Cloisonné, or inlaid enamel, is one of the most painstaking enameling techniques, and has a rich history of well over 500 years. As blue is the dominant color adopted for enameling, cloisonné or “Blue of Jingtai” reached the pinnacle of its form in the hands of Chinese artisans, with Chinese cloisonné becoming the standard by which beauty and quality in a cloisonné object is measured. Becoming prevalent during the reign of Jingtai (1450–1456) in the Ming Dynasty, the technique for cloisonné enameling was passed onto China by missionaries from central Asia sometime in the early to mid-14th century.
The making of Cloisonné involves an elaborate and complicated process:
- Base-hammering – Copper is hammered and stretched by a coppersmith to form the body of cloisonné, determining the uniformity of thickness/weight.
- Filigree soldering – Upon completion of the desired copper form, brass wires are soldered to the surface of a copper object to form a design or illustration. Great care is taken to create what is often quite an intricate design, not unlike embroidery.
- Enamel filling – Colored enamel is used to fill in areas designated by the artisan according to the requirements of the design. Enamel is made by melting different materials such as red lead, boric acid borate, and glass powder together to become an opaque or translucent glistening material. A variety of oxidized metals are added, and the substance then changes into enamels of differing colors. For example, an excess of iron will turn gray, uranium yellow, chromium green, bronze blue, zinc white and gold or iodine red. Once cooled, the melted enamel solidifies, is then ground into powder, mixed with water to form a paste, where finally it is applied to the small compartments in the prearranged design separated by filigree.
- Enamel firing – Next comes the firing process. After every firing, there is often a natural contraction, which produces an uneven surface. The uneven areas are refilled with enamel paste of the same color and the process is repeated as many times as necessary until all filled in spaces are smooth without any discernable depressions, at which point the firing stage is considered complete.
- Polishing – Once fired, the enamelware surface must be polished smooth so that the soldered brass filigree and enamel compartments forming the pattern are even. The polishing process is performed again and again utilizing various methods, with re-firing employed.
- Gilding – Finally, the object is plated in gold or silver to keep it rust-free, with a final polishing.
Enamel over filigree, a variety of cloisonné enamel, was very popular in Russia. A floral or geometrical ornament of twisted wire is soldered onto the metal base. Each of the received cells is filled with enamel of different colours. After the firing the enamel lies somewhat lower than the filigree ornament; to avoid the damage of the pattern shaped by filigree wire, the enamel is not polished. The absence of polishing and the level of enamel being lower than the partition edges are the characteristic features of enamel over filigree that make it distinct from the standard cloisonné technique. For the enamel with filigree technique colored transparent and non-transparent enamels as well as colorless transparent enamel are used. Among metals, gold and silver are preferred, articles as well.
Champlevé enamel is one of the oldest enameling techniques.
Some subject matter or floral depiction is incised in a thick copper plate; the received troughs are filled with transparent or non-transparent multicolored enamel. Then the enamel is fired. If non-transparent enamel is used, it is polished and ground after firing. Champlevé enamels can be made on gold and silver, but most often on copper plates. The use of copper, the material which is cheaper than gold and silver, made champlevé enamels more widespread than cloisonné.
Enamel over cast ground is a variety of champlevé technique. Its specificity lies in producing a depiction by casting it together with the metal plate rather than incising it in the metal base by hand. The troughs on the plate are filled with polychrome transparent or non-transparent enamel, and the enamel is fired. This technique enables to use not only gold, silver and copper, but bronze as well.
Enamel over repoussé is the technique used for decorative enamelling over a high relief, the enamel cover following the shape of a metal relief depiction in the way of glazing. The firing of enamel is made at the maximum enamel fusing temperatures. In this technique the metal base is most often of copper and bronze, sometimes gold and silver are used.
Cloisonné has been highly appraised both in China and abroad given the brilliance of color and intricacy of design. This method has been utilized to create a variety of beautiful cane handles and even shafts.