Metals may excite, bling may thrill, but enameling makes jewelry as aesthetically delicious as icing on a cake. To carry that metaphor further, collectors are currently eating up mid-century enamels by, for example, Kay Denning and Andrée Bazot, known for their trademark raised frit “cookies.”
Enamel is the rich, colorful result of fusing powdered glass to metal by firing. The glass powder melts, flows and hardens to a smooth, vitreous coating on metal, glass or ceramic.
Enameling is an old technology (cloisonné dates from the 13th century B.C., for example) used by ancient cultures on either pottery, stone or metal. They produced enamel powder by pulverizing colored glass (or mixing colorless glass with metallic oxide colorants). Enameling’s bright, jewel-like colors made the technique especially favored among Art Nouveau and mid-century copper jewelry designers.
Enamel work is tempting simply to appreciate rather than understand, because when words such as substrate, potash, flux and fondant come up, the mind starts glazing over and an urge arises for a piece of cake rather than science studies. But it’s as simple as knowing the ingredients of glass, and the name for the creamy paste preparation melted and fused onto the material below the surface. That was easy. Let’s fire up a kiln.
In jewelry, qualities exist such as luster, clarity, translucence, etc. Enamels have different degrees of diaphanousness, or diaphaneity. Enamels are transparent or opaque after firing, and opalescent enamels get their milky opacity from extended firing. Vitreous (glassy) enamel can be applied to most metals and has excellent decorative properties: smooth, hard, chemically resistant, durable, inflammable, with brilliant long-lasting colors. Less optimally, it may crack when the metal is stressed or bent. The technique of counter or contra enameling on reverse strengthens the substrate. The beautiful colors of enamel appear with the addition of minerals, metal oxides such as iron or cobalt. If you’ve always wondered how the fondant stays on sculptural, convex shapes during firing, powdered gums applied first hold it in place and then vanish during firing. The technique of “ronde bosse,” enameling a 3-D object, obviously requires great stick-to-it-iveness.
Artists initially used precious metals (gold and silver), but copper was far less expensive and became a reliable substitute beginning around the 12th century. Enamel’s popularity waxed and waned as most decorative styles do, fading in the 1700s and roaring back in the 1800s with Renaissance Revival styles and the Art Nouveau movement. Five of the most famous enamel artists in jewelry were Camille Fauré, known for vibrant geometrics and florals; cloisonné masters Falize (Alexis, pere, et Lucien, fils) and plique-à-jour geniuses André Thesmar and René Lalique. Easier to acquire, Andrée Bazot’s work is feminine, fresh and colorful, with a hand-crafted artistry exciting to collectors of postwar enamels.
Enameling techniques include:
Champlévé, French-word for “raised field,” the surface carved out to form pits in which enamel is fired, leaving original metal exposed. Celts already used it by the time it caught fire in Limoges, but Byzantine cloisonné is believed to be the inspiration for champlévé work.
Plique-à-jour, French for letting in daylight, plique-à-jour features enamel applied in cells, similar to champlevé and cloisonné, but with no backing, so light shines through transparent or translucent enamel. It has a stained-glass appearance. With the metal background removed and partitions filled with transparent or opalescent enamel, a sheet of mica or thin plate of metal (later to be etched away in acid) must hold the fondant during firing.
Taille d’épargne, closely related to champlevé, but in taille d’épargne method, metal makes up most of the surface.
Guilloché is a symmetrical pattern engraving technique produced by a mechanical engine-turning table.
Basse-taille, from French for “low-cut,” in which a metal’s surface is decorated with low-relief design that can be seen through translucent and transparent enamels.
Cloisonné, French for “celled,” thin wires are applied to form raised barriers containing different areas of enamel applied above the original metal form. Flattened wires are patterned on base metal sheets forming compartments. After the design is created, compartments are filled with fondants of different colors, firing alternating at different required temperatures. After cooling, metal wire rims are leveled using a carborundum file, then polished.
Painted enamel (peinture sur émail) is an enamel design painted onto a smooth surface. Grisaille and Limoges enamel are two categories of émail peinture. Grisaille, French for “graying”; had a dark (often blue or black) background applied, then Limoges or translucent opalescent enamels applied on top, building designs in monochrome gradients, paler as the thickness layers of light color increases. Limoges enameling (made in Limoges, France, European center of vitreous enamel production) is the technique of painting with a special enamel, blanc de limoges, over a dark enameled surface to form detailed pictures.
Stenciling, in which powdered enamel is sifted over it. The stencil is removed before firing; enamel remains in a slightly raised pattern.
Sgrafitto uses an unfired layer of enamel applied over previously fired layer in contrasting color, then is partially removed with tool to create design.
Counter enameling applies enamel to the back of a piece, sandwiching the metal to prevent tension and cracking. Kay Denning is noted for her white counter enameling; Andrée Bazot’s is a terracotta color.
Jewelry dealer-collectors Bonnie Shriver, Lisa Corcoran, and Veronica McCullough all have excellent pieces of enameled jewelry in their inventories and collections. We present their enamels here. The 1950s witnessed a revived interest in enameling, leading Bazot to take it up in Paris. Americans today are definitely digging Bazot’s language of layered translucent enamels on gold-edged or silver-foiled copper. Other French artists used the same color of counter-enameling, as in Limoges pieces by the renowned Camille Fauré. American artist Kay Denning, who made jewelry for Bovano in the 1960s and ’70s, is a particular favorite with aficionados of enamels in the 21st century. Both Bazot and Denning created dramatic colors on copper and are known for the raised frit “cookies” (those intentional globs) that give enamel work extra depth and flavor. These are hot names in an arena of copper long dominated by Renoir, Matisse (the jewelry firms, not the painters) and Rebajes. ?
Less reflective than silver or chrome-plated steel, aluminum was also more affordable than other metals in the Twenties – which made it popular with designers. One of the few metals that retains its full silver reflection factor even in powdered form, aluminum is a key ingredient in silver paints. By nature, it’s lightweight, soft and tensile, and varies from bright silver to dull gray (depending on surface hardness). A thin surface layer of aluminum oxide (formed when exposed to air) makes it highly resistant to oxidation and corrosion. It’s the most abundant of all metallic elements (and third of all elements, after oxygen and silicon). Jewelry manufacturers used it widely because of its durability and shine. Its modernism makes it a perfect foil for geometric designs, which may be found in pieces created from the 1920s to 2020, if we should last so long. Aluminum jewelry may be inlaid, embossed, engraved, enameled, etched or electroplated.
Sometimes the world seems made of resin, probably because resins are so versatile. They can be cast, molded, painted, made to look like most other media, ivory to jadeite. Lightweight and affordable, resins are an ideal material for jewelry. Laid up or cast as pourable liquids, resins, whether acrylic, polyester, urethane or epoxy, are flexible and can be laminated. Polyester is the most commonly used resin and is normally glass clear. It may be tinted in various transparent and opaque colors using special pigments. Polyester resin comes in both laminating and casting formulas.
Epoxies are stronger and more expensive than polyesters, with better temperature tolerance. Epoxy compound ingredients are mixed in different rations to create different formulations, and tinted or colored with pigments in opaque and almost transparent colors. Epoxy has replaced what most people think of as enamels in modern costume jewelry. The most popular uses for resins in jewelry are as bangles, brooches, bead necklaces and pendants.
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