Simply put, enameling is the process of fusing layers of usually coloured ground glass onto metal using a kiln or torch.
The earliest known pieces of enamel jewellery stem from the 13th century BC and were found in Cyprus. Later in the 1700s enameled portrait miniatures were popular and spectacular painterly effects were achieved using painted enamel or grisaille techniques. With the advent of photography, enamel portraits fell out of favour, but enamel remained popular as a way of adding colour to metal objects d’art like the Faberge eggs, and continues to inspire makers today.
Painted enamel – traditionally very finely ground metallic oxides are painted onto a white enamel or porcelain base with fine brushes and fired, layer upon layer. Executed skillfully the process, which is similar to painting, can produce a detailed three-dimensional quality.
Grisaille – is painted in a similar fashion but starting from a black or dark blue background and applying various densities of white, to give a chiaroscuro effect.
What Are Suitable Metals For Enameling?
Nowadays the use of enameling is not as widespread, but you will find specialist makers working with enamels on jewellery and objects d’art. These objects may be made in gold, silver, copper, aluminium, or steel. Due to the high temperatures involved in firing the enamels, the metals must be scrupulously prepared before applying the enamel compounds.
Cloissonné – in Cloisonné the enamel is separated by wire cells (cloisons). Usually, the wires are first fired onto a base coat of flux (a clear transparent enamel). Once the wire cells are in place they are filled with wet enamel and fired again.
How Do You Apply The Enamel?
The enamel compound (or ground glass) is a combination of silica and soda ash with small amounts of metal oxides added to give it colour. For example: to make green, add copper oxide; for blue, add cobalt oxide; and for red, add gold!
The ground compound is mixed with a little bit of distilled water to make a paste called wet enamel. The wet enamel is often applied with a quill or fine brush in layers, a technique known as wet packing. The piece is fired after each layer has been applied until the maker is satisfied with the colour and the cell is filled to the brim.
Firings can take from 30 seconds to several minutes, with the kiln heated between 650°C and 1000°C, depending on the techniques and materials used. There is a risk of overheating and either burning the enamel colour, or crazing the enamel, and even melting the metal “cloissons” at every firing.
Enameling is precision work. How fine to grind the glass, how long to fire the enamel, and what temperature to use are skills acquired through many hours of experimentation.
Examples of makers using enamel today:
JANE MOORE’s work is a lovely example of modern-day enameling with incredible painterly detail. She uses a mix of traditional techniques like cloissoné, champlevé and basse-taille, along with more modern industrial processes such as laser etching and fine enamel transfers to achieve her patterns.
Champlevé – here recesses are carved or etched into the metal and the enamel is wet packed into these areas.
Basse-taille – is an extension of champlevé, where the champleve recesses are engraved or carved with additional patterns or low relief is added. The effect shows as varying intensities of colour through the transparent enamel.
SIMON HARRISSON experiments with a mix of cold enamels and traditional vitreous enamels to add colour to his often quirky designs. His “Leto” rings are a great example of plique-à-jour enameling. Also have a close look at his “Flaming Heart” brooch where he uses baisse-taille to create a pattern in the red enamel.
Plique-à-jour – in this technique, the enamel is fired into an open framework (no supporting metal at the back) and the result looks a lot like stained glass when held up to the light. For maximum effect, it is usually used with transparent or translucent enamels.
Want To See More?
At DesignYard we have a few more makers that use enamel to add colour to their jewellery. Have a look at our extensive enamel jewellery collection, or book an appointment to see it in person at DesignYard.