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Cloisonné and Other Ancient Enameling Techniques

Nov 09, 2010 08:08PM ● By Anonymous


A fine example of 19th-century Chinese cloisonné, the wire bands help define the floral petals and leaves in the design.

Enamel decoration includes a range of different techniques used in different countries and time periods. Decorative objects of all shapes and sizes—from large bowls to small boxes and brooches—have been made of metal and decorated with a variety of colorful designs. In order for a piece to be considered enameled it should always include the basics of a paste containing metal coloring, which is then fired on and fused to the object.

The word “cloisonné” was derived from the French word for “compartment.” To create a piece of cloisonné, the metalsmith starts with a rough-cast piece of copper that is hammered and shaped into an object, such as a vase, dish, or plate. To lay out the framework for a design, narrow strips of metal, called cells, are soldered to the body of the piece. The cells in cloisonné can be formed with narrow bands of copper, silver, or gold. Copper is the most common metal used. Cloisons—the compartments that give the design its form—create a map in which to place the enamels. After a number of firings, the enamel becomes filled-in but is rough in texture. The next step is for the piece to be hand-polished with pumice and the top edge of the wires gilded.

Example of cloisoone come in all shapes and sizes and include boxes and jars for storage.


The Japanese first started producing cloisonné towards the end of the 15th century and it became the local industry of three villages in the province of Owari, not far from the town of Nagoya. Early Japanese artisans crafting cloisonné copied Chinese designs but soon developed their own style. Whereas the Chinese are known for their elaborate floral patterns and lovely birds, the Japanese prefer the dragon, hobo, mythological creatures, human figures, and landscapes.

There are three other highly prized enameling techniques. Champlevé enameling is usually done on a thick body of metal such as copper or bronze. Small cells, or pits, are scraped out from the body, and the indentations are filled with enamel and fired several times. Two thousand years ago, the Celts were using this technique to create jewelry. In basse-taille, the enamel design is worked in low relief on top of the metal. In plique-a-jour, the enamels are suspended in cells made from wire.

Foil cloisonné uses transparent or semitranslucent enameling over a layer of embossed silver covering the metal body of the vessel. Removing the wire cell dividers prior to firing can make wireless cloisonné.

Some of the most beautiful oriental pieces were made and exported to the West during the late 19th century, when there was a keen interest in exotic goods from the East. Be aware that, often, contemporary versions are lighter in weight and the workmanship is not as fine in detail or execution.

While early and late pieces of cloisonné can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, many 20th-century objects retail for under $100.