It may only be glass dust baked into colorful decoration today, but cloisonné art defined royalty from its earliest period some 3,000 years ago. Today, that royal privilege is a common everyday auction favorite.
Around the third century B.C., the art of cloisonné featured gems and multicolored stones that were ground to perfectly to fit within thick, solid gold, wire soldered to a base metal and separated into compartments (cloisons) to complete a design, usually religious in nature. With the use of gems, only the wealthiest, mostly royal households, could commission these intricate and delicate works of expressive art.
This pair of late 19th century Meiji cloisonné vases shows the detail enamel work of land and waterscapes featuring colorful floral and geometric design throughout and a collector favorite in style and design that sold for $850 + the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers
Slowly over time, the use of cut precious gems and stones to create cloisonné was eventually substituted with powdered or fragments of clear or opaque glass fired onto metal at high temperature becoming routine sometime around 14th century Europe. This method still shone like the earlier cut stones but made cloisonné art more accessible especially as decorative household items or worn as jewelry.
However, while cloisonné is enameling, not all enameling is cloisonné. While the use of powdered glass is constant, the manner that it is artistically applied differs.
In the simplest way to describe it, the art of cloisonné is arranging thin metal walls along a pattern etched onto a metal base, usually gold. These individual cells, called cloisons, are then filled with powdered glass, either colored or clear, to the top of the thin metal walls and fired at high temperature to form a vitreous glaze known as hardened enamel. Once cooled, the surface is brushed with soft cloth creating a mirrored, glossy surface that brings out a striking colorful portrait or artistic pattern. By the 12th century, Western Europe had moved on from this technique in favor of a more detailed and creative style called champlevé.
Unlike cloisonné that uses thin wires to separate colors, patterns in champlevé are incised directly into a heavier metal such as copper and only the incision is filled with enamel and fired like this 19th century Russian silver box that sold for $600 (without buyer’s premium) in 2012.
Image courtesy of Charles A. Whitaker Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers
While cloisonné is achieved by inserting thin metal walls from which the design is created, the art of champlevé instead carves out the design directly onto a thicker metal surface, usually copper or other hard metals. The powdered glass is inserted into the carved metal up to the top of the metal surface and fired at high temperature to create a detailed pattern or decorative design. Even more artistic refinement was achieved through the process known as basse-taille.
It would be difficult to distinguish champlevé from basse-taille, (meaning ‘low cut’) without a closer examination. Both rely on etching a complete pattern or design directly onto a hard metal surface with enamel filling in the carved pattern and fired at a high temperature. The difference between the two techniques, though, is that while champlevé has only one thickness of carving, basse-taille has at least one other carving that is below the thickness of the first. Using clear or translucent colored enamel interchangeably, the different layers produce a more three-dimensional look and feel to the final design, especially when used on a gold or silver base. The total effect of color, brightness and design was a skill that few could master and fell out of favor after the Renaissance.
In this Chinese example of plique-a-jour bowl the process starts out similar to cloisonné, but the metal base is removed to create a visually stunning stained glass effect that Tiffany was famous for. Image courtesy of Aspire Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Up to now, creating an enameled work of art required the process to be on a metal base. However, in 14th century France and Italy, the metal base was no longer found necessary. The process of plique-à-jour (meaning ‘light of day’) was more akin to stained glass in that metal strips form a pattern on a metal base, the glass powder is added to create the pattern, then the underlying metal base is removed. But instead of cut glass pieces to form a pattern like stained glass, the colored enamel allows light to shine through. The foremost artists of plique-à-jour enameling were Rene Lalique, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Peter Carl Faberge.
What Collectors Look For
There are other artistic forms of enameling such as niello (a black inlay on gold and silver), guilloché (repetitive patterns), gripoix (poured glass), taille d’épargne (black enamel tracing), en résille (enamel on rock crystal or glass) and damascening (inlay similar to the look of damask silk) each with a special artistic use of fired ground opaque, opalescent and transparent glass. Most have their origins in early history such as niello while others, like guilloché, can now be created mechanically.
While other examples of enamel are colorful and opalescent, niello is a dark inlay made from a mixture of sulphur, copper, silver and lead. When added to a base of gold and silver produces a dramatic contrast of light and dark similar to this 1915 Longines rose gold and silver pocket watch that sold for $250 + the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers
Enameling, though, has been featured throughout the ancient world from Arabia to Europe usually as a regional artistic expression and mostly as a decorative display on cups, saucers, vases, religious objects, small boxes, personal jewelry, tableware and even decorative clocks. But there are differences to look for.
Chinese cloisonné, for example, has a smoother finish around the rims while Japanese cloisonné has more of a mottled feel like an orange peel. Tap the bottom. If it is not metallic (usually copper) then it isn’t authentic cloisonné and it is the Japanese cloisonné from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that are prized at auction for their sophistication and deep color.
The difference in style from cloisonné to champlevé and basse taille is another example. Cloisonné usually covers the entire metal surface while the others do not. Yet, champlevé and basse taille are somewhat similar until viewed closely to see the differences in the height of the cuts made into the metal itself; champlevé usually has only one level while basse taille has more.
Yet, with all the differences in style and technique of enameling whether vintage or historic, it is a matter of personal preference that will determine what collectors prize the most.
And while there is much to learn from each technique, once the differences are made clear, identifying each style becomes a most satisfying collecting experience filled with color, light and thousands of years of history.
Enameling in any form is an ancient artistic process originally intended as a visible display of wealth and sophistication for early royalty. Whether cloisonné, champlevé or any other variations of sleek, colorful and vintage enamelware will make any collector look and feel like royalty, too.