Enamelling – a fascinating art
Enamel gives the surface of metal a durable, coloured, decorative finish with colours being permanent. The history of enamel dates back to the second century where during the Roman period enamelling techniques were carried out in old Celtic areas of the empire. There is also evidence of sparingly enamelled Ancient Greek jewellery between the third and sixth centuries. Mycenaean metalwork can also be cited with enamel work between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.
Our interest in the subject stems from the extensive use of different styles of enamel work in the Arts and Crafts period with well known examples by Liberty & Co, Guild of Handicrafts, Charles Robert Ashbee, Omar Ramsden, Alwyn Carr, Charles Horner and Murrle Bennet.
The materials are placed in a powdered form in a crucible and are melted at between 1800º f and 2300ºf in a smelting furnace until bubbling has ceased which indicates the total fusion of the materials in the formula.
The molten liquid is the poured into cold water where it cracks into small pieces or onto a thick slab of steel where it is left to cool into ‘cookies’.
The ‘cookies’ then need to be crushed and ground.
Most enamellists today buy enamels which are already ground mechanically.
Types of enamel
Opaque – no light passes through.
Translucent – some light passes through.
Transparent – light easily passes through.
Opalescent – varies in translucency and opacity.
Bases tend to be copper or bronze. Copper is the most commonly used metal as it is very malleable and can be cut into shapes or hammered on an anvil or in a mould.
In cloisonné the colours are separated from each other in the design by metal wires (usually made of fine silver). The wire cloisons are ribbons of metal which must be soldered to a base and the areas between them are then filled with enamel.
Plique á Jour/ Open Braid
This work is not backed by any metal – the design is constructed with cloison wire to separate the colours. If held up to the light it gives the appearance of a stained glass window. Plique á Jour is best used in bowls, pendants and hanging earrings.
There are two methods:
1) A sheet of metal with openings that have been pierced and filled with enamel.
2) Building a cloison wire design soldered together and filled with enamel.
As Plique á Jour is backless the enamel needs a supporting material that can be removed easily after firing, for example Mica, plaster of Paris, tripoli or even asbestos. However care must be taken in the removal of the backing material as Plique á Jour is very fragile and there is great risk of cracking to the enamel.
In Limoges work the whole surface of the metal is covered in a continuous manner without cloisonné or any metal separation.
Limoges originated in the eponymous town in western France at the end of the fifteenth century. It is practiced more than any other method of enamel work today, possibly because of the greater freedom of application available to the enamellist.
A plaque must be prepared using copper as the most common metal. The plaque must be cleaned in a pickle bath and washed, then the counter enamel of flux is applied and fired.
The top surface can then be covered by dusting with a coat of medium-firing clear flux so that both transparent and opaque enamels can be used.
Depending upon the design and desired effect the enamel can be applied by dusting, sprinkling, wet inlay, spotting, trailing with a syringe, by sgraffito, stencil, silk screen or transfer.
Painting techniques: Enamel once crushed can be applied with a brush just like applying paint. Colours can be blended by successive firings and not at the same time to ensure clarity of colour.