Komejiro, Hayashi Tanigoro, and Hayashoi Kodenji, among others, also created pieces that combine extraordinary technique with traditional Japanese character.

Although certain artists often exhibit characteristic techniques and motifs, no two pieces of Japanese cloisonné are exactly alike. Although trays, incense boxes, tea pots, jars and brush holders, for example, feature exquisitely-colored traditional images like dragons, cranes, koi, butterflies, wisteria or chrysanthemums, each piece is realized in a choice of transparent, translucent, speckled or matte enamels against a choice of multi-colored opaque, graduated or embossed-foil glossy grounds.

Cloisonné wirework varies as well. Some pieces feature particularly fine or sculpted gold or silver wires (or a combination of both) that, resembling decorative brushstrokes, complement their themes. Others feature opened-ended, twisted, variable-width or hidden wirework. Some cloisonné omit supportive wire altogether.

Japanese cloisonné vases

These two pairs of cloisonné vases date to 1940 and could have been designed in Japan and produced in China. The first pair consists of intricately designed brass substrate with a white ground and intricate multicolored floral design, and is unsigned. The second pair consists of a red fish scale background overdecorated with multicolored rose design, metal rim at top and bottom, signed Sato. They sold as a lot for $131 in March 2005.

Namikawa Yasuyuki vase

This vase is considered an outstanding Meiji period example from the golden period of cloisonné 1890-1910. The enamel cloisonné covered jar is signed by master Japanese artist Namikawa Yasuyuki (1845-1927). The cover has an exquisite chrysanthemum gilt finial kiku knop, the chrysanthemum being emblematic of the imperial family. The elegant ovoid form jar is worked in fine gold and silver wire and decorated with eight different intricate butterflies in polychrome on a black ground. Exquisite finely decorated borders of iris and wisteria embellish the top and bottom with conforming elaborate floral designs on the cover. It measures 5 7/8 inches high and 3 5/8 inches in diameter. It brought $57,500 at a January 2005 sale held by Myers Fine Art of St. Petersburg, Fla.

According to cloisonné dealer Matthew Baer, owner of Ivory Tower Antiques in Ridgewood, N.J., “Prices range across the board from less than $200 for more commercial pieces up to the six-figure range for the most exceptional examples.” While these higher sums may seem excessive, collectors should keep in mind that beautiful, rare Japanese cloisonné remain underpriced in relation to the talent, training, effort and time – often many months – required for their creation.

“Although experienced collectors and dealers can often attribute certain unsigned pieces, of which there are many, to certain artists and workshops,” adds Baer, “there is obviously a preference for signed pieces. Acquiring accompanying Japanese-English descriptive catalogs or their original wooden boxes, tomobakos, also considerably raises a cloisonné’s value. Collectors also tend to look for very fine enameling and tight wire work. Since characteristic Japanese subtlety and restraint can be very persuasive, overly busy pieces sometimes get passed by.”

Fredric T. Schneider, scholar, collector and international lecturer on Japanese cloisonné enamels and related subjects, credits great cloisonné  pieces with “beauty of form and image combined with superb technique – precise, thin, precious-metal wirework; superb colors carefully placed within each separate cell and unpitted; perfect mirror finish; and excellent metalwork for the rims and underlying body.”

Yet, he allows, “While it is highly desirable that a great piece be in perfect condition, and the price will be diminished by imperfections, many great pieces have been damaged and yet maintain their greatness as well as much of their value, as is true of any great art. Indeed, much or more can be learned from a damaged cloisonné than from a perfect piece. One can often obtain 90 percent or more of the aesthetic value and pleasure for only 10 or 20 percent of a perfect piece’s price.

“Developing an ability to differentiate great pieces from good,” he cautions, “usually requires careful, close visual and tactile attention to each object; experience gained from observing many pieces, including those of the highest quality; familiarity with their various types and quality levels; and study of the few catalogues and books specifically devoted to this subject.”

Among these sources is Schneider’s recently published definitive volume, “The Art of Japanese Cloisonné Enamel: History, Techniques and Artists, 1600 to the Present,” which is available through many venues.

Collectors will also find examples of great cloisonné in some the world’s great museums. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, maintains a permanent collection of Japanese cloisonné, one seeded by pieces acquired at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is located in New York City, is currently featuring the exhibition, “Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art,” through Jan. 13, 2013. (Rinpa is the modern description of a distinctive Japanese pictorial and applied arts style that arose in the early 1600s.) In addition to some 100 brilliantly executed works of art, the exhibition features three cloisonné pieces on loan from Schneider’s private collection, Brush Holder with Spiderwort Flowers, Vase with Poppies and Imperial Presentation Vase with Lilies and Imperial Crest.

These treasures can also be viewed online at MetMuseum.

Melody Amsel-Arieli is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Antique Trader. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov” and “Jewish Lives: Britain 1750-1950.” She lives in Israel.

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