Enameling is an incredible art form. It uses the heating and cooling of silica (particulate glass) to treat the surfaces of metals, creating a thin layer of color and shine by mixing materials and elements which effect the glass glaze. Enameled glass has been used in place of rare gemstones to add color for thousands of years, so it is no wonder that it is thought to have first been discovered in the birthplace of the Bronze Age, the Eastern Mediterranean islands of Crete and Cyprus.
Sometime around 3200 BC, a young person, low on the “totem pole” presumably, discovered an unexpected yet sophisticated craft, alchemy. She would have either witnessed or been a part of a ritual one evening in the dark of night, when her group’s spiritual leader would have taken a piece of malachite and thrown it into the fire, turning the flames a bright green as the stone burned away, serving as a metaphor for some spiritual understanding. The next morning, this young alchemist would have been tasked with cleaning the cinders from the fire, only to find a melted and cooled puddle of solid copper, the residual remains of the malachite. This would have been the beginning of the alchemy that led mankind into the age of bronze, a process that we now refer to as smelting, later done in a more kiln-conducive stone basin.
These new materials and techniques were also applied to jewelry, and for the first time, in most cultures, jewelry became more than strung beads. Jewelry became a form of communication. It allowed people to understand who was important and why, without having to ask, and was used as a social device to keep the divide among the wealthy and the working classes, as well as for the garb of the religious and armor for warriors.
During this new age, the liberation of thought flourished and peoples across the globe became more aware of their fragility, community, mortality and therefore their belief systems which derived from their pursuit of an afterlife. This allowed for a convergence of cultures and god-figures to be tasked with specificity, which led to a blending of materials for ritual, like the amazing rhyton (or drinking vessel) pictured below, used in celebratory ritual by the Minoan people. The bull is a common antique imagery in almost all cultures, from Shiva in India, to this example from Crete, made of soapstone, with gilded wooden horns, a shell snout and glowing rock crystal eyes, representing a hurdle of power, triumph and sacrifice. In Knossos there are frescos depicting bulls being leaped over in what is thought to be a sport. Bull-leaping would have been a celebratory occasion, heavy with harvests, libations and ritual, much like bull racing is throughout the Mediterranean.
These rituals included sacrifice of both bull and sometimes man. In most of the Bronze Age cultures of the Mediterranean, cultural leaders and the shamans would have been held in high regard and might have even been one in the same. They would have worn the finest clothing depicting their importance, complete with jewelry made of the rarest materials; with stones brought from far away lands; golds mined from the earth; and craftsmanship of the finest artisans in all the lands and overseas. For this reason, the specific home of the first enamelists is unclear, except to say that they were the early Greek jewelers and craftsmen, with the earliest being entombed in the 1950’s (AD) as evidenced during an excavation on the island of Cyprus where 6 rings were found in the Mycenaean tomb of Koklia (Kouklia). These rings are the first examples employing the technique of vitreous enameling that archeologists and historians have found. They were done in a style of cloisonné as coins that sit atop beautiful cannetille ring designs, with granulated-lined bezels holding them in place, all in pure gold. The glass surface may have worn away, but the composition of such chemistry is still in place. These 6 rings are the earliest known form of enameling in the world and date to having been crafted over 4000 years ago.
Of course this blog post isn’t a story of ancient Greece, but rather a story about the art of enameling. There are several types of enameling processes that have been utilized in different cultures and styles of jewelry design. In our realm, we cover Georgian to Retro eras of jewelry, which ranges in years from the late 1700’s through the late 1960’s, with design influences dating back to the 15th century. With this in mind, I am going to go through those eras of design with examples of enameling techniques and styles that were popular at those times.
In the 15th-17th century, enameling was used to coat the surface of an entire wire to give it a thick, almost bone-shaped figure, as well as by pooling it with a brush between wires that are soldered onto a surface which is referred to as cloisonné, (from french meaning “partitioned.”) A few of my personal favorite pieces from this time period came from the Cheapside Hoard, a huge cache of jewelry found under the streets of London in 1912. Because of the burial of the chest that they were stored in, the enameling has been under climate control and is in exquisite condition - a real rarity to behold.
