Enamelling is a decorative technique that has been around for centuries. Put simply, enamelling is when powdered coloured glass is fused onto a surface, normally metal. A furnace is used to melt the powder so the metal surface must be able to withstand high temperatures. The common methods of enamelling are cloisonné, plique-à-jour, champlevé, basse-taille and painted enamel (or Limoges enamel) (Mason & Packer, pp134-138). Generally, these are methods to hold the glass powder in place through the creation of channels, recesses and cells.
It appears that the earliest enameling found was a simplified version of champlevé used by the Mycenaean civilization in the 15th and 14th centuries BC. This method places the powder in recesses cut out of the metal being used. Some early attempts of cloisonné work (where cells are created by wires being soldered to the base metal) were located in the 12th and 10th centuries BC. Some enamelling was found dating from the Roman period, particularly in the Celtic provinces, but it was not until the Byzantium period, from the 6th to 10th centuries AD, that widespread, high quality enameling appeared, usually involving cloisonné work.
Enamelling spread to France, Germany and Italy over the next few centuries and was mainly used for ecclesiastical pieces. Limoges in France became a centre for enamelling and in the 15th century, developed a new method of enamelling called painted enamel. This involved a metal plate, usually brass, which has been coated with white enamel and fired. Then a design is drawn on the white surface and the enamel is hand painted on before being fired again. As well, encrusted enamelling or ‘email en ronde bosse’ meaning in the round, which involved applying enamel to figures and models in high relief, was developed by the end of the century. This technique was used in much Renaissance jewellery and was revived by Carlo Giuliano in the second half of the 19th century.
Enamelling on jewellery became less important during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first half of the 19th century but the second half of the 19th century saw a resurgence. I will talk about some of the important enamelling centres that emerged in my next post.
A Mason & D Packer, ‘An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewellery’, 1973, Osprey Publishing Ltd