What is enamel?
Did you know that enamel is actually glass?
Enamel is made from powdered glass mixed with pigments and fired to form a creamy paint-like surface. Different colored enamels have to be fired at different temperatures, so the enameller has to work on each color separately and fire the piece he is working on over and over again according to the number of colors included. The order of the colors is most important – you can’t fire a color with a lower melting point before one with a higher melting point or you will destroy your work of art. It takes tremendous knowledge, skill and experience to work successfully with enamel.
There are many different kinds of enameling techniques which are listed below.
Enamel played a different role and was used in different ways throughout history. It could be used on a variety of metals, but in jewelry, it is usually used in conjunction with gold and silver.
During the early Renaissance jewelry was enameled as a means of introducing color. Jewelry was highly figural and as in a painting, color helped to define and distinguish the scene depicted. Gemstones were rarer than they are now and technology for cutting and setting them was not developed. Enamel was used until these technologies developed and gemstones began to replace enamel in jewelry production.
Later, people began to appreciate enamel for its own sake. Despite the difficulties involved in its use, enamel has been incorporated in jewelry from the Renaissance-revival, Hungarian figural jewelry through the Art Nouveau period. Jewelry-making centers such as Pforzheim and Newark as recently as 100 years ago, used enamel as a rich addition to their products.
While enamel has the advantage of adding rich color to jewelry, it has one huge disadvantage. Enamel is very delicate and it can easily wear, crack or chip. Remember that enamel is technically glass. Drop it and it’s done!
So why use enamel? Nothing can compare to its subtle beauty and the nuances of color it can introduce into jewelry. Enamel allows jewelry makers to act as artists. Enamel, especially plique a jour enables jewelry to utilize light as no other material can.
Enamel is found in pendants and necklaces most commonly. Due to its delicate nature, rings which are exposed to more banging and bashing do not often incorporate enamel.
Kinds of enamel work:
- Guilloche enamel: when the metal surface is engraved, via machine in repetitive patterns or lines. When the enamel is laid over these lines, it takes on a particularly transparent and glossy quality, with the engraved underlying lines showing through.
- Basse Taille enamel is similar, but the engraving forms an image and is not done by machine and is not repetitive. It was used especially during the middle ages to create religious scenes.
- Champlevé enamel: first a design in the metal is etched or gouged out, leaving a higher level of metal with recesses or depressions that can be filled with enamel.
- Cloisonné enamel. The meaning of the word is ‘cell’. Cells are formed by attaching metal (usually gold or silver, but other metals can be used) wires onto an item, forming a design with the metal. The wire borders create little cells that can then be filled with enamel and fired.
- Niello work is most commonly associated with Russia but was practiced in Europe during the Medieval period. A design or image was engraved and the recessed lines were filled with a mixture of metals that created black outlines when fired. Thus the image was more clearly defined.
- Plique a jour – perhaps the most difficult of enameling techniques. As the name suggests, it is reminiscent of the light of day. Cells are created by metal wires and the enamel is ‘stretched’ across the cell with nothing behind to support it. This is much the same effect as a stained glass window and allows the light to shine through the enamel in the same way. Plique a jour enamel is very delicate and care must be taken not to damage it.
- Plique a jour enamel jewelry is often compared to miniature stained glass windows because enamel, in fact a form of glass, is held within metal wires or cells with no backing and is therefore translucent. The enamel is really stretched across thin air, between the walls of jeweled cells.
Limoges enamel or simply ‘enamel’ is when enamel is used to decorate a surface without the use of cells, recesses or other techniques. The effect is like a painting.