A Grand Finale: Enamel Masterworks

Throughout this series, I have made it clear that I am not a master of these arts, and that my experience with enameling was limited to a brief “career” spanning the years 1983 to 1988. I would like to end the series with examples of true masterworks and other notable enamels,  from both long ago and the more recent past.

With these examples, I would like to make the reader aware of the very long history of the art form, the high level of skill and talent devoted to it through the ages, the brilliance and beauty it can attain, the diversity of techniques, and the durability of the pieces created.  

Note: Numbers in parentheses shown beside pictures refer to the Photo Credits list at the end of this posting.

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The leading role in this posting goes without question to one of the oldest known enamel works, a dagger from the Mycenaean period in Greece, 15th Century B.C., decorated with cloisonné enameling. This was the era that, in the belief of many, somewhat later saw the Trojan War and such heroes as Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and Aeneas.

The durability of enamel is immediately apparent – a fresh surface seemingly from the recent past, contrasting with the severely corroded blade that shows the weathering of well over three millennia.

0 Enam Clois Dagger, Myc15CntBC Mus of Athens(0)

The Holy Crown of Hungary (also known as the Crown of Saint Stephen) features one of the best known collections of enamel masterworks in the world. It was the coronation crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary through most of its existence; more than fifty kings have been crowned with it since the 12th century, up to the last in 1916.

1 ok SZENTK~1b(1)

The enamels on the Holy Crown are mainly or altogether Byzantine work, presumed to have been made in Constantinople in the 1070s. The crown has probably been remodeled, and it uses elements of different origins. The date assigned to the present configuration of the Holy Crown varies, but is most commonly put around the late 12th century.

The cross was knocked crooked in the 17th century when the crown was damaged, possibly by the top of the iron chest housing it being hastily closed without the crown having been placed in it properly. The cross has since been left in this slanted position.

Following are details of two enamels on the crown, the Greek (1a) and the Latin (1b) Pantokrators. “Christ Pantokrator,” or “Christ the Almighty,” is one of the first images developed in the early Christian Church, and remains as a central icon of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Greek enamel is mounted on the front of the crown, and the Latin at the top of the crown, where the bent cross can be seen from center to left center.

1a ok The_Greek Pantokrator_(1a)

1b ok The Latin Pantokrator_on the_top_of_the Holy_Crown(1b)

A much older piece, known as the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan, is of enameled bronze. It dates from Roman Britain in the 2nd Century AD, and was found in a very well preserved condition with intact enamel inlays. It is inscribed with the name Aelius Draco and the names of four forts on Hadrian’s Wall: MAIS (Bowness-on-Solway), COGGABATA (Drumburgh), VXELODVNVM (Stanwix), and CAMMOGLANNA (Castlesteads).

2 ok Staffordshire Moorlands_Pan_(1284837406)(2)

The shoulder-clasp below is from the 7th century AD Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, U.K. It is classified as Migration Period Art, denoting the artwork of the Germanic peoples during the period of about 300-900 AD.

3 ok Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasp2 RobRoy(3)

A champlevé casket, believed to be of North German origin during the period 1100 to 1150 A.D., is shown below.

4 ok Champleve Enamel_Casket, perhaps_1100-1150 AD, perhaps North_German, gilded copper and enamel Cleveland Museum of_Art DSC08540(4)

Other early enamels include:

Saint George slaying the Dragon, a Georgian cloisonné enamel on gold, 15th Century, inscribed in ancient Georgian and Greek

5 ok St_George,_Georgia_(15th_c)1(5)

Temple Pendant (Kolt) with Two Birds, a 12th Century Ukrainian piece for a woman’s headdress, designed to hang at her temples

6 ok Ukr kolt temple pendant 12C(6)

By the 14th century, the cloisonné technique had spread to China, where it is still in common use. The Chinese applied it to much larger vessels, such as bowls and vases, than had previously been done elsewhere. The bowl shown here, using nine colors of enamel, was made during the Ming Dynasty, 1368 to 1644.

7 ok 1280px Ming Cloisonne  bowl(7)

The following plate, The Adoration of Psyche by Pierre Courteys, 1560, is an example of the grisaille technique, previously discussed. Color was added using the limoges technique, which has not yet been described in this series. Finely ground enamel was mixed with oil to form a paste that could be manipulated much in the fashion of an oil paint, achieving subtle gradations of color and shade.

8 ok 136207 -004-553A02A9(8)

The next piece is a “vinaigrette” by an anonymous Swiss artist, dated about 1805. Vinaigrettes, also known as smelling salt containers, had become fashionable in about 1800. They were small containers fitted with a pierced inner lid that contained sponges drenched with scent or perfume. Typical cloisonné patterns can be seen on top and around the middle of the piece. Elsewhere, the delicate flower paintings suggest the use of the limoges technique.


