by Woodrow Carpenter
Vol. 14, No. 3, June 1995
In the late '20's, a
small enamel tray, made in China, introduced us to the word cloisonné.
The material looked like the granite ware in our kitchen.
Obviously the wires were used to keep the colors
separated. Then, cloisonné was enamel with wires
separating the colors. Simplicity, pure and simple.
This is where the majority of the general public leaves the
subject, little knowing or caring about its rich history.
Cloisonné is a
French word meaning to be compartmentalized, be cut off from one
another, to feel cut off, or shut out. According to Garner1
the term goes back to the eighteenth century. He did not
provide an exact date or indicate who first used the term to
describe the finished enamel or technique. Barsali2
tells us Theophilus used "Correolae" for the cells or
compartments. Harper's New Monthly #344, January 1879
states during the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries what is now
called simply cloisonné was called "esmaulx de
plique" or "emaux de plite".
think of cloisonné as thin strips (usually rectangular in cross
section) of metal bent to form the outline of a design and
fastened to the surface of a metal object, either by soldering
or a coat of enamel. The resulting cells (cloisons) are
then filled with enamel.
the technique originated in Egypt prior to 1800 B.C. Gold
ornaments were inlaid with small pieces of turquoise, lapis
lazuli, carnelian and garnet, the inlays held in position by
ribs soldered to the gold base. Speculations are
goldsmiths and glass workers collaborated to forge or imitate
these works using artificial gems. First, pieces of
colored glass were substituted for the stones. Some appear
to have been cemented in place.
In the April 1989
(Vol. 8, No. 2) issue of Glass on Metal, Dr. Panicos Michaelides
wrote about six, thirteenth century B.C. rings found in Kouklia,
a small village in southwest Cyprus. In August 1989, David
Buckton presented a paper at our conference describing the
process used in making the cloisonné inserts in these
rings. First, an open framework or grid was constructed by
soldering together gold strips. The framework was then
placed into the bottom of a cavity in a mold (probably
soapstone). The cavity was such that a round disk would be
produced. The gold strips used for the framework were not
as wide as the depth of the cavity, thus the framework did not
extend to the top of the cavity. The cells of the
framework were filled with colored glass powder. Finally,
a different colored glass powder was put in to fill the space
around and above the framework. After firing, the disk was
tipped out. The result was cloisonné on one side and
plain glass on the other side. This technique was used
straight through to the eleventh century A.D.
Near the end of Mr.
Buckton's presentation, he showed a slide of a late thirteenth
century piece of so-called email de plique, which today we know
It was inevitable
that at some stage, someone would run out of cement and try to
fuse the glass insert by heating. And, of course, we know
someone discovered glass powder could be fused directly to the
metal. Progress by fortunate accidents and the genius of
crafts people looking for shortcuts is the main ingredient of
The word cloisonne
is used to identify the technique as well as the finished
product. The cloisonné technique does not presuppose the
use of enamel. We have seen above the technique originated
with gems rather than enamel. Alexander and Gerber3
mentions wired snuff bottles with no enamel, cloisons filled
with lacquer and others with acrylic plastic. In 1868,
Tsukamoto Kaisuke4 was the
first to apply cloisonne wires to pottery and fill the cells
with various colors of glaze. Harper's New Monthly
Magazine, p. 211 mentioned above, describes a method which seems
questionable in some respects. Day5
describes a more feasible description.
including Susan Benjamin, Marian Campbell, Lewis Day, and
Reynold Higgins consider filigree a variation of the cloisonné
technique. It consists of wires soldered in patterns to a
background. The wire may be arranged singly, in twists, or
in plaits, and they may be plain or beaded. According to
Higgins6, the Royal Tombs at
Ur, of about 2500 B.C., produced filigree work of an advanced
kind and the crude beginning of granulation. The Russian
and Hungarian wire enamels seem similar.
including Benjamin, Campbell and Day consider plique a jour a
variation of cloisonné. Both Benjamin and Campbell refer
to it as backless cloisonné.
