Among the oldest artistic traditions, cloisonné enamel has captivated cultures around the world for its undeniable elegance and intricate execution. Taking its name from the cloisons, or divisions, created on an object’s surface to house various hues of brilliant enamel, cloisonné works have been coveted by everyone from rulers in antiquity to collectors today. This article examines this profound history and the legacy that cloisonné works can cultivate.
Cloisonné’s Historical Context
Appreciating cloisonné begins with a step back in time to study both the tradition’s origins and evolutions over time. Let’s journey through this history illuminated by striking examples and makers from each era.
The earliest prototypes of the cloisonné tradition can be traced to ancient Mediterranean cultures. Egyptian artists as well as those from Mycenae crafted various emblems, amulets, and jewels, like this pectoral and necklace of Sithathoryunet, which comprised inlaid gemstones framed by metal armatures. These objects were typically associated with the veneration of gods or the ornamentation of elite members of society, as such materials would have been costly. Though these examples relied upon physical gems rather than enamels, one can imagine that their luminescent motifs might have inspired cloisonné’s development.
Some of history’s earliest documented examples of proper cloisonné date to the ancient Byzantine Empire that peaked between the 7th and 11th centuries. These Byzantine creations, like the 9th-century Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke, were often associated with religious devotion as well and thus typically featured aspects of religious symbolism brought to life with a kaleidoscope of enameled colors. Cloisonné was also applied to works in the service of rulers. For example, the extravagant 11th-century Monomachus Crown, so named as it is believed to have been designed for Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (1000-1055), features miniature portraits of members of the imperial family, saints, and revelers that span seven gold plates and is considered one of the treasures of the period.
Not long after, Asian artists also embraced experimenting with enamel. Between the Yuan and Ming dynasties (1271-1368 and 1368-1644, respectively), Chinese artists created striking cloisonné sets that pulled in elements from the natural and spiritual realms. So elegant were these pieces, like this Ming Dynasty plate or “Lotus” baluster vase both replete with vibrant color and scrolling foliage, that cloisonné became coveted by the most elite dynastic families.
Early Modern Expansion
These early centers of cloisonné production encouraged the expansion of the tradition such that European artists soon after were also clamoring to create cloisonné. By the 18th and 19th centuries, France was the leading center of cloisonné production in Western Europe, while St. Petersburg would dominate the eastern market as aristocrats and rulers indulged in ethereal enamels. Perhaps most notable during this era were the cloisonné works of Carl Fabergé, whose eponymous eggs crafted for Russian rulers to serve as court gifts showcase striking cloisonné work often paired with playful automaton mechanisms or dripping gems. Beyond these eggs, Fabergé also created myriad other small enamel pieces from snuff boxes to nautilus cups that were all so elegant that they were all fit for a king.
Modern Cloisonné Moves
The 19th century once again extended the reach of cloisonné to a global audience. Though new technologies emerging from the Industrial Revolution allowed for the creation of less expensive enameled examples, groups like the Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau movements underscored the beauty of craftsmanship and thus helped to uphold the celebrity that hand-crafted cloisonné had come to enjoy. Rising to the forefront in classic cloisonné mastery during this era was Art Nouveau designer René Lalique, whose nature-infused works blended the organic with the opulent. From the recurring motif of the dragonfly to delicate blossoms, Lalique used the art of enamel to accent many of his designs in striking ways.
Similarly revolutionary in this period were the artists of the Ando cloisonné workshop that thrived during Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). These cloisonné works also embraced nature – from flower blossoms to fowl – and broke away from the regularized patterns that had defined Asian enamel work for generations to instead craft vases that exuded an almost painterly quality.
All of this colorful cloisonné brilliance relies on a core set of materials and techniques. These include:
Cloisonné begins with the application of thin metal strips or wires that are applied in patterns to the surface of a vessel. This is where the medium gets its name: the French term cloisin describes the division of space created by the placement of these wires. These strips are commonly made from copper given its malleability, but more expensive cloisonné might comprise silver or gold wires.
The enamel is made from powdered glass suspended in liquid that is then poured into the wells formed by these patterned metal strips. In traditional cloisonné pieces the enamel is filled flush to the top of the metal akin to a piece of inlaid wood or glass. In the champlevé method, though, this enamel surface rests just below the metal edge (hence the name, which translates from French as “raised field”).
With the enamel added, the piece must then be fired in a kiln at extremely high temperatures. This cures, or hardens, the enamel, and also contributes to the glossy sheen for which cloisonné enamel is renowned.
Once cooled, cloisonné works can be polished such that the metal shines in parallel to the enamel. Some pieces are also accented with gilded additions at this stage.
Becoming a Cloisonné Collector
Whether it is a one-of-kind Fabergé Egg or a turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau Lalique bracelet, the art of cloisonné is undeniably compelling and comes with a rich global history. Those who collect these exceptional treasures already know that such pieces often offer enduring value, both for their expert craftsmanship and their historic legacy. Cloisonné allows fans to connect with history and enjoy the exquisite beauty of enameled works that are sure to stand as conversation starters in your collection.