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Vitreous Enamelling

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

In 2004 I took a course in enamelling called 'Enamelling & Small Silverwork' with about eight others. From what I remember it lasted about six weeks and the lessons were two or three hours long. Below is a photo of the first piece I made in those enamelling classes. For the life of me I can't remember the name of the guy who taught us, but I kept a very basic notebook. I must have enjoyed it because not long after I bought a small 'jewellery' kiln: a basic Uhlig without a pyrometer or kiln controller. Because of circumstances at the time I didn't do much with it, but I kept it in the hope that one day I might take it back up. That was nearly 20 years ago.

My first ever enamel piece!
My first ever enamel piece!

Since that time I've been to University, moved out of my parents' home, got married and moved house three times. My husband and I are both creative and decided we would build ourselves a studio each in the garden we now have. To finally have somewhere to keep all of my art stuff and have it constantly available and to hand (rather than having to tidy it away) has been amazing. My little Uhlig is permanently set up and my husband installed a pyrometer for me which was a huge upgrade (below). I still don't have a kiln controller but I never leave it alone so I don't necessarily need one. I have great respect for enamellers of previous ages who had to rely on using the colour of the kiln as a temperature guide - now I would be lost without my pyrometer!

Fitting a pyrometer to an Uhlig kiln
Fitting a pyrometer to an Uhlig kiln

At its most basic, enamelling is the fusing of glass to metal using heat. Sometimes the word enamel is used in connection with 'cold enamelling', 'resin enamelling' or 'enamel paint' (e.g. the Humbrol brand), but the subject of this article is vitreous (glass) enamel which takes real skill and years to learn.

The word 'enamel' originally comes from the old High German word 'smelzan' (to smelt) via the Old French 'esmail'. 'Enamel' in modern French is 'émail'. The word 'vitreous' comes from the Latin 'vitreum' (glass).

The earliest known vitreous enamel pieces were six gold rings dating from 1230-1050 B.C. found in a tomb in Cyprus. To read an article about these early enamel pieces, please click here.

Glass was often used on precious objects because of its faux jewel-like quality and its use spread throughout the world. The Celts, Romans and Egyptians all used enamels in their work. The Byzantine Empire was an important period for European enamelling and whilst in Budapest many years ago I was lucky enough to happen upon the 'Holy Crown of Hungary' in the Matthias Church, a Byzantine-period enamelled crown (below). I'm not sure if it was the original or a copy, but whoever made it was extremely skilled.

Holy Crown of Hungary
Holy Crown of Hungary

Gradually France and Spain became important enamelling centres. Limoges in France will be forever associated with enamelling, in particular for painted enamels and portrait miniatures developed from the 17th century onwards. To read more about enamel portrait miniatures and take a look at the Gilbert Collection in the V&A museum, please click here.

The painter of the earliest known enamel portrait miniature was Henri Toutin (1614-83), who may have trained the more widely known Jean Petitot (1607-1691). Of course photography hadn't been invented at that time and enamel portraits are much more durable than paper or canvas. The enemy of enamels is being dropped which can cause them to crack or chip, but one of the glorious things about enamels is that the colours will never fade so they will always look as fresh as the day they emerged from their last firing in the kiln.

The best known enameller of the modern era is Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), although much of the actual creation was carried out by his 'workmasters' and their teams of highly skilled craftsmen. Of course the frankly stupendous Easter eggs are his best known work, but they produced hundreds of other enamelled objet d'art. I am lucky to own a large book about Fabergé and the luscious enamels are jaw-dropping in their translucency and beauty.

Enamelling Basics

Enamelling became accessible to the hobbyist in the middle of the twentieth century and with the advent of the internet, enamels, equipment and advice have become much more readily available. Most hobbyists begin enamelling on copper as it is relatively cheap and then move on to working on silver and eventually gold (if your purse extends that far!).

The oxides that are used to colour the glass to make enamel are sometimes reactive to certain metals, gold being the least reactive. Gold also works beautifully under transparent reds. Silver, on the other hand, works best under transparent blues, whereas transparent reds can be a little tricky to handle on silver. Silver is also substantially cheaper to use than gold, but to keep costs down, gold and silver foils can be used over a copper base. Fine silver is easier to use than sterling because it does not produce firestain when heated, but sterling often has to be used for larger pieces for the purpose of added strength.

