Beijing | Chinese Cloisonné Enamelware
History of Cloisonné Enamelware
Chinese Cloisonné | Japanese Cloisonné
Text & Images - Copyright © 2009 Kevin Hulsey
The history of "inlaying" colorful materials onto a metal base, and securing their position with soldered wire dates back to 1800 BC, in Egypt. During the 13th century BC in ancient Greece, powdered glass was used to fill cavities (aka "cells") made by filigree soldered wire, then fired to produce colorful decorative objects .
The art of Chinese fired-enamelware dates back as far as the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368), but was popularized during the XuanDe period (1426 to 1435). The XuanDe period coincides with the reign of Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu Qiyu, who was also known as the Jingtai Emperor (1449 to 1457).
During the XuanDe period in Beijing this inlayed enamelware became popularly known as "Blue of Jingtai," because blue enamel was used as a predominant color theme during the Jingtai Emperor's reign.
Ming Dynasty Cloisonné Headdress - Ming Tomb
Centuriies after the invention of fired-enamelware, the Japanese adopted the artform, and the "Blue of Jingtai" enameling process made its way along the Silk Road to the Byzantine Empire and Europe, where it was referred to as "esmaulx de plique" or "emaux de plite" . Fired-enamelware was re-named by the French as "Cloisonné" or "being compartmentalized" in the 1920s.
The Cloisonné Process
The word "Cloisonné" is used to describe both a finished art object, and a process. Cloisonné is a labor-intensive craft involving a complex multi-step enamel process, that can produce stunning results.
Step 1: Base Hammering
The "canvas" for a Cloisonné pattern is made of copper. A coppersmith will fashion the malleable copper into a roughcast (jewelry piece, vessel, or similar art object) by hammering and/or stretching the material into the required shape.
Shaping and soldering the filigree wire-work
Step 2: Soldering the Filigree Work
The desired pattern is imprinted onto the base, and copper wire that is approximately 1/16 of an inch in diameter is bent into the desired pattern and soldered into place.
Cloisonné enamel filling by hand
Step 3: Enamel Filling
To make to colored fillings various pigments are ground into a fine powder and mixed with alkaline, boric acid, and saltpeter. Then comes enamel filling, which requires the application of such basic elements as boric acid, saltpeter and alkaline. Due to the different minerals added, Cloisonne appears different in color. Bronze (blue), chromium (green), iodine (red), uranium (yellow), and zinc (white) are used as primary coloring agents. The pigment is added to each cell compartment by hand.
Second enamel re-filling of pigment
Step 3: Enamel Firing
Once the first filling is complete, the piece is fired in a crucible. As the copper base turns red the pigments will melt filling each cell. There is a slight amount of shrinkage to the pigments on the first firing, and some re-filling of the cells will be required before a second firing. There can be as many as six or seven firings to achieve the desired results.
Cloisonné enamel firing & polishing
Step 5: Surface Polishing
Once all of the compartments are sufficiently full the object is placed on a motorized wheel, and cutting emery is used to even the surface. The object will be fired for a final time, then polished with whetstone and carbon.
Step 6: Gilding
The exposed metal filigree is electroplated with gold or silver to prevent oxidation from dulling the filigree. Then the object will be given a final polish.
1. Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts & Technology - Complete Reference Guide . Doubleday
2. Woodrow Carpenter, History of Cloisonné Technique . www.ganoksin.com
3. Gregory Irvine, Japanese Cloisonné Enamels . Victoria & Albert Museum