Is enamel jewelry cheap bling or should we consider this type of jewelry high-valued and therefore expensive? That question occurred to me when I visited the Romanov jewelry in the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam last year.
To be honest I considered this jewelry a bit cheap, especially the enamel jewelry that was popular in the 1950s. And I never looked at it closer: I was more a gemstone magpie. But in that exhibition, I saw stunning enamel jewelry, owned by the Russian royal family of the Romanovs.
In this blog post, I want to have a closer look at this beautiful jewelry and say goodbye to my prejudices. But therefore I have to study it a bit more. I hope that you will join me in this blog post.
Limited to enamel jewelry
To control the length of this blog post a bit I will limit the subject to enamel jewelry. Enamel is a coating on metal and is used also on cooking vessels, bathtubs, jags, and sinks. I bet you can remember the metal tea kettle used in the 1950s. My grandmother and my mother had a grey with little white cracks tea kettle. And I remember that they got very very hot, especially at the handles.
Where is it made from?
There are a few names to specify the enamel in the enamel jewelry, like vitreous enamel or porcelain enamel and painted glass. The name comes from the German language. The German word for melting is ‘smelzen’ and that developed into ‘enamel’ in English.
Enamel is a decorative coating on metal. That coating is applied to the metal by applying the enamel on the metal surface and baking it in a high-temperature fire. To be more precise: around 800 Celsius or 1400 Fahrenheit.
Enamel is actually very fine powdered glass and can have different colors. Depending on the temperature of the oven the colors are more vivid or more transparent. Higher temperatures result in a more durable and translucent enamel and with lower temperatures you get a more vulnerable and opaque enamel. The process is difficult and often the process of the fusion of the glass powder fails and you get cracked enamel.
Enameling, an old technique comes to perfection
Since the 18th century, people could apply enamel on metal objects. And when the industry and mass production grew at one point people could even make machine-made enamel objects.
The technique of enameling is older, much older. The Persians and the Egyptians already know how to make jewelry using the enamel technique and pottery but also the death mask of Toetanchamon is partly made of enamel.
Over time two techniques to make jewelry, but also enamel painting developed.
Cloisonné, which means ‘cell’ in French. The artists made ‘dams’ from metal or gold and the enamel was applied between the ‘dams’. The dams were like raised dikes that kept the enamel in one spot. In Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia this technique was popular. This started in the Near East, in about the 3rd century BC.
Champlevé means ‘raised field’ in French. Using this technique means that you have a solid plate (mostly of gold) and you cut pits according to the design. The pits were filled with enamel, and later with gemstone (that’s more my thing!). The ancient Celts seem to have started with this technique.
Fabergé, the French jewelry designer who made the special Eastern Eggs for the Russian Tsar, and René Lalique, another French jewelry designer were masters in the cloisonné technique.
Styles in enamel jewelry
Not only has the technique of enameling changed over time and in different regions, but you can recognize also different styles. Styles that showed the subtlety of the enamel made the enamel jewelry exquisite. Although the jewelry designer still used glass powder to fill the ‘cells’, the work and the result are so delicate that the prices of enamel jewelry go up and up.
Plique à Jour style
René Lalique and Eugéne Feuillâtre were masters in the Plique à Jour style. This is a very difficult technique to work with and you need to be a real master to get great results. The jewelry designers did not use any backing but applied the enamel between gold and silver wires. In this way, you get a kind of stained-glass effect and the light shines through the enamel.
In the Champlené style the jeweler cuts or hammers a kind of depression or valley in the metal/gold. The depression is filled with enamel, layer by layer until the enamel layer is as high as the top of the depression. Around it are the wires or dams. You get a very smooth surface, but there is a big risk using this technique. Every time you add a layer it has to go into the fire and can crack.
And the last style is called the Baisse Taille, or ‘low cut’. Using this style you make patterns of small wires on a backing. The depression is very low. At the edges of the enamel jewelry are higher ‘dams’. The enamel flows over the small wires and fills the whole backing. In this way, you see a kind of pattern in the enamel.
