Enamelling techniques of the Art Nouveau era
Enamelling is one of the most expressive and stunning techniques for creating jewelry. It was used extensively during the Art Nouveau period (1890-1910). An endless array of colorful and intricate designs were created by applying the enamel in a variety of ways which have become very much associated with the period. Thanks to enamel’s hard wearing qualities, there are many surviving enameled pieces from the era for us to enjoy.
Enamel is created from silica, quartz, borax, lead and feldspar ground together into a fine power (basically, it is powdered glass). Metal oxides in powder form are then added to produce the colors. This mixture is then fired at a very high temperature, resulting in the gorgeous, rich colors of enamel work with which we are familiar. The metals that the enamel work are fired on must be able to withstand such high temperatures. A large amount of time and care is required on the part of the jeweler. Enamel work truly showcases the jeweler’s artistry perhaps more than any other technique. Enameled jewelry from the Art Nouveau era is highly prized and collectible (and there are of course many replicas.)
There were six main methods of enamel work that were popular in the creation of Art Nouveau pieces. These were as follows:
Cloisonne is created by soldering or arranging fine gold or silver wire onto another metal to create a design. The main metal it is soldered onto is often copper or bronze in the case of cloisonne, but it can also be gold or silver. The enamel powder is then used to fill in the partitions created by the wires. As the enamel tends to shrink when fired, often several firings are required. At the end, the enamel is sanded to be level with the wire.
Plique-à-jour is the type of enamel work which most people think of when they think of Art Nouveau jewelry. It is the most delicate method of enameling and tends to fetch the highest prices. It is remarkable because the enamel is created with no metal backing, hence the translucent and stained glass like effect of the end result. To achieve this, the enamel mixture is made to be very viscous. Sometimes a thin mica or clay backing is used and then removed after the firing. Thin metal, which burns away during firing, can also be used. Plique-à-jour looks truly stunning when held up to the light. Plique-à-jour means ‘letting in the day’ in French.
Champlevé enamel work is created by first making cut out hollowed designs in the metal. These hollowed out places are then filled with the enamel mixture and fired. This is repeated as many times as necessary and then polished. Copper and brass bases are often used with Champlevé as well as gold and silver. Champlevé means ‘raised field’ literally in French.
Basse-taille is created by engraving the design into the metal, usually gold or silver. The entire piece is then covered in translucent enamel so that the engraved low relief design shows through. Different effects can be created by adding different amounts and colors of enamel in different locations. Basse-taille literally means ‘shallow cut’.
Niello is usually classified as a kind of enameling technique although it is not a true enamel. Instead of the powdered glass enamel, a mixture of sulphur, lead, copper and silver is used. The design is engraved in the metal and then the mixture is applied. The piece is then fired. When it is polished, all of the mixture is removed apart from that which is left inside the engraving. The result is always black; niello looks different from black enameling because it doesn’t have the same glassy effect and is more metallic seeming.
Taille d’épargne was popular in the mid 1800s but was also used by Art Nouveau jewelry artisans. The design was cut deeply into the metal and then filled, fired and polished. Although any color can be used for the enamel, black or blue was generally favored. Taille d’épargne means “sparing cut” literally in French.
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