Enameling has fired imagination

By Joseph J. Devanney • For Cotton & Quail Antique Gazette

Almost everyone has heard of “enamels” or “enameling” in connection with antique items, but many people do not know the meaning of the terms. Enamel simply refers to colored glass that is fused by heating to create a designed or decorated appearance on the surface of an object.

Enameling, in its diverse forms, has been an art technique for centuries, known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Chinese. Almost always throughout its history, it has been associated with the nobility of various countries.

The single great advantage of enamel is that it can be made in a multitude of colors, both opaque and translucent. Many great artists and designers, including Faberge, have used enameling methods, despite the fact that enameling requires strong control by the artist at all stages of its making. With jewelry especially, enamel can have a wonderful visual effect and sometimes can even replace gemstones.

One of the most common types of enameling is cloisonne. The word “cloisons” is French for “wires.” This technique, which is especially popular in the Far East and very prominent in 19th- and 20th-century Japan, requires the soldering of thin metal strips unto the surface of another metal object. The glass paste is then set between the compartments and the entire piece is then fired. The firing allows the enamel to be fused to the metal. As an enameling technique, cloisonne is believed to date to 1400 BC.

A variation of cloisonne is filigree enamel. This is done by placing the enamel between twisted wires. It was especially popular in Russia in the 19th century.

“Champleve” is another enameling technique. This involves the cutting out of depressions on the surface of the object and then pouring the glass paste into the depressions. The piece is then fired and the glass fuses with the object. Many religious works, especially from medieval times, were created via this method and some artists believe that champleve enameling, when done properly, is superior to other styles. The name “champleve” derives from the French word for hollowed cavities.

“Low relief” enameling (also called basse-taille) is technique where a design is etched into the metal and the enamel is then placed over that section. This is the method used by Faberge in his creations.

Another important enameling technique is “plique a jour.” In this style, the metal backing is eventually removed from the work, allowing the enamel to become a transparent plaque. Plique a jour was often chosen for late 19th century European jewelry. Lalique jewelry is particularly noted for its use of plique a jour. Plique a jour was also utilized in much Art Nouveau jewelry. Overall, however, plique a jour enameling is considered to result in less practical and more fragile items than other enameling methods.

Still another enameling method is “grisaille.” This refers to enameling that is done in only black and white colors.

Although plique a jour, champleve and other enameling techniques were all used in European art and jewelry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was painted enamel that was used more than anything else. Enamel painting dates from at least the 15th century and most likely originated in France. By the late 1600s, examples were also being made in England.

English painted enamels from the 18th century were very diverse. Some were miniature portraits of people, typically rich merchants and the nobility. Other small items, such as boxes, thimbles and card trays, were painted into the 1840s. Of course, not all painted enamels were miniatures. Large examples were also made, including such wares as knife boxes.

The abundance of painted enamels (most of which were done on a copper base) from England during these decades insures that many pieces are still readily available in the market. Some of these are relatively inexpensive, but others can command higher prices. An example of the latter is Battersea enamels, which are named for the Battersea area of London.

Battersea enamels were first created around 1750, and large amounts of them were produced. Battersea pieces include snuffboxes, frames, jewel cases, lamp bases and many other items. The enameled scenes are often of birds, flowers and pastoral views. Modern prices on Battersea enamels range from the low hundreds to several thousand dollars.

Until the 20th century, American enameling was a second cousin in quality to its European counterpart. In the 1930s, however, many American artists began to use enameling methods.

Enameling since the 1930s incorporates a variety of new styles. Silver is often used for jewelry pieces and steel bases can be found almost as frequently as copper bases.

With their beauty and variety, enamels, whether old or new, will continue to be appreciated and will undoubtedly be used in works of art for generations to come.