Making enamel jewelry for ages and ages
Maybe you have tried once, but enameling is difficult. Especially when you want to enamel larger surfaces. Therefore it is quite understandable that from the 3rd century BC, we find for instance in Mesopotamia (now Iraq and Iran) and in Egypt only small pieces of enamel jewelry, small enamel buttons for clothing, or other small decorative objects.
The Ancient Celts in Europe used the champlevé technique for making enamel jewelry around the 1st century BC. But we have not found many pieces of enamel jewelry either from the Near East, North Africa, or Europa since enamel is so delicate, that it breaks easily. Artifacts are rarer than enamel jewelry since enamel jewelry suffers less in daily use.
Around 1000 AD, in the Middle Ages, wearing enamel jewelry became more common due to the fact that the technique improved and the enamel of the enamel jewelry became stronger.
The Byzantines improved the enamel technique and they were masters in making religious portraits of icons, using the cloisonné technique. And the nice part for them was that by using enamel they could ‘copy’ the gemstones, and the religious artifacts became cheaper. And those objects could be bought by less fortunate people too.
In the European Migration Period (400 AC) ‘Barbarian’ people flocked over Europe, coming from the Eastern Roman Empire. They brought the enamel technique to Europe, but they used also gemstones instead of only enamel. The red garnet was the symbol of Christ and together with the golden ‘dams’, their icons are unique. These people received enamel icons from diplomates and as gifts and they copied these beautiful icons.
Limoges in France became the center of enameling in Europe in the 12th century. In Limoges, they did not make that much enamel jewelry, but more objects decorated with enamel. They developed the technique and their own style.
China and Japan
In China and Japan, the enamel technique was introduced too and the artist in those countries was excellent at making the most beautiful object, mostly pots, using enamel. Using enamel for enamel jewelry was not so common in those days. Our days mostly cheap cloisonné enamel jewelry comes from China, although I am sure they can do much better than that.
Enamel jewelry tips
Studying enamel jewelry made me appreciate enamel jewelry better. The designs of René Lalique and Fabergé are exquisite, even when they use precious metals and gemstones together with enamel in one special piece of enamel jewelry. Which was to me not done, before seeing the enamel jewelry of the Romanov royal family in the Hermitage in Amsterdam.
Two questions are not answered yet in this blog post.
- How can you tell whether enamel jewelry or the cloisonné jewelry is real?
- How do you take care of enamel jewelry, since it is rather brittle?
Real cloisonné enamel jewelry has a smooth texture and vivid colors. You should not see soldered residues where the golden wires come together. Modern cloisonné enamel jewelry has no smooth surface, the wires or dams are not beautifully set and the colors are a bit boring.
You have to take care of your enamel jewelry. It can be brittle and when you drop it or it bumps into a hard object the enamel can crack. When it is a bit dirty you can soak it in half warm water with soap for 5-10 minutes. Remove the dirt carefully with a soft cloth and dry the enamel jewelry with a lint-free cloth.
When by accident your enamel jewelry is damaged or broken you have to bring it to a jeweler specialized in repairing enamel jewelry. It is a delicate process and it is hard to repair your enamel jewelry the right way.
I hope you feel my love for enamel jewelry. That is the jewelry of the Art Deco Period. The period was when René Lalique and Fabergé made their unique enamel jewelry. Sometimes you find enamel jewelry from that period in auctions. Or maybe specialized jewelers still have some pieces of enamel jewelry left. Take your chance!
Jewelry is beautiful and with the right jewelry, you look awesome. But it is important that you keep your jewelry brilliant shiny, and full of luster. The only way to do that is to store and clean your jewelry the right way.
FlorenceJewelshop wrote a small e-book full of tips on how to store and clean your jewelry. It is free! Just let me know where I can send it to. Another tip is to give this e-book together with your jewelry present. It is just that little extra and you will make somebody really happy!
Hug, Florence from FlorenceJewelshop