The artist’s skill can best be appreciated with the information that the diameter of the piece is 1.1 inch.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russia played a prominent role in enamel art. By far the best-known name in Russian enamels was the House of Fabergé. This firm was commissioned by two successive Tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II, to make artworks as gifts to their empresses and, in the case of Nicholas, to his mother as well.

Carl Fabergé had freedom of design provided that the artwork was based on an Easter egg, and that there was a hidden surprise within the egg. This practice started in 1885 and became a tradition lasting until the Bolsheviks nationalized the House in 1918 and the Fabergé family fled.

Fifty-four Imperial eggs were completed, of which 42 have survived.

Illustrated here are four that are particularly noteworthy for their creative use of enamels, particularly in the grisaille and limoges techniques, in combination with highly decorative metalwork.

10 ok Grisaille CATHER~1 Fab1914(10)   11 ok Gatchina Fab1901(11)

12 ok Peterthegreategg(12)   13 ok Romanov Tercentenary_Egg-2(13)

The final piece in this series was made using a technique not previously mentioned, known as plique-à-jour (“letting in daylight”). All or nearly all the enamels used in such a piece are transparent or translucent.

14 ok Thesmar Cup with Poppies(14)

In this particular piece, Cup with Poppies, made in 1903 by the French artist André Fernand Thesmar, cloisonné wires were assembled on a temporary base to form cells that were then filled with layers of enamel and fired.

In an alternative plique-à-jour procedure, pockets similar to those of the champlevé technique, but piercing the entire metal sheet, are created by any suitable means – etching, drilling, sawing, etc. A temporary backing plate is then attached.

In both the above cases, the temporary base or backing plate serves as a floor to hold the enamel in place during packing and firing. Afterward, it is removed and discarded. Depending on the shape and needs of the piece, the temporary item may be of metal to which enamel does not adhere, or of mica, so that it is easily removed by tapping. Or other means of removal, such as by a mordant or by abrasion, may be employed.

The final effect is that of a miniature stained-glass window. This technique is laborious and slow, and it has a high failure rate. Many pieces have not survived because of their extreme fragility. The technique originated in the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century A.D.

Photo Credits

(0) Dagger with cloisonné enamel, Mycenaean, 15th Century B.C. Museum of Athens.

(1) Crown of the king of Hungary at the Dome hall of the Parliament building, Budapest, Northern Hungary. Including (1a) The Greek Pantokrator on the Hungarian Holy Crown, and (1b) The Latin Pantokrator on the top of the Holy Crown.

(2) Staffordshire Moorlands Pan (1284837406) by Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England. Photo by Dominic Coyne, Young Graduates for Museums and Galleries programme, August 2007.

(3) Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasp. Rob Roy. From the 7th century Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo.  British Museum.

(4) Champlevé Enamel Casket, perhaps 1100-1150, perhaps North German, Gilded copper and enamel.  Cleveland Museum of Art.

(5) St. George slaying the dragon. Georgian, 15th Century. Georgian State Museum of Fine Arts.

(6) Temple Pendant (Kolt) with Two Birds. Ukrainian, 12th Century. Walters Art Museum.

(7) Ming Dynasty cloisonné enamel bowl. Royal Museum, Edinburgh. Photo by P. Schemp

(8) Plate depicting the adoration of Psyche, by Pierre Courteys, 1560. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photograph by Beesnest McClain. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, William Randolph Hearst Collection, 48.2.4

(9) Vinaigrette. Swiss, anonymous, about 1805. Walters Art Museum.

(10) Catherine the Great, Fabergé Easter Egg 1914. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens.

(11) Gatchina Palace, Fabergé Easter Egg 1901. Walters Art Museum.

(12) Peter the Great, Fabergé Easter Egg 1903. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

(13) Romanov Tercentenary, Fabergé Easter Egg 1913. Kremlin Armoury.

(14) Cup with Poppies, by André Fernand Thesmar, 1903. Walters Art Museum.




Design with Nature: Fish and Shellfish

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

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This image of a fossil fish, six inches square, is one of the larger enamel pieces in this series. The base is a steel panel that had previously been coated with enamel in an industrial process.

 XI. FossilFish

Relatively simple techniques were used to produce the piece.

Sifting fine-grained enamel onto the wetted surface produced the major areas of different colors; the piece was fired after each color. Masks cut from absorbent paper, wetted and placed on the surface, controlled the boundaries of the areas.

A technique known as sgraffito was used to form the linear features such as ribs and cracks. A wooden stylus scratched through the coating of dried enamel prior to firing.

The image is reminiscent of the scorpion fish presented in an earlier posting of this series. That piece is presented here again because it is an outstanding example of enamel design based on nature, and specifically on a fish.