Grisaille (from french meaning grayness) is another method often referred to at that time, which is a style of Limoges (referring to painted imagery in vitreous enamel from the French town of Limoges where it was developed,) enameling that works only in shades of grays or tonal mixtures that give the appearance of blacks and whites. Grisaille was often used to depict scenes of Greco-Roman myth placing the characters in contemporary, recognizable locations or situations, but with classical characters, to comment on the times that told a narrative by delivering an image without any confusion of color or abstracting of the line. It was also used for portraiture and is a term that can also be used outside of vitreous enameling, such as with ceramics and watercolor painting.
18th century enameling really spearheaded and finessed the technique that we refer to as Basse Taille (from the French, meaning “low size.”) This technique refers to the engraving of a metal surface with a low relief, in most cases thick silver or gold plate, engraved with a pattern and then glazed with several layers of transparent, tinted enamels on top of the engraved surface to give the effect of depth. It was used in many Georgian era rings, lockets and backings of rose-cut diamonds. The use of cobalt was very popular as a color at this time, so most of those pieces are a deep, intense cobalt blue. With the revolutionary war, a dark side of design and jewelry imagery crept up with the lover’s eye, painted on porcelain, surrounded by frames of woven hair and enameled backings and stones set in a plethora of configurations.
The 19th century was an incredibly important time for jewelry, with the technology evolving to include details that were so specific to the wearer and the era of Victoria and the entire aesthetic, as well as the boom of a middle class and the fall of autocratic society around the globe. Sweet flowers, intended to mean one thing or another, were painted in a Limoges style, and set with pearls and diamonds, like the pansy pictured below. These were sweet gifts often given amongst lovers, friends and family alike, and enamelists all over Europe, England and the United states made a lot of jewelry.
These sweet images represented the optimism that Victoria lived for the first third of her reign, prior to the passing of Prince Albert. These depictions often referred to anima and flora, and since she was known as the Empress of India (which was a colony of the United Kingdom at the time,) the image of snakes also became very important as it represented the power of Shiva, who wore a cobra around his neck and limbs, and was therefore used in jewelry to support the Queen and her colonial kingdom, and great fodder for enamelists to work with!
Upon the passing of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria fell into what we now refer to as the mourning period, the prolonged and dark 20 years of her reign that influenced fashions of the mid-1800’s, making dark and moody statements with jewelry of black stones, such as jet, agates, onyx and jaspers oftentimes outlined with mizpahs and/or statements of poetic sentiments in black enameling. Most enameled jewelry of the mourning period was simple - outlines of black or white details on floral and geometric motifs that were once colorful and cheerful but now decorative en sol.
This was also a time of revivals on the continent, and with the discovery of Etruscan tombs filled with artifacts in Tuscany, Italia, the Castellani family began a huge revival movement of archeological jewelry with granulation, cannetille and enameling styles done in the Etruscan style. Designers across Europe followed suit with Gothic, Renaissance, and Egyptian styles, heavily using enameling along with other techniques to represent those time periods and appeal to the look of the 1870’s.
By the 1880s, the Victorian look had returned to its adoration of the almost saccharine, floral and romantic styles before the mourning period. The Art Nouveau movement had just began, in a style that was more modern and visual exciting than all other styles that had come before, emerging from Paris and Vienna. Artists like Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt and Antoni Gaudi had taken the world by storm, but more importantly for jewelers René Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany began their companies, making some of the most exquisite enameled object d’art and jewelry that the world had ever seen. Both men worked in glass blowing, so their understanding of the enameling process and science behind it made a language that both floated through. Their amazing works focused on thin, gradient enameling in all styles afore mentioned, from Cloisonné to the Pliqué a Jour (from the French, meaning “Light of Day”) which has a stained glass effect when held up to the light and was, specifically, Lalique’s signature technique.
Tiffany and Lalique really were the leaders in enameling from the 1890s through the entire Art Deco period of the 1920’s. Enameling after the Art Deco period began to focus more on the minimal side of enamel which were mostly coating an entire surface, or sifted and stenciled. These are the most common type of enameling techniques practiced today, as with many new styles that employ the use of imagery transfers and more involved imagery.
Something that I did not touch on was that of one designer at the turn of the century who influenced enameling more than any other enamelist prior. His name was Carl Faberge. His story with enameling is long and involved, so I will leave that for another blog post focused on the turn of the century in Russia and the amazing works that he made for the last of the autocratic social networks and the fall of the Tzars.