THE ART OF ENAMELING: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENAMELS (Printer-friendly version)This craft of enameling is an ancient one. Evidence of it surfaces throughout Europe and throughout history. The oldest extant true enamels with which I am familiar come from Cyprus and consist of some 13th century B.C. rings and a scepter from the 11th century B.C., done in the cloisonné technique. It is amazing that these early enamels are cloisonné, a technique that doesn’t become commonplace until the time of the Byzantine Empire. Where was it practiced during those intervening eons??
The Celts, though producing enamels from early on in their history on the European continent, especially developed the art in Iron Age, Roman, and sub-Roman Britain. Firing colorful enamels onto bronze, they decorated horse trappings, swords, shields, bowls, and magnificent pennanular and fibular brooches. These enamels were done in the champlevé technique, with depressions first engraved in the metal and the enamel then placed inside, leaving the colors surrounded by a raised field of the base metal. The design of these works is characteristically Celtic, with the flowing, swirling lines. It is easy to see the continuity of design from this ancient metal work and enameling, moving into the magnificent Insular manuscripts, and on to later metal work and the high stone crosses of the British Isles
Byzantium produced enamels (9th to 11th centuries A.D.), working principally in cloisonné, in which areas between wires were filled with different colored ground glass and then fired. Two works stand out among these: the Pala d’Oro in the basilica of San Marco in Venice, and the Hungarian Crown, in the Hungarian National Museum. There are also many small cloisonné disks extant, often with the images of saints, which were part of ornate Gospel covers. Many of these early Byzantine enamels were produced in Georgia and Ukraine.
During the Middle Ages France and Germany produced much work, with some of the early work produced in the Meuse Valley. These craftsmen, again, were working in the champlevé technique, and producing brooches, reliquaries, and crucifixes.
Limoges, France, is one of the most famous enameling areas in Europe and is certainly famous in the history of enameling. Beginning in the early medieval era, Limoges produced masses of objects used in the Christian churches. It had the advantage of lying along the great pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela, which served the Limousin ateliers well for distribution purposes. Later, as the Renaissance flowered, there was a second burgeoning of the craft. However, there was a drastic change in technique, with the Limousin artists developing the process of painted enamels. The images of these early Renaissance works were often Biblical in nature, with the introduction of more and more classical themes as the era progressed.
Plique-à-jour, a technique in which the work has no base plate of metal, evolved in Europe in the 1400s. With transparent enamel suspended either in little windows cut out of the metal plate or in a framework of fine metal wires, these works give the effect of minute stained glass windows. This technique was taken to great heights by the 19th century Russians. The Russians, of course, were later known for the beautiful work emanating from the Fabergé studios in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But we have jumped ahead of our chronology.
Notice must be taken of the work of the 17th and 18th century enamellists in Britain. Painted enamels and then transfer printed enamels were used on numerous drawing-room objects such as snuff-boxes, etuis, and patch boxes. France and Switzerland also produced many of these objects, with enameled watches becoming prized possessions.
The Chinese, although commonly associated with cloisonné, apparently did not begin the craft until the 13th century, with the Japanese development coming even later.
In America the art has been practiced since the mid-19th century, with the Art Nouveau era seeing many enameled objects produced from workshops such as Tiffany. Since a renascence in mid 20th century, stimulated by such artists as Kenneth Bates, Edward Winter, Jean and Artthur Ames, and Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley, enameling has been established as a present and active art form in this country. It has strengthened greatly in recent years with the establishment of The Enamelist Society and the publishing of Glass on Metal magazine and with the conferences provided by the Society and now by the W.W. Carpenter Enamel Foundation.
There is a growing number of enamelists throughout the world, with strong developments in Europe, Australia, Japan, Chile, Venezuela, Korea, Mexico, Canada—should I say wherever a kiln may be plugged into a heat source? We are there.
A note about materials and process:
Enamel is colored glass or silica which with the addition of other substances (potash, borax, soda) takes on various charateristics (softness or hardness, greater or lesser sparkle, elasticity). Enamels are opaque, transparent, or opalescent. This material is what provides the main appeal of enameled objects: their brilliant jewel-like colors.
The enamel is applied on metal, usually copper, gold, silver, or pre-coated iron or steel, and then fired in a furnace at temperatures ranging from 1200 to 1700 degrees. In working with the enamels various techniques can be used. Enamels may be sifted, painted, stencilled, sponged, dropped, or inlaid wet or dry on the metal. Further effects can be obtained by use of sgraffito, etching the metal, inlaying metal paillons, and/or high-firing. Experimental techniques such as raku-firing are also used. By knowledgable manipulation of all elements--material, design, techniques--a limitless field is opened to the artist.
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