ENAMEL TECHNIQUES

BY ROBERT CORSON

ENAMEL TECHNIQUES

 

There are a number of enamel techniques to be found embellishing souvenir spoons at the higher price points.  Most common are enamel bowls and finials. Other types are also found less frequently, for example, cloisonné, champlevé, guilloche, and plique a jour.  A brief description of these is in order.

First, a definition.  Enamel is defined as glass fused to metal.  Enamel begins as chunks of glass of a given color, called frit.  The glass may be opaque or translucent or iridescent or transparent. The frit is ground finely into a powder, mixed with water and an organic binder to form a paste.  The paste is applied with a fine brush or stylus to the metal, one color at a time.  After drying, the piece is put in a kiln at temperatures above 1400 degrees F for a minute or less.  The glass melts and fuses to the metal.   Removed and cooled, the process is repeated with the next color.  Intricate designs involving many colors may require dozens of cycles thorough the kiln.  The colors fuse at different temperatures; great care and experience is required for success.

Cloisonne is perhaps the best known enamel type.  It is formed by silver soldering narrow flat wire on edge to the back of a spoon, for example so as to outline