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.
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Antique, vintage, and heirloom jewelry is undeniably special. Some antique pieces inspire joy simply because they have a rich history or belonged to a loved one. Other pieces may still be fashionable and are a staple in your wardrobe. Either way, it’s important to store and a care for your antique jewelry properly, so each special piece will last for generations to come. Although most jewelry care is common sense (don’t store your valuables right by the bathroom sink!), it never hurts to review proper care and cleaning tips.
How to Store and Take Care of Antique Jewelry
At the very least, antique jewelry should be stored in a cotton-lined box in a moderate temperature (an un-air-conditioned storage unit probably isn’t your best bet.) To avoid scratches, no jewelry piece should be in contact with another.
The following are a few tools you can take to protect your jewelry and extend time between cleanings.
Anti-tarnish paper tabs. These tabs are designed to protect sterling silver, nickel, copper, bronze, base metals, brass, tin, and gold. They will last up to six months in a regular container and up to one year in a sealed, air-tight environment.
Anti-corrosion, anti-tarnish zip-lock bags. An affordable long-term jewelry storage solution, these zip-lock bags are designed to protect sterling silver, gold, copper, bronze, tin, brass, magnesium, and ferrous metals (iron and steel) from tarnish and corrosion. These bags are non-toxic and will not leave deposits on stored items.
Avoid spraying hairspray or perfume over jewelry. Apply these and any other body products prior to putting on your jewelry. Also, remove your jewelry before bathing, swimming, exercising, gardening, and doing housework—or any activity where you may exert yourself or be exposed to water or chemicals.
Antique jewelry should never be cleaned in an ultrasonic cleaner (jewelry bath). Although these cleaners are quite effective, the pulsation action may damage antique enamel or worsen a loose setting. Vibrations may also ruin delicate filigree work. Additionally, steer clear of store-bought dip solutions. These often contain harsh chemicals that can weaken enamel and otherwise damage an antique piece. Various metals and gemstones may require different methods and solutions for safe cleaning. For a breakdown of how to clean a particular kind of metal or stone, please consult the antique jewelry cleaning guidelines outlined by Past Era.
Be mindful of the settings on your jewelry. If you notice that a stone is loose, place the piece in a ziplock back and take it to your jeweler for repair. If possible, find a jeweler who specializing in antiques.
Opals consist of hydrated silica and occur in rock fissures. Due to their structure, opals are considered mineraloids rather than minerals. Opals are the national gemstone of Australia but are also found in Ethiopia and Virgin Valley, Nevada.
Opals have been the subject of various lore. During the Middle Ages, opals were associated with great luck and believed to carry the properties of every gem whose color matched one of the many colors reflected in the opal. Opals were also believed to bestow the power of invisibility. By wrapping an opal in a bay leaf and holding it in your hand, you could avoid being seen—or so the story goes.
Love of opals and belief in their inherent goodness dramatically changed with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein in 1829. The book describes a character who dies shortly after her opal comes into contact with a drop of holy water and turns black. Shortly after the book's publication, opal sales dropped by 50% in Europe and remained low for the next 20 years.
The Different Types of Opals
Black/Dark Opals are the rarest and most valuable opals. Found in the Lighting Ridge in New South Wales, black or dark opals have a naturally dark background, which allows their colors and rainbow tones to appear more vibrant. This natural layer of potch (colorless opal) on the back of the stone varies in darkness; the darker the potch, the more vibrant the colors in the stone. The more vibrant the stone, the greater its value. Most black/dark opals are cut into ovals or teardrops.
White Opals or “milk opals” are light with a white body tone (as opposed to the black/dark body tone of the black/dark opals). Mined in southern Australia in the opal fields of Coober, Pedy, Mintabie, and Andamooka, white opals are the most common opals and therefore the least valuable--but they can still be quite pretty.
Crystal Opals can be light or dark and are partially transparent. Partial transparency may enhance the color (and value) of a stone. An opal with transparency may be referred to as a “white crystal opal” or “black crystal opal” depending on its body tone.
