The art of enamelling has been practiced for millennia, from ancient Egypt, right through to its peak of popularity in Art Nouveau jewellery. Enamelling itself is a highly skilled craft, which takes a great degree of control and today, is a dying art form. Enamel is a combination of potassium oxide, quartz sand, iron oxide and borax, which are ground together into a colourless powder. Different metal oxides and chlorides can then be added to create a myriad of colours.
There are numerous different enamelling techniques that have been developed throughout the centuries, each producing a different and individual result. However, all the techniques involve the fusing of coloured glass to metal that leaves a layer of smooth, polished colour once fired. By its very nature, enamel, albeit hard, is brittle, and therefore only few examples survive with the decoration fully intact.
Arguably one of the oldest techniques is cloisonné enamelling, used in the Byzantine Empire and thereafter in the West during the early Middle Ages. Cloisonné enamel (from the French 'cloison', meaning 'partition') is a technique in which flattened wires are placed in a pattern on a base metal sheet and these chambers are then filled. Indeed, with the limited availability of gemstones in the 16th century, fine enamelling was often used as a colourful alternative with exquisite results. Used to highlight intricate carvings and symbols, fine enamel gave life and significance to any chosen design.
Other symbolic jewels of the 17th and 18th centuries featured intricately enameled phrases and pictures. Most notable enamelled pieces include memorial jewellery, which feature phrases such as 'BEHOLD THE ENDE', and portray detailed skull and skeletal motifs. This tradition continued well into the 19th century, gaining popularity when Queen Victoria lost her beloved Albert in 1861. She was thereafter seen to wear many memorial pieces dedicated to her late husband.
The Victorian era saw enamel not only on rings, but brooches, buckles, earrings, bracelets and more! The use of colour to infer sentiment was often used, for example white, was the connection to purity, innocence and virginity, and white enamel clearly denoted the passing of a child, without any other necessary visual identification. We also see enamel used during half mourning, when the veil and Victorian mourning dress colors changed from solid black to black with some white, gray, mauve, or deep purple. Royal blue was used in jewellery to represent this stage of mourning, and with fewer made, they are rarer to find!
Guilloché enamel is a technique seen from the late 19th century that involves engraving a detailed symmetrical pattern on metal, with a particular machine required. A translucent enamel is then applied on top, allowing the pattern to show through. It was the Russian master, Peter Carl Fabergé, who pioneered the creation of guilloché enamelling. In the collection we have at present an exceptional bracelet by Boucheron, showcasing this incredible art form.
Plique-à-jour, a French term that translates to 'letting in the daylight' defines a type of enamel that has no backing and has been likened to a stained-glass window. It has a natural transparency similar to that found in nature, which makes it ideal for rendering leaves, flowers, insect wings and other gossamer illusions. This technique is especially suitable for earrings and pendants, as the light behind illuminates the art work. Undoubtedly, plique-à-jour was a critical innovation in developing the Art Nouveau aesthetic in jewellery. Rene Lalique is celebrated for his exceptional use of the this enamelling technique.
Today, only few individuals practice the art of enamelling. At Berganza we have a range of enamelled jewels from the ancient, antique and vintage worlds. Choose from a wide selection of rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, brooches and cufflinks. Whether you are captivated by history, revel in craftsmanship or delight in symbolism we have a piece suitable for any enthusiast’s collection. Our extensive collection is available to view on our website, or in our showroom.