 XI.  ScorpFsh  Copy

As previously noted, the source of the image was a photograph of a living fish in deep ocean waters. The bone structure was visible through the transparent flesh.

The next two pendants show an angel fish in shallow tropical waters above a reef. Silver wires mark the part of the image formed by the cloisonné technique. Other features, including the fish, employed the basse-taille (low relief) technique. Thin sheets of silver were embossed, put in position, and covered with sufficient transparent enamel to build a smoothly rounded surface.

XI. Angelfish 2                XI. Angelfish 1

Seashells are a rich source of design for enamels of all sizes. I found them particularly useful for small pieces such as cufflinks, earrings, and small pendants.

               XI. CowrieEarr Grn                XI. Cowrie Aqua Earr

Shown here are cowry designs in several colors departing from nature…

XI. Cowrie Lilac Set              XI. Cowrie CffLnks

…and a design based on an iridescent, multicolored abalone shell. All used the basse-taille technique with low-relief designs etched out of fine silver by nitric acid.

XI. Abalone-02a

The next two pieces represent the champlevé technique, in which the design is expressed by alternating areas of silver and enamel at the surface. The enamel fills pockets etched out of the fine silver by nitric acid.

XI. DoveShell joined copy2                    XI. Unident Shell

The image of a conch shell appears on the next piece, a heavy copper sheet about five by six inches in size.  This was a learning piece for the Grisaille technique.  I know of no other way that such smooth transitions among multiple shades of a color (gray in this case) can be produced with opaque enamels.

XI. Conch Grisaille

On a thickly enameled black base, successive layers of white are built up. Where the darkest gray is wanted, the fewest white layers are applied. Where the lightest gray is wanted, the largest number of white layers is applied.

The piece is then high-fired (at temperatures above the normal range of 1400 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit). All the white enamel disappears. A normal firing then restores the image. In the restored image, edges of layers cannot be seen. Transitions between different shades are smooth and gradual.

Some grisaille pieces from many centuries ago were colored by applying a top layer of transparent colored enamel. This is comparable to colorizing black and white photos by applying transparent colored ink. In part II of this series, transparent enamels have colorized the grisaille image of the Healing Fragrance piece.


More Boxes, Dishes, and Mementos

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

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The story of a boy riding on the back of a dolphin dates back to ancient Greece. I have never done the research to form an opinion on whether this has actually happened, and when. Nevertheless, we know that dolphins are intelligent creatures, and that on occasion they have been both friendly and protective towards people. I like to believe that the picture below depicts a true event, and that it could occur in modern times as well as in ancient Greece. Which is why the boy is clothed in swim trunks.


 The enamel is on fine silver and is mounted on the walnut lid of a box with a walnut base and sides of enameled copper. Sterling silver inlays in the wood carry the wave theme beyond the enamel.

In the open box, the dark amber counterenamel on the copper siding can be seen. The edge of the copper is covered with a channel wire of sterling silver.

BoyDolph2                    BoyDolph4

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The next box shows the sad face of a clown who suffers among the symbols of joy and comedy at a circus. The mood is inspired by the scene in Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci, in which the clown sings Vesti la Giubba, as he dresses for the show while mourning the love that was stolen from him.

 Clown-03               Clown-04
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The box titled “Nantucket” was commissioned by my sister-in-law as a memento, a gift to her partner in real estate, upon their opening of a new development named and fashioned after the theme of Nantucket.

Nantucket           Nantucket(2)

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The music box Portofino is a memento of a happy honeymoon there. It was commissioned as a gift for the young bride on the occasion of their first wedding anniversary.

Portofino MusBx2                Portofino MusBx1-06

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Another music box, showing here a glimpse of its inner workings, is designed on a Russian theme in keeping with its music.

              RussMscBx2        RussMscBx3

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Wooden dishes provide another attractive setting for enamel pieces. The dishes are normally produced on a wood lathe. I also had success in using a much less expensive machine, called the Bowl Crafter, in which the wood is turned slowly while the blade of an electric router does the cutting. One dish below shows bobwhites in the field; the other portrays the cottage of Anne Hathaway, born in 1556, who married William Shakespeare.

 XI d BobWhite1-08               XI d Hathaway Cott  04 (2)
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Many items were commissioned as gifts to commemorate some special occasion. Most were simple pendants similar to those shown previously. Several of the boxes shown above were likewise mementos. Some of the more unusual items are shown here.

This simMeditationple dome-shaped circular design was specified by the customer as a birthday gift for her fiancé. She was precise regarding the proportions and the colors. It was essential that the red circle reflect light well because he would be gazing into it for purposes of meditation. I complied by including a small circle of gold foil beneath the red enamel. I wondered, with a silent chuckle, just what it was that was being represented here. I soon found out, when she brought me a book on Yoga meditation. It showed exactly the design I was following, as an instrument for meditation.