Boulder Opals form in ironstone cavities in Queensland. They’re typically cut with some solid brown ironstone remaining on the back; the ironstone backing functions like the dark potch on black/dark opals, allowing the colors in the opal to stand out vibrantly. Found in Quilpie and Winton, boulder opals vary greatly in size and may be found as small as a pea or as large as a car. These are the second most valuable opals and are distinct for their thin, colorful veins. Boulder opals tend to have a flat or undulating surface and are almost always cut in a freedom shape, which maximizes the size the of the stone.
Matrix Opals occur as a network of veins between crevices in the host rock (usually claystone or ironstone). An andamooka matrix opal is a kind of matrix opal that has been enhanced by soaking in a sugar solution and boiled in acid, a process that deposits carbon in the stone’s pores, creating a darker background. A natural oulder opal matrix is a matrix opal in its natural state; it consists of brown ironstone with small deposits of opal.
Polished Yowan Nut Opal
Yowan Nuts are found in Yowan in Queensland. These ironstone concretions resemble nuts, which can be cracked open to reveal a valuable opal in the center.
Synthetic Opals are made in a lab with opaline silica, whose structure is similar to that of natural opal. Gilson Opals are the most well-known lab-created opals. Synthetic opals generally show brighter colors, are larger, and have a more ordered array of colors. Numerous subgrains in synthetic opals produce a delicate snakeskin pattern.
Imitation Opals are made with colored tinsel set in clear plastic or epoxy. They’re generally not convincing to the untrained eye.
Doublets and Triplets are partially man-made stones that imitate black opals. Doublets and triplets consist of a slice of opal attached to a dark backing. In addition to being attached to a dark backing, triplets have a clear quartz or glass capping to magnify and protect the stone while giving it a rounded appearance.
For those rarely-worn heirloom jewels, a safe-deposit box at the bank is likely your safest, most practical storage option. This article discusses important things to consider before finalizing your jewelry storage plan.
Safe-Deposit Box Basics
A safe-deposit box is a mini safe-like box secured inside a bank. Most banks and credit unions offer safe-deposit boxes for rent. Because you will only have access to the box during the bank’s business hours, safe-deposit boxes are best for items that you won’t need in a moments’ notice or in an emergency. When setting up a safe-deposit box, consider who you’d like to be able to access the box in case you are unable to. Trusted individuals may include heirs, a spouse, or a designated power of attorney.
Unlike the money you store in the bank, the valuables in your safe-deposit box are not insured by the government or the banking institution. Therefore, it may be wise to purchase separate insurance from a company that specializes in policies for safe-deposit box contents or consult with your home insurance agent to add a rider or personal article floater for specific valuable items stored in the safe-deposit box to your home insurance policy.
Finally, make sure you inventory your safe-deposit box and keep a current list of its contents.
Will My Jewelry Be Safe in a Safe-Deposit Box?
There is no guarantee that your valuables will be perfectly safe in a safe-deposit box—which is why insuring those valuables is a smart plan. Although disasters are rare, they can happen. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, roughly 1,300 safe-deposit boxes were collateral damage.
That being said, safe-deposit boxes are typically your safest bet since they are protected from home disasters (flooding, fires, and burglaries), which are more likely to occur than bank disasters.
What about a Home Safe?
Although a home safe is certainly more secure than an unlocked jewelry box—and less expensive than a bank safe-deposit box, most home safes have significant vulnerabilities. Many home safes are less than 100 pounds, so it’s not impossible for someone to walk away with one. They also tend to be easier to crack than bank safe-deposit boxes. The average non-fireproof home safe will only hold up for about an hour in a fire, so if you do rely on a home safe for some of your valuables, it’s wise to invest in a fireproof safe.
The Cost of Using a Safe-Deposit Box
The cost of a box varies depending on its size. Some banks may also offer existing customers discounts on safe-deposit boxes. The following estimates are sourced from Financial Web:
Key deposits are usually $10 to $25 per month, and a replacement key is usually $20.
Photos: Stuart Connor via Flickr, Pixabay, Serendipity Diamonds via Flickr