Enameling is one of the most expressive and stunning techniques for creating jewelry. It was used extensively during the Art Nouveau period (1890-1910).
An endless array of colorful and intricate designs were created by applying the enamel in a variety of ways which have become very much associated with the period. Enamel work showcases the jeweler’s artistry perhaps more than any other technique
Enameled jewelry from the Art Nouveau era is highly prized and collectible. There are, of course, many replicas.
Thanks to enamel’s hard-wearing qualities, there are many surviving enameled pieces from the era for us to enjoy.
How is enamel created?
Enamel is created from:
- Silica, quartz, borax, lead, and feldspar ground together into a fine powder. Basically, it is powdered glass.
- Metal oxides in powder form are then added to produce the colors.
- This mixture is then fired at a very high temperature, resulting in the gorgeous, rich colors of enamel work with which we are familiar.
- The metals that the enamel work are fired on must be able to withstand such high temperatures.
- A large amount of time and care is required on the part of the jeweler.
There were six main methods of enamel work that were popular in the creation of Art Nouveau pieces. These were as follows:
Cloisonne is created by:
- Soldering or arranging fine gold or silver wire onto another metal to create a design.
- The main metal it is soldered onto is often copper or bronze in the case of cloisonne, but it can also be gold or silver.
- The enamel powder is then used to fill in the partitions created by the wires.
- As the enamel tends to shrink when fired, often several firings are required.
- In the end, the enamel is sanded to be level with the wire.
Plique-à-jour enamel with small rose-cut diamonds in the veins c1900 by Louis Aucoc (1850-1932)
- Plique-à-jour is the type of enamel work that most people think of when they think of Art Nouveau jewelry.
- It is the most delicate method of enameling and tends to fetch the highest prices.
- The enamel is created with no metal backing, hence the translucent and stained glass-like effect of the end result.
- To achieve this, the enamel mixture is made to be very viscous.
- Sometimes a thin mica or clay backing is used and then removed after the firing.
- Thin metal, which burns away during firing, can also be used.
- Plique-à-jour looks truly stunning when held up to the light.
- Plique-à-jour means ‘letting in the day’ in French.
First making cut out hollowed designs in the metal.
These hollowed out places are then filled with the enamel mixture and fired.
This is repeated as many times as necessary and then polished.
Copper and brass bases are often used with Champlevé as well as gold and silver.
Basse-taille literally means ‘shallow cut’. Basse-taille is created by:
- Engraving the design into the metal, usually gold or silver.
- The entire piece is then covered in translucent enamel so that the engraved low relief design shows through.
- Different effects can be created by adding different amounts and colors of enamel in different locations.
Niello is usually classified as a kind of enameling technique although it is not a true enamel. It is created in the following way:
- Instead of the powdered glass enamel, a mixture of sulfur, lead, copper, and silver is used.
- The design is engraved in the metal and then the mixture is applied.
- The piece is then fired.
- When it is polished, all of the mixture is removed apart from that which is left inside the engraving.
- The result is always black.
- Niello looks different from black enameling because it doesn’t have the same glassy effect and is more metallic seeming.
Taille d’épargne means “sparing cut” literally in French. Taille d’épargne was popular in the mid-1800s but was also used by Art Nouveau jewelry artisans.
It was created in the following way:
- The design was cut deeply into the metal.
- It was then filled, fired and polished.
- Although any color can be used for the enamel, black or blue was generally favored.
I hope this article helped give you an overview of the six different enameling techniques that were used in the creation of Art Nouveau jewelry and will be useful to you when you are identifying antique jewelry.