Meditation 2


Several days after I gave her the completed work, she returned in tears. She had an inscription engraved on the silver back, and the birth date was wrong. I could have made a new bezel, but I first suggested a less costly approach: I gave her the exact thickness of the silver, and asked her to consult with the engraver; he could possibly grind away the old inscription and engrave the corrected one. That apparently worked, for I never heard about it again.

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The next piece illustrated the blue and white symbol of a local hospice. It was presented as a retirement gift to a lady who had worked there for many years.  XI HospiceRetir -08

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One day a young fellow brought me a single cufflink. He had proudly worn it ever since inheriting it from his grandfather. Now he had lost its mate. Could I duplicate it? Well, I was willing to try the complex design, called Blue Wisteria. It would involve the Champlevé technique, tracing the design with resistant asphalt paint, and then etching the remainder with a mordant. But I didn’t think I could match the exact color of the enamel, or the texture of the gold plating, apparently from some industrial process. I suggested replacing both cufflinks to ensure a good match. And so I did, and so the young man went off, content with the thought that he’d done the second best thing, next to not losing the cufflink in the first place.

BlueWisteria2 4

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XI Rejoined-14Finally, a memento celebrating the remarriage of some close relatives. After 36 years of a good and fruitful marriage, with three grown children, they divorced.   One year later, there was a happy remarriage that lasted the rest of their lives. The enamel piece was made by a team effort. I came up with the design concept, my son Jasper developed the precise design, and my wife, Jaquelin, a novice enamelist, performed the actual work. The enamel is presented in a box-type frame.

After both of the couple had died, I received the following note and picture from their daughter. It is a response like this that fully rewards an artist or a writer, and instills a pressing desire to continue the work.

“I’m attaching a photo of the small altar I created in memory of my parents. The wood box contains mementos, letters and two small keepsake urns containing some of Mom and Dad’s ashes. I’m sure you recognize the cloisonné piece you created in celebration of their reunion when they remarried; it’s now in a place of honor and I treasure it.”

Freund Altar Rszd

(Photo courtesy of Jaqui Freund)

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Enamels decorated the weapons of ancient Mycenaean warrior kings. They adorned important religious objects such as reliquaries and chalices throughout the medieval period. They made superb gifts fit for the most highly honored royalty, such as the Fabergé eggs of the Russian czars and their families. And throughout three millennia, enamels have furnished brilliant and richly colored jewelry for both men and women.

The simple pieces shown in this posting show that enamels can well express celebration and joy over everyday human experiences.


Design with Nature: Birds

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

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As I became more adept at the techniques of enameling, I began to feel daunted by the power of the art form. It offered tremendous opportunities through freedom of proportion, rich colors, and its ability to emphasize line work. Using such features, I realized, was subject to principles and rules that I had not studied beyond the first year of high school, and had never really grasped.

Anxious to learn quickly, I reasoned that most of these principles and rules probably expressed the preferences that nature had instilled in us long ago. Nature, then, was the arbiter of what was artistically sound. My starting point would be to prepare realistic images of natural subjects. Abstraction could come later. I began with birds.

Which was better to start with than the bald eagle? I sensed that nature would not only guarantee the artistic soundness of this image, but would also add a touch of drama reflecting the personality of this fearless hunter. It worked reasonably well, both small (on cufflinks) and large (on a box lid).


EagleCfflnks2-06 300

Eagle Lect 14 300

Other species followed in short order. Feeling more comfortable about choice of color, I began taking small liberties with what nature had provided. In some cases, a realistic pendant or brooch might be accompanied by more abstract smaller accessories like earrings and cufflinks.

Bird 1 Pend 300      Humbird 1 Pend 300      MiscBird1-06 300

Of the two pairs of “button” earrings shown below, the pair on the left reflects elements of numerous bird images; on the right, the enlargement of a small detail of a butterfly’s wing.

VIII. MiscBird3Earr 300

VIII. Swallows Feeding Lect 17 300        VIII. MiscBird-03 300       PenguinPnd-07 300

Again, the penguin image on the pendant is a source for abstractions on the first pair of accompanying earrings. Hummingbird images are caricatured on the second pair. In the third pair, the avian origin is mostly lost in abstraction.

PenguinEarr-06 300            Hummbrd Earr-04 (2) 300

VIII. Champleve1-09

Finally, we present a “copy of a copy” of nature. The ancient Athenians used a wise owl to represent their patron Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. And so they used an owl to decorate their silver tetradrachm, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the coins ever minted. Here is a rendition of the coin in enamel. It was made by the basse-taille (low-relief) technique; relief was obtained by embossing a thin sheet of fine silver.

VIII. Classical Owl tetradrachm 300