An example of Soyer (French) leaded enamels in powder form
An example of some leaded enamels - mainly Soyer (French) leaded enamels in powder form

Enamels come in several forms: powder and liquid being the most common. As previously mentioned, the base glass is coloured using metal oxides which is then ground down to a fine powder. They can be applied in several ways. Most beginner classes teach the sifting method first, where powder is sifted over a clean copper base and then the piece is fused together in a kiln. I prefer 'wet packing', whereby the enamel is applied with distilled water and then dried before placing in the kiln, but it really depends on the technique used.

Sifting WG Ball leadfree enamels
Sifting WG Ball leadfree enamels

Enamels vary in the temperature at which they fuse to metal: most soften and fuse between 700-1000°C. In my own work I use a range between 720-830°C, but this depends on the enamels themselves. The colours that fuse at the highest temperatures are fired first so that the temperature can be lowered for the more fugitive colours.

Japanese Ninomiya enamel colours
Ninomiya Vitreous Enamel Test Strip

Enamels can also contain lead or be unleaded. I prefer leaded enamels although they come with more health warnings than unleaded enamels. The two types can be used together to intentionally create special effects, but in general it is best not to use the two types on the same piece. Enamels can be completely opaque, semi-opaque, transparent or opaline (the latter is the hardest to use but is stunning when fired correctly).

You will often hear enamellists talk about enamel 'flux'. To clear up a common misconception, enamel flux is not connected to soldering flux in any way. Enamel flux is simply a clear enamel, often used underneath enamel colours to prevent them reacting to certain metals (e.g. often transparent reds are used over enamel flux on silver), or over the top of a finished enamel (finishing flux). Finishing flux softens at lower temperatures is sometimes used as a final layer over painted enamels.

There are several companies making and selling enamels. At the moment my collection mostly consists of Soyer enamels from France and Ninomiya, Nihon Shippo and Hirosawa enamels from Japan. I buy most of them from Vitrum Signum in the UK, though my last batch of Japanese enamels came from America from Enamel Art Supply (I have since found a supplier in the Netherlands).

Enamelling Techniques

There are several main techniques used in enamelling and many can be used together on the same piece to enhance each other.

I often think of champlevé as the most basic technique after straight sifting, but that is not to say it is any less worthy or beautiful than the others. Champlevé is a French word meaning 'raised field'. Originally artists would have carved low 'fields' out of metal to fill with enamel. Nowadays many people use the 'saw and solder' technique to create pieces: generally one solid flat piece is used as the backing and a frame of metal is soldered or fused to the front. The resulting cavities are then filled with enamel.

The cloisonné technique is often used within the 'raised fields' created by champlevé technique. 'Cloisonné' refers to creating 'cells' (cloisons) with very fine silver wire which are then filled with layers of enamel. Originally these wires were used to keep the colours separate, but in modern enamelling, colours are often shaded together and the wires are used more creatively for outlines and details.

Vitreous enamel silver bunny pendant
Cloisonné and champlevé pendant

In French, 'basse-taille' translates as 'low-cut'. In this technique translucent enamels are placed over a pattern cut in low relief. These cuts help to reflect light and Fabergé often used this to great effect. In Fabergé's time a machine called a 'rose engine' was used to create uniform patterns in various geometric designs and this technique was termed 'guilloche' or engine turning. There are very few people who are able to turn metal using this technique now, not least because the rose engines are no longer made.

Intricately hand-engraved and enamelled metal also comes under the basse-taille umbrella. The late Phil Barnes created many wonderful examples of this technique.

Plique-à-jour is one of the most challenging enamelling techniques. Roughly translated as 'light of day' it can be likened to stained glass. Small shapes are cut from a piece of metal and enamel is inlayed into the cells. Sometimes this is done simply by using water tension alone, while some use a backing which can then be removed with acid or by stoning.

Some of the most amazing enamelled objects come from the 14th and 15th centuries using the technique of 'émail en ronde-bosse' (enamel in the round). Sometimes known as 'encrusted enamels', they are small enamelled 3D objects, often made from gold. One example is the Dunstable Swan and another the The Goldenes Rössl. It is hard to imagine when looking at the Goldenes Rössl that it was made around 1400AD.

Modern Enamelling

It is heartening to know that this ancient tradition is being kept alive and well by modern practitioners, although I feel it is still a minority craft and one that deserves to be more widely taught. With the advent of the internet, however, it is so much easier for modern enamellists to share information and ideas. There are many brilliant Facebook groups, for instance, and I myself am subscribed to Sandra McEwen's excellent video tutorials. There are several very good books available - one of the best is Linda Darty's book on enamelling.

What always amazes me with any form art is the differences between each artists' vision. As with painting, ask two people to make an enamelled brooch with a specific theme and they will no doubt look completely different. Modern enamelling is definitely alive and well!

Until next time,

Kelly x

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