From the October/November 2015 Issue:

Art & Antiques: A Closer Look at Cloisonné

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

This enamel art is nearly as old as civilization

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enlarge | French jeweler Gustave Baugrand collaborated with the famed enamel artist Antoine Tard to make this miniature carriage clock in 1870. The birds and flowers are said to be “in the Japanese taste,” the brilliant turquoise blue is a Chinese influence and the clock face with its griffin-head hands is European style. It measures less than 2½ inches tall. It’s offered for sale by the London-based antiques and fine jewelry dealer Wartski. Courtesy of Wartski
You’ll see it mentioned as an Asian art closely associated with the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China and later with the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in Japan. And the European fascination with all things “oriental” certainly contributed to the popularity of cloisonné in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as providing the impetus for a number of famed collections. But all of that is comparatively recent on the cloisonné timeline.

There’s evidence that cloisonné originated in ancient Egypt during the 2nd millennium B.C.—maybe even earlier. Cloisonné artifacts have been found at the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in Mesopotamia and at Mycenaean sites in Greece and Cyprus. Thanks to trading, exploration and various invasions and diasporas, the technique spread to Iran and throughout central Asia to Georgia, Armenia and even Siberia. It continued east to India, China and Japan and west into Europe. There, literally thousands of years after it originated, French enamel artists would give the technique its name—cloisonné, from the French for “partitions” or “cells.”

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enlarge | This cloisonné enamel lotus-pattern saucer, measuring 53/8 inches in diameter, was made during the first half of the 15th century. Although it comes from China, the style of the decoration shows a Middle Eastern influence that reflects the art’s journey east over the centuries. This piece was offered for sale by London-based dealer Priestley & Ferraro. Courtesy of Priestley & Ferraro
A Decorative Art
The partitions are formed by metal wire soldered to the surface of a metal object to create the outline of a design. Powdered colored glass mixed with water is applied to the spaces outlined by the wire. Then the entire object is fired briefly at a high temperature. This firing and cooling process, which fuses the glass to the object’s metal surface, is repeated several times to build up layers of enamel. When it’s complete, the enamel surface is polished and the wires gilded.

Describing the production of Japanese cloisonné, or “shippo-ware,” in step-by-step detail, an article in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly magazine from July 1882, marveled, “To look upon an ordinary piece of shippo-ware and attempt to count the pieces of wire that are placed upon it would appall one, but to think of cutting these minute pieces and applying them one by one will give a conception of patience that knows no weariness.”

A simpler variation of cloisonné is champlevé, from the French for “raised field,” which uses a thicker metal base from which cells are gouged out then filled with powdered glass, fired and cooled. Champlevé developed as a less labor-intensive, less-expensive alternative to cloisonné. In the same way, cloisonné enamel itself originated as a cost-effective alternative to encrusting the surface of an object with gemstones.

Always a purely decorative art, cloisonné adorned religious objects and icons. It embellishes the 11th century Byzantine royal crown of Hungary. It decorates the handles and scabbards of daggers and swords, the surfaces of eating and drinking vessels, smoking accessories (including opium pipes), and personal objects such as jewelry, buttons and hair combs intended for use by women in the upper strata of society.

When Ulysses S. Grant made a post-presidential visit to China in 1879, Chinese viceroy Li Hung Chang presented him with a pair of cloisonné vases, and Mrs. Grant later wrote that she purchased “two large, beautiful blue cloisonné vases...which nearly exhausted my purse, but I have now the pleasure of seeing them in my drawing room.”

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enlarge | Cloisonné decoration with tiny spiral wires indicates that this bottle probably was made in China in the early 17th century. The pomegranate, peach, rock, orchid and narcissus motifs together symbolize prosperity, longevity and integrity. This piece is one of the many Chinese cloisonné objects that collector Samuel P. Avery acquired and presented to the Brooklyn Museum in 1909 and 1910. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
French, Chinese or Both
The antique cloisonné objects you’ll see for sale most often today fall into two categories: those made in China and Japan during the 18th and 19th centuries and those made in Limoges, France, during the same period.

If you’re passionate about the former, investigate the sales taking place in New York City during Asia Week, March 10-19, 2016. While you’re there, take time to visit the Samuel P. Avery Collection at the Brooklyn Museum. With more than 300 objects, many dating back to the early 1600s, it’s among the finest collections of Chinese cloisonné in the world. In most of these pieces, the predominant color is Jingtailan—or Jingtai blue—the turquoise sky shade that the 15th century Jingtai emperor reputedly preferred for cloisonné objects.

As beautiful and finely wrought as the Chinese and Japanese wares that inspired them, antique French cloisonné objects are what one magazine from 1880 called “spirited adaptations of foreign wares,” right down to the Jingtai blue background color. They might have been intended to mimic their Asian counterparts, but they developed a style that’s distinctive and beautiful in its own right—representing just one stage in the long history of cloisonné.

Leslie Gilbert Elman, author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous and Totally Off the Wall Facts (Sterling), writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.