A Love Affair with Enamel

Sometimes, even with the vast color palette available in natural or synthetic gemstones, creating an almost painted look, shading effect or even a small mosaic -like look can be next to impossible.  Not to mention the potential cost in labor and materials.  However, one of the oldest forms of creating varying colors on jewelry without using gemstones has been through the use of enamel.

Enameling dates back to ancient Greece and throughout history, different cultures have favored different techniques.  As an example, cloisonné enamel was popular during the Byzantine Empire, while artisans living in France and Germany in the Middle Ages preferred champlevé.   Not to mention, the love of Art Nouveau jewelry designers - plique à jour.

Even a non-snake person has got to love the expression on this vintage enamel beauty available through Essex River Antiques.  He just looks like he's about to share a juicy secret or a hilarious joke!  Created in 18k yellow gold with stunning enamel work, he's of Italian origin.

Simply explained, enamel is the fusion of powdered glass to metal.  Artists like enameling because it allows them to add a painterly or illustrative quality to their pieces - almost like an oil or watercolor painting.  Some of the most common types of enamel work in jewelry are:  cloisonné, champlevé, guilloché, plique à jour and Ronde bosse.

Cloisonné (“cell” in French) is a technique in which thin wires of fine silver or gold are used to outline a design which is filled with enamel. It is then put in a kiln where the enamel is melted.  Cloisonné is distinct because the individual wires remain visible, forming an outline of the motif similar to the way the lead solder outlines the panes of a stained glass window or the black outline of a tattoo.

Champlevé (“level field” in French) enamel is almost the exact reverse of cloisonné.  Depressions in the metal are made by etching, engraving or chiseling.  Then, layers of enamel are added until they rise slightly above the surface of the metal.  It is then fired and polished.

A modern remembrance ring, this enamel beauty from Stacey Fay Designs comes in two varieties - with or without a diamond accent. 

Guilloché is a technique in which translucent enamel is applied to a piece of metal that has had designs cut into it.  After the firing, the patterns on the metal become visible. The technique was made famous by Peter Carl Fabergé, whose jewelry house used the technique on many of its objets d’art as well as its jewelry.

Plique à jour (“letting in daylight” in French) enamel was popular during the Art Nouveau period.  It is also my personal favorite!  In this technique, the enamel is not applied to metal, but instead enamel powder is applied to cells on a thin sheet of copper foil or mica and then etched away.  Basically, the backing is removed to create a stained-glass-like look.  Jewelry made with plique à jour often has a luminous quality because light is able to penetrate the piece from front and back giving it that 'stained glass window'-like glow.

This stunning French Victorian antique example of enamel work is available through Simply Remember My Shop & is modeled in 18k gold.  The enamel work is in pristine condition & features accent diamonds at the flowers center.

Ronde bosse (“round work” in French) is the technique in which enamel is applied to three-dimensional forms.  This practice was first used in the 15th century, during the Renaissance, with the invention of adhesives that would hold the enamel in place and disappear during firing.  Carlo Giuliano created some amazing examples of ronde bosse work on his pieces in the 1890s.

This vintage piece from Totem Kitten is a work of art with .35ct of diamonds set in 18k white gold with peach enamel blossoms and a single green leaf.  The seller recently had the enamel touched up so it's in excellent condition.  I adore the orangey-peach flowers & diamond clusters.

Not only are there many ways to work with enamel but there are also several application methods.  It can be sifted, painted, stenciled, sponged, dropped or inlaid (wet or dry) on the metal surface.  Artisans can also enhance their designs via sgrafitto, or etching into the metal, and then inlaying other objects.

Enamel is a temperamental technique in which each piece is fired in a kiln at temperatures ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.  If all or part of the enamel cracks, the damage can be irreparable and the piece considered a complete loss.  This is why beautifully made enamel pieces feel so much more precious and highly regarded.

In the post-COVID world, maybe we could all use a little protection.  This enamel evil eye band from Hygge Jewellery is made to order in your choice of gold (white, rose or yellow) as well as in 14k or 18k.  I think it's the perfect stacking ring to add a little pizzazz to both amodern or vintage ring stack.

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