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?
Some notable artists have a penchant for jewelry making in addition to their pursuit of masterpiece paintings and sculptures. Here's a glimpse at just two modern artists who also created fascinating jewelry.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was an American sculptor remembered for his introduction of mobile sculptures—sculptures that moved in response to touch or air currents. Calder’s work is generally categorized as surrealist or abstract. He also created wire figures and monumental sculptures, painted aircrafts and cars, and crafted jewelry!
Over the course of his career, Calder created over 2,000 pieces of jewelry. Many were gifts to his loved ones. Using brass, steel, ceramic, wood, and glass, Calder took inspiration from Africa, among other foreign locales, to create original and beautiful pieces.
Peggy Guggenheim, famous heiress and art collector, was one of the notable wearers of Calder’s jewelry. At the 1942 opening of her New York Gallery (The Art of This Century), she wore one earring by Calder and another by Yves Tanguy to symbolize her allegiance to both surreal and abstract art.
Alexander Calder Bracelet, circa 1930. Brass, silver, and still wire.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Teeny Duchamp (wife of Marcel Duchamp) Jeanne Rucar (wife of the filmmaker Luis Buñuel), and Bella Rosenfeld (wife of painter Marc Chagall) are other figures who enjoyed the gift of Calder’s jewelry.
Alexander Calder Earrings, circa 1940. Silver wire.
Fun fact: Calder first dabbled in jewelry at the age of eight. With copper wire he found in the street, he created jewelry for his sister’s dolls.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is undoubtedly a household name, and most of us know him for his cubist and surrealist paintings. But like Calder, Picasso was multi-talented and interested in a variety of media.
In the 1950s and 60s, Pablo collaborated with Jeweler François Hugo to create pieces in high-karat gold.
Le Grand Faune brooch of 23k gold, 20/20 edition François Hugo after Pablo Picasso, 1973.
Perhaps more interesting than Picasso's collaboration with Hugo is the recently-discovered, one-of-kind jewelry he made in the 1930s and 40s. In 1998, it was discovered that Picasso decorated a collection of brooches, rings, and amulets for his lover Dora Maar (their relationship lasted from 1936-1945).
The pieces were found in Maar’s apartment following her death and were later auctioned to bidders from across the globe. Jewelry expert Marc Blondeau recounts the discovery of the jewelry: “The jewelry was all over the place, under beds, in old shoeboxes. She kept it very zealously as a memento to Picasso.” This amazing find was news to even experts in modernist jewelry.
Ink and color pencil drawing by Picasso set in frame-shaped pendant for Dora Maar, circa 1936-1939.
Stone amulets by Picasso for Dora Maar, circa 1936-1939.
Fun fact: A zest for jewelry appears to run in the Picasso family. Paloma Picasso, Pablo’s daughter, has designed jewelry for Tiffany’s.
The fact that world-renowned modern artists have dabbled in jewelry just goes to show that jewelry, more than serve as mere trinkets, can truly be wearable art. What do you think?
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Photos: Wikimedia Commons, aleCalder Foundation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, The Jewelry Loupe
Are you a fan of treasure but not keen on going hunting for it yourself? Do you love ancient coins but don’t believe they should be hidden away only to be viewed once in a blue moon? Jewelry made from ancient coins presents a way to indulge your love for history, treasure, and the exotic—and the best part is that you can select pieces from several independent vendors who do the jewelry making for you. The following are just a few online retailers specializing in ancient coin jewelry.
Lost Galleon El Cazador Shipwreck
For over 20 years, Lost Galleon has specialized in rare, high-grade pieces from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Authentic coins are custom framed and crafted into a variety of pieces—from money clips to rings to necklaces. You can also shop by country of origin or shipwrecks (like Spanish shipwrecks). The cool thing about Lost Galleon is that the company actually dives for the coins themselves!
Ancient Creations Portrait of Christ Pendant (Byzantine)
Ancient Creations sources rare coins from auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies, but all custom designs and mounting are done in-house. Ancient Creations’ jewelry features coins from ancient Greek, Roman, Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, European/Medieval, Asian, and Byzantine collections. The site also provides a detailed historical account of the development and usage of coins across ancient nation-states. History buffs, don’t miss Ancient Creations’ glossary of terms!
Erez Ancient Coin Jewelry Silver Drachma Bracelet (Greek)
Erez Ancient Coin Jewelry sources coins for jewelry mostly from Israel and the Middle East. Each product description includes brief historical context for the coin featured in the jewelry piece. If you have your own coin that you’d like set in a piece of jewelry, Erez welcomes custom orders. All pieces and designs are handmade in the United States.
Ferbers Unique Fine Jewelry “A Perfect Sixpence” (England, 1916)
Among Ferbers’ collection of luxury pieces, the vendor features jewelry made from ancient and vintage coins. The family-owned jewelry store is a member of Jewelers of America and has the highest rating for creditworthiness granted to any jewelry store in its trade area by the Jeweler’s Board of Trade. In addition to ancient coin jewelry, they also create pieces with ancient Roman glass and pieces of meteorite.
Ancient Resource Ephesus Bezel
Specializing in ancient artifacts from Greece, Rome, and Egypt, Ancient Resource works with museums, universities, institutions, auction houses, galleries, and collectors in 40 different countries across the globe to procure its impressive collection of ancient goods—including jewelry featuring ancient coins. Each piece is all authenticated and legally acquired.
Photos: Lost Galleon, Ancient Creations, Erez Ancient Coin Jewelry, Ferbers Unique Fine Jewelry, Ancient Resource
The most prominent features of Navajo jewelry include turquoise, semi-precious stone, and sterling silver, a precious metal.