Enamel in jewelry and decorative work goes by a few names—vitreous enamel, porcelain enamel, and painted glass. The word enamel comes from the Old High German word smelzan, which means to smelt.
Enamel jewelry can feature several vivid hues.
In jewelry, enamel is a decorate coating applied to metal. It begins as a powder with a texture similar to that of baby powder. It’s fused to metals using high temperatures (1,380-1,560°F). Although enamel powder comes in different colors, the initial colors of the powder do not ultimately represent the vivid colors resulting from the high-temperature fusion process.
The temperature of the fusion process as well as the metal oxides content of the enamel determine the resulting color’s intensity as well as its transparency. Generally speaking, higher temperatures yield more durable, translucent enamel while lower temps yield softer, more opaque enamel, which is more vulnerable to damage.
Enamel jewelry is made using fine, colored powder.
The Origins of Enamel Jewelry
Enamel design can be traced back to the ancient Persians who called the art meenakari. The ancient Egyptians also practiced enamel work on stone objects and pottery—and less frequently on jewelry.
Chinese cloisonné wine pot, circa 18th century.
The art of enameling seemed to know no geographic bounds and spread to China, Rome, Greek, Celtic territories, and the Byzantine Empire. Each culture brought its own style to the art. The Chinese, for example, perfected the cloisonné technique. Cloisonné is also known as the "cell technique." Wires are adhered to a surface in a desired pattern; the artist then fills the spaces created by the wire with enamel.
A Fabergé egg.
More recently, enamel jewelry gained popularity during the Art Nouveau era in art and design in Europe and the United States (1890-1910). Artists like Peter Carl Fabergé specialized in bibelots (baubles), like the elaborate enamel egg pictured above. Other artists, like George Stubbs, used enamel to create portrait miniatures. This period was an especially ripe time for jewelry making and design in part because enameling allowed artists like René Lalique and Eugéne Feuillâtre to create intricate, nature-inspired jewelry. Enamel also offered a way to feature vibrant color in jewelry without the use of precious stones.
Common Design Styles in Enamel Jewelry
There are several design styles in enamel jewelry (including cloisonné, mentioned above). The following are just three that you may come across.
A stunning and delicate plique à jour creation by René Lalique.
Plique à Jour. French for “glimpse of day,” this style was popularized by French enamelists René Lalique and Eugéne Feuillâtre. In this style, vivid, fairly translucent enamel is suspended between gold or silver wires without any backing. The light shines through the enamel, creating a beautiful stained-glass effect.
A contemporary example of champlené enameling.
Champlené. French for “raised field,” in this style, the jeweler creates a depression in the metal (by cutting, hammering, or stamping the metal). They then fill the depressions with enamel, layering the the enamel until it reaches the height of the surrounding metal, creating a mostly smooth surface.
The baise taille technique allows enamelists to create nuanced texture in the smallest of pieces.
Baise Taille. French for “low cut,” this style features a pattern created in the metal over which enamel is applied. The pattern shows through the glass for a unique texture.
Caring for Enamel Jewelry
To clean enamel jewelry, soak the piece in warm, soapy water for five to ten minutes. Use a soft cloth to remove noticeable bits of dirt. Rinse the piece and dry it with a lint-free cloth.
If your enamel jewelry is damaged, please take it to a jewelry or artist who specializing in enamel. Repairing antique enamel is an especially delicate process since using high temperatures to fuse new enamel may negatively affect the older enamel on the piece.
Are you a lover of enamel jewelry? What's your favorite style?
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René Lalique (1860 - 1945) is one of the most celebrated artists from the Art Nouveau period. Lalique was a French glass art designer and is best known for his perfume bottles, vases, jewelry, chandeliers, clocks, automobile hood ornaments, and artistic additions to architecture.
St. Matthew's Church in Jersey. Glass interior work by René Lalique.
His sumptuous style often features nature-inspired elements, including foliage, flowers, and flowing lines. Lalique took inspiration not only from the French countryside but also from nature motifs in Japanese art. In addition to creating period-defining work, Lalique left behind a style that continues to inspire designers and collectors alike.
Broche Libellule (1900)
Lalique grew up in the suburbs of Paris and summered in Ay, whose scenic country views inspired his signature naturalistic style. While apprenticing for goldsmith and jeweler Louis Aucoc in Paris, Lalique took drawing and sketching classes at Collège Turgot. He also studied at Ecole des Arts Décoratifs where he learned to design jewelry and later at the Crystal Palace School of Art Sydenham in London where he studied graphic design and further developed his naturalistic approach. During his time in Britain, Lalique was exposed to and inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement.
After returning from London in 1882, Lalique worked as a freelance artist and designed jewelry for French jewelry firms Cartier and Boucheron, among others. In 1885, Lalique opened his own business where he designed and made jewelry and other glass pieces.
Plaque mounted on gold with baroque pearl (circa 1904-1905)
Lalique’s work was met with mixed reviews. His unique pairings, which included horns and diamonds and carved ivory with enamel and pearls, certainly challenged ideas of what was acceptable in art. Fortunately, Lalique’s glasswork and jewelry were favored by emerging popular voices of the period. In particular, French actress Sara Bernhardt was among his admirers. She wore many of his finest pieces while on stage.
Opal, glass, diamond, and enamel "Rose" plaque (circa 1901)
By 1890, the glass artist was regarded as on of France’s foremost art nouveau jewelry designers. Around this time, Lalique opened a new jewelry store in the fashionable Opera district at 20 Rue Therese in Paris. As his business grew, his experimentation with craft continued. By the mid-nineties, Lalique began producing pieces using the “lost wax method” and pâte-de-verre. He was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1897.
Lalique’s iconic perfume bottles really took off around the turn of the century, and his evolving glass work with bottles further informed his jewelry design. Lalique introduced a new type of glass called demi-crystal. Containing 12% lead, demi-crystal isn’t as bright as regular crystal; it’s softer effect made it ideal for Lalique’s Art Nouveau designs. Around 1909, Lalique developed a method by with the interior glass walls of a bottle could feature a design that could be seen through the smooth exterior of the bottle.
One of Lalique's many beautiful perfume bottles inspired by nature and feminine beauty.
Perfumer Roja Dove suggests that Lalique’s glasswork be viewed by candle light to get the original effect. His work simply can't be fully appreciated in the harsh light of modern electricity.
What inspires you about Lalique's enduring style?