Blue bird enamel brooch | vintage jewelry for sale at minusOne jewelry | image copyright minusOne jewelry

Enamel jewelry: Color, Costume, Cloissoné

Aug 30, 2023 | jewelry materials

Enamel jewelry can be either approachable or couture, providing color and structure for precious and non-precious gems and metals alike.

I must’ve been 8 when my grandmother gave me my first diamond – a ring that had been my mother’s. I lost it the very same day. We looked everywhere, enlisted her many cousins – all close neighbors in the Italian community of Herkimer, NY – to scour the culverts along the route we’d walked between their houses.

The ring is now my daughter’s. (You’ll never guess where we found it…)

Needless to say, I felt I’d learned my lesson. It would be fashion jewelry for me for awhile, and so my collection of enamel rings, bracelets and earrings grew instead.

Enamel was used by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all of whom used it to color pottery, armor, and jewelry, and even decorate the tombs of the pharaohs.

As described by my favorite jewelry writer, Kathy Flood, enameling jewelry is like icing on a cake.

Enamel jewelry techniques and styles

Enamel is simply powdered glass fused with fire to a surface: ceramic, stone or metal. It’s a process as well as an outcome.

To understand the basics of how glass or glass jewelry is made, try this post, an interview with former Creative Director of the Corning Museum of Glass.

But if you’re itching to move on, I’ve found at least 8 enamel techniques:

  1. Cloissoné
  2. Champlevé
  3. Plique-à-Jour
  4. Guilloché
  5. Basse-taille
  6. Grisaille
  7. Limoges
  8. Taille d’épargne

All of them have French names, in spite of the fact that enameling dates back to ancient Egypt and China.

Cloisonné Enamel

The cloisonné enameling technique involves creating cells or compartments (“cloisons”) on a metal surface, often using thin wires. The compartments are then filled with colored enamel. The result is a mosaic-like appearance, with each color separated by the metal divisions.

In cloisonné, the thin wire walls can be seen from the surface and form visual boundaries that separate different enamel colors, as with these large mid-century cloisonné earring posts for sale at minusOne jewelry.

A brief history of cloisonné enamel jewelry

Cloisonné enameling has a long history. It’s a technique that’s been used for awhile.

Cloisonné has roots dating back to as early as the 13th century BCE. Enameling gained significant popularity during the Byzantine Empire, where it was employed in religious art, adorning religious relics and icons.

It is believed to have originated in the ancient Near East, particularly in Egypt and Cyprus, before making its way to China and later Europe.

In the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in cloisonné jewelry in Europe and the United States. This Victorian era European cloisonné bracelet was found on 1stDibs for around $900.

This Victorian era European cloisonné bracelet was found on 1stDibs for around $900.

This resurgence was influenced by the fascination with all things “Oriental”.

The “exotic” played an important role in Art Deco jewelry, where enamel was used alongside diamonds.

and the opening up of trade with Japan. Japanese cloisonné, known as “shippo,” gained popularity during this time.

This 19th century Shippo cloisonné vase sold at Christie’s auction for $20,000.

A large cloisonné-enamel vase

Chinese cloisonné

It is in China, however, where cloisonné jewelry truly blossomed into a revered art form.

Chinese cloisonné work is still known via contemporary Beijing enamel. Explore a working cloisonné enamel factory in Beijing.

Contemporary Chinese cloisonné “Jingtailan” bowls like this one (found on Etsy) are affordable ways into collecting.

Cloisonné shallow bowl, known as "Jingtailan" or "Blue of Jingtai" | Image copyright Sandra Longman
Image copyright Sandra Longman

Costume cloissoné jewelry

Cloissoné was a popular costume jewelry style from the 1940s to the 1980s because it was a high-quantity Chinese export when “made in China” still meant “exotic” for American buyers.

In fact, cloisonné jewelry was not mass-produced by American manufacturers the same way.

American manufacturers focused on an entirely different style of enameling, showcased by Monet and Trifari. We can put a pin in that!

I love imported mass market cloissoné because it reminds me of the 70s and 80s, when Boho style incorporated cloisonné rings and bangles as part of its repertoire.

I grab it whenever I see it, and it’s often available for sale in the minusOne True Vintage section of its Etsy shop.

All other enameling techniques seem to be born from cloisonné.

Champlevé enamel

Similar to cloisonné, in champlevé is translated from the French as “raised field” – chample means field.

The surface to be enameled is carved, engraved, stamped or etched with a design prior to enameling. Then, the recesses are filled with powdered enamel and fired.

Later processes involve cutting the metal away to leave thin walls . With this technique, the cells are filled with enamel to the height of the cell walls and smoothed over.

