Just as the paints of an artist's palette colour a blank canvas in vibrant hues, enamel creates colours in jewellery that cannot be obtained from even the most sparkling of gems. A range of shades in almost every colour imaginable can be introduced to a piece of jewellery made with enamel � an art cultivated centuries ago that requires meticulous care and precision to create beautiful objects from metals and glass.
History of Enamel
Enamel is simply glass fused onto an object � usually a layer of metal � with the use of intense heat. Enamels consist of a compound of relatively soft glass and chemicals that is coloured by adding metallic oxides and minerals while still molten.
The introduction of glass in jewellery dates back to the 13th century BC, when Egyptian artisans used cut pieces of glass to fill the gaps in gold filigree jewellery. However, enamelling as we know it today was discovered by an unknown Cypriot craftsman who realised that, when fired at high temperatures, glass would fuse onto metal.
Since the discovery of enamelling, it has been used across the world not only in jewellery but also in a variety of artefacts. At the height of the religious fervour of the Middle Ages, both spiritual as well as secular objects such as chalices, cups, and spoons, were created out of enamel. Throughout Europe and Asia, armour, bowls, tableware, candlesticks and vases, among other objects, were decorated using enamel.
The earliest known enamelling technique is cloisonn� (French for 'cell'), in which designs made of bent metal wires soldered to a metal base were inlaid with enamel. Cloisonn� was popularised as early as the 6th century AD in the Byzantine Empire and later in Germany, Japan and China.
In Northern Europe, particularly the British Isles, the champlev� (French for 'raised field') technique, where enamel was inlaid into etched pits or depressions in the metal, was widespread. Champlev� began to dominate enamelled products across Western Europe, slowly replacing cloisonn� as the work of choice. Plique-à-jour (French for 'open to light') enamelling was developed around the 14th century in Italy and France, the latter was the hub of enamelling for nearly 800 years, from the 12th to the 20th centuries. The technique of painting with enamels, known as Limoges after the French region in which it was popular, also dates to the same period.
Enamelling in India
Not much is known about the introduction and history of enamelling in India. Scholars surmise that the champlev� technique was probably brought to India from Europe through Persia in the 15th or 16th century, with other enamelling techniques following soon after.
The most famous enamels in India are created in Rajasthan, where the artisans specialise in decorating gold jewelry and other metal objects with enamel. Known as minakari, enamelling in Rajasthan is a hereditary craft that has been popular in India since the Mughal period, and which grained prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. The families of enamellists � or minakars � from Jaipur and Delhi usually favour the champlev� and repouss� techniques.
Mina jewellery is usually made of gold, inlaid with precious and semiprecious stones in the front and enamelled with detailed traditional scenes on the reverse. Popular motifs in Indian enamels include vines, flowers, birds, paisley and calligraphy, and are most often red, green, white, blue, or a combination thereof. These colours are usually sourced from Amritsar in India, or else from France and Germany.
The plique-à-jour technique of enamelling creates highly delicate and intricate objects and is an offshoot of the older cloisonn� technique. Cloisonn� consists of creating a design on a metal base (usually gold) with small metal strip partitions that are soldered onto it. The 'cells' created are then inlaid with enamel and fired in order to create the finished product. In plique-à-jour, the metal strips are soldered onto each other rather than the base, which is removed after the enamel has annealed and cooled. Thus, the finished enamel has no backing and appears translucent. The resultant pieces are often described as miniature works of stained glass.
To create a plique à jour object, the enameller first draws an outline of the object. While the artist would finalise this with paint, the enameller uses metal. The outline functions as a map, and the enameller uses strips of metal to solidify his drawing. Once the metal outline is completed, the strips are soldered together to form a metal frame, the gaps of which will then be coloured with enamel. The frame is placed on a temporary backing, which may be removed later either by dissolving or polishing. The gaps are filled with enamel, and the frame is then fired � often multiple times � until the enamel has hardened and fused with the metal strips. Once the backing is removed, the plique à jour object is complete.
Plique à jour enamelling is a difficult task to master because of the tremendous skill involved in creating such fragile objects. Throughout history, few artists have been renowned for plique à jour enamel because few artists have met with resounding success. French jeweller Ren� Lalique is one of the pioneer artists to have used this technique in his work and is still associated with plique à jour today.
Historical plique à jour artefacts are also extremely rare because a completed plique � jour relic is extremely frail. One of the earliest plique à jour objects known to be in existence is the Merode Cup. Dating to the 15th century, the cup is made of silver with green enamelling and is today kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Artefacts made of plique à jour are uncommon and extremely valuable for several reasons. Very few enamellers have the proficiency to make good plique à jour works, and they are therefore not found in abundance. Further, the time and effort required to create a single plique à jour object is considerable.
A finished plique à jour piece reflects the enameller's sensibilities, vision and flair, and, as each piece is entirely hand-crafted, no two plique à jour objects are the same, even if created by the same enameller. The one characteristic that is constant of plique à jour objects is that each one ultimately flaunts vivid colours and impeccable sheen, which, if well preserved, can survive for generations.