The reason or
function of the wires is an age-old subject for
discussion. Originally, the reason may have been
independent of the function. Originally, the reason had to
do with the goldsmith being accustomed to making sockets for
jewels out of upstanding strips of metal soldered on and
afterwards bent over the edges of stones to hold them in
place. He was in the habit of soldering on cloisons for
mosaics of precious stones and glass inlays. And, perhaps
the patron would not accept it any other way. Later, the
artist would see the value of the metal line and take it into
account in the design. The artist continues to do so even
though, today, the wire serves no other function.
The function of the
wires is less obvious, a bit more complicated, and more
argumentative. Metalworkers are familiar with solder
melting and rapidly spreading. They are familiar with how
much care must be taken to keep it from running to unwanted
areas. It is natural for the metal worker (and others) to
believe enamel does the same. The single fundamental
difference between glass and other inorganic material is:
GLASS PRODUCES A VISCOUS LIQUID. Enamel cannot melt - its
viscosity reduces with temperature and spreads only slightly at
the correct fusing temperature. The use of cloisons to
keep the colors separate has been greatly exaggerated.
With the glass available and the primitive firing means the
early enameler had a difficult time getting the enamel to gloss
out, let alone run very far. The early enamel would barely
fuse at 850°C (1562°F). If an enamel design is over
fired to cause spreading or slumping, the entire design slumps,
leaving the boundaries intact. This is easily demonstrated
by placing a section of millefiore on an enamel surface and
heating sufficiently to cause slumping. The design
elements retain their proportions regardless of how far they
slump. The millefiore technique dates from the twelfth
dynasty (2000-1788 B.C.)
The function of the
wires 3500 years ago was to counter the low expansion of the
early enamels. Of course, the expansion of the enamel must
always by less than that of the metal in order for the enamel to
always be under compression. However, when the
differential is too great, the enameled piece will warp
excessively as it cools, causing the enamel to crack and chip
off. Silver has the highest expansion of the three common
metals (gold, copper, silver) used as a base for
enameling. It is no surprise there is little mention of
silver enameling during the early years. The earliest
known cloisonne on copper is of the 10th century A.D.7
Gold, having the
lowest expansion of the three metals, along with its high
ductility, was the only possibility in the beginning. Even
then, the success was possible only on small pieces. And
that is what cloisons did - divided the object into a number of
small enameled pieces, joined by un-enameled metal. In
addition, the cloisons added strength to the metal shape,
reducing the warpage, which in turn reduced the cracking and
chippage of enamel.
We have never seen
an example, however, Day8
states, "In the rendering of the human face, where
exceptionally broad surfaces of unbroken enamel occur, cloisons
have actually been used, only they are shallower than the rest,
and are covered up by the last coat of enamel."
about the compositions of enamel used throughout history is
limited. We do not know exactly when enamel, with suitable
expansion, was available to eliminate the need for
reported the compositions of some 14th century Basse Taille
enamels which, from our calculations, would have coefficients of
thermal expansion well in excess of 300 cm/cm/°C x 10-7.
This is sufficient to make cloisons unnecessary. The
availability of enamels with this value of expansion would also
contribute to the success of the so-called painted enamel
technique developed in the 15th century.
The prestige and
mystique of cloisonné is perhaps due to being the first
technique to be developed to full beauty, long before other
techniques. It is easy to see why many would think this is
the true way of using the material.
Garner, Sir Harry.
CHINESE AND JAPANESE CLOISONNE ENAMELS. Faber &
Faber, London, 1976, p.15.
Barsali, Isa Belli.
EUROPEAN ENAMELS. Cassell, London, 1988, p. 9.
Alexander, W.F. &
Gerber, D.K. CLOISONNE EXTRAORDINAIRE.
Wallace-Homestead Book Co., Des Moines, IA, 1977, p.11.
SHIPPO - THE ART OF ENAMELING IN JAPAN. Far Eastern
Art Council of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Catalog of Exhibition, Feb. 5 - Apr. 26, 1987, p.26.
Day, Lewis F.
ENAMELLING. B.T. Batsford, London, 1907, p.147.
GREEK AND ROMAN JEWELLRY. University of California
Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1980, p.22.
Ref. #5, p.22.
Ref #5, p.64.
Between Original and Imitation: Four Technical Studies
in Basse Taille Enameling and Re-enameling of the
Historicism Period. THE BULLETIN OF THE CLEVELAND
MUSEUM OF ART. Vol. 81, No. 7, September, 1994,