The difference between champlevé and cloissoné is that the metal base in champlevé is thicker, and in champlevé sometimes multiple bands of designs can be found in the same walled pocket.

You can see that element here in this convertible brooch pendant necklace by Margot de Taxco. Found on 1stDibs for $2,100.

The metal design of this early 1990s brooch, both within the leaves and flower’s center, suggests the champlevé technique. (This blue floral brooch is for sale at minusOne on Etsy in the True Vintage section of the shop.)

Plique-à-Jour enamel

Plique-à-jour is similar to cloisonné, but with no backing. It’s a technique that resembles stained glass.

It involves creating a delicate framework of metal, typically gold or silver, and filling the open spaces with translucent enamel. When light passes through the enamel, it looks much like a stained glass window.

This Art Nouveau plique-à-jour pendant was found on A Brandt & Son for $3,495.

This French term translates loosely to “letting in daylight.” More literally, it’s about bending or folding (from the Latin verb plicare) the day.

This French term translates loosely to “letting in daylight.” More literally, it’s about bending or folding (from the Latin verb plicare) the day (Fr.plicare

This vintage blue bird brooch I have for sale at minusOne jewelry suggests elements of plique-à-jour. Although the enamel isn’t fully translucent, the setting is designed to let light through.

Guilloché enamel

Guilloché enamel features a decorative pattern created by engraving a metal surface with intricate, repetitive designs. Enamel is then applied over the engraved surface.

Most often, the intricate design etched on the metal below shows through the enamel, like this Edwardian blue enamel and sterling silver pendant found on Ruby Lane for $875.

This circa 1905 Edwardian locket found for sale on Ebay for $3,985 also uses Guilloché enamel.

Note the repetitive, geometric design showing through the translucent blue enamel.

Basse-taille enamel

Basse-taille translates to “low-cut” in French. This enameling technique involves decorating a metal’s surface with a low-relief design that can be seen through the enamel, which is chosen for its translucence.

As with Guilloché enamel, basse-taille enamel is designed to show the engraving beneath.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between basse-taille and Guilloché enamel jewelry.

Officially, Guilloché enamel uses specialized machinery to make repetitive, intricate designs.

However, with basse-taille, the design beneath the enamel is guided by hand, as is clear with this contemporary basse-taille piece by Barbara McFadyen.

Grisaille painted enamel

Grisaille enameling incorporates paintings made in shades of grey. (Gris means grey in French.)

The process begins with a dark layer of enamel, often black.

White enamel is then applied or painted on, resulting in the monochromatic shades of black to white, as seen in this gorgeous Georgian (circa 1820) brooch, found on 1stDibs for sale for $6,950.

Limoges enameled porcelain

Limoges is like the champagne of enameling techniques. It’s really a porcelain art that incorporates enameling, and can only be officially called Limoges if it not only uses that technique, but is also from Limoges, France.

Limoges-enameled porcelain is known for its blue cast, as with this Victorian era locket found for sale at A Brandt & Sons for $1,895.

As A Brandt & Sons explains: During the enameling phase, the porcelain is soaked in a steep bath of cobalt oxide, resulting in a saturated vivid blue color.

Taille d’épargne, or Black enamel tracery

Taille d’épargne is closely related to champlevé, but in taille d’épargne, metal makes up most of the surface of the piece.

Also called black enamel tracery, taille d’épargne has a quintessentially Victorian look, and would’ve been acceptable mourning jewelry at the time Queen Victoria was wearing only black and jet.

These matched Victorian buckle bracelets are illustrative taille d’epargné showcased by Lang Antique’s Antique Jewelry University.

These matched Victorian buckle bracelets are illustrative taille d'epargné showcased by Lang Antique's Antique Jewelry University.

Unlike with other enameling techniques, the US manufactured this style of jewelry, and often pieces that incorporated taille d’épargne can be found amidst the pages of jewelry for sale in old Sears & Roebucks catalogs.

In these American pieces, most often gold-filled fronts had black enamel tracery to highlight an engraving.

Enamel jewelry in the Middle Ages

If you’ve read this far, then you deserve this awesome AI kickstarter that was generated when I asked the bot to be funny about the history of enamel jewelry:

The Medieval “Oops, I Melted It Again” Phase

Now, let’s talk about the Middle Ages. Enamel jewelry was like the Britney Spears of the era—hot, popular, and with a few meltdowns along the way. In those days, craftsmen didn’t have fancy ovens to bake their enamel creations, so they had to wing it over open fires.

Imagine a medieval artisan, nervously watching his masterpiece turn into a bubbling mess. “Oops, I melted it again!” It’s not exactly “Toxic,” but close. Still, they persisted, and enamel jewelry flourished in the form of intricate religious pieces.

Lol. But informative nonetheless.

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