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Antique Enamels and Jewelry:
Paintings in Glass

By  Judith Anderson  GG, CGA

Enamelling is the ancient and difficult art of creating beautiful images with finely crushed glass powders.  Often the enamelist's "canvas" is a jewel or objet d'art.  The enamelist "paints" a surface of the jewel with the crushed glass and,  through repeated applications and firings,  creates wonderful miniature works of art.  Although the first known enamels were created in ancient Egypt (circa 1500 BC),  the art of painting in glass has been practiced throughout the centuries.

Over time the art of the enameler evolved with changes in history,  fashion and available technologies.  Today many of the historical techniques are being revived by contemporary jewelry designers and artisans.  Three of the most beautiful enameling techniques are:  cloisonne,  guilloche and plique-à-jour.  A brief review of each of these schools of enameling follows.

A Victorian cloisonne enamel belt buckle in the Japanese style.

Cloisonné is the oldest method of enamelling.  First practiced by the ancient Egyptians,  cloisonné enameling has been embraced by many ancient and modern cultures.  First,  a network of "cloisons" (cells or compartments) is formed by attaching thin metal wires to a metal surface,  like the top of a jewel.  Crushed glass enamels of various colors and optical properties are then placed in the various cells.  Through repeated application of the enamels,  firing and polishing,  the cloisons are filled with the jewel-like enamels.  The result is an enameled jewel decorated with a pattern of gem-like colors separated by polished metal wires.

Above is pictured a  Japanese belt buckle,  created circa 1900,  which illustrates an artisan's use of enamels of various colors,  textures and opacities to create a lively stylized design.

Guilloché,  from the French for engine turning,  is the art of engraving intricate circular patterns onto a metal surface.  (Remember the toy Spirograph, that was engine turning with paper and pencil).  In guilloché enameling an engine-turned surface is painted with a translucent enamel.  The color of the enamel pools and collects in the engraved lines,  heightening the pattern and giving it depth and a sculpture-like appearance.  Some of the finest examples of guilloché enameling were produced in the workshops of the Russian jeweler Karl Fabergé.

A exquisite Victorian enamel watch.

Beautiful examples of engine turning can also be found on many Victorian jewels and pocket watches.  Pictured above is an  exquisite enameled watch  created during the 1840's.  The beautiful wavy pattern of the rich blue enamel behind the floral motif is a wonderful example of guilloché enamelling.

Plique-à-jour is one of the most beautiful and most difficult enameling techniques.  The results of plique-à-jour enameling are stunning.  Imagine the interior of a 13th century cathedral on a bright,  sunny day,  as warm sunlight streams through the stained glass windows.  The sunlight and windows create a brilliant rainbow of intense colors.  If you captured this beautiful effect in a small jewel,  you would have a plique-à-jour enamel.

Like cloisonne enamelling,  plique-à-jour begins with a lattice of thin metal bands.  The cloisons between the metal bands are filled with transparent enamels,  but,  unlike cloisonne,  there is no metal backing.  When completed a plique-à-jour jewel transmits sunlight like a miniature stained glass window.  Particularly stunning examples of plique-à-jour work were created by Russian masters during the mid-1800's and the jewelers of the Art Nouveau period.

To the right is a wonderful  Art Nouveau brooch  of a dancing sprite.

The plique-à-jour enameling of the wings illustrates the wonderful translucent effects and pastel colors achieved by the artisans of this period.  American,  circa 1900 in 14kt gold.

An Art Nouveau fairy brooch with plique-à-jour enamel wings.

If you would like to see some other wonderful examples of the enameler's art,
please visit our  Estate & Antique Jewelry Gallery.  There you will find a
lovely bouquet of  Art Nouveau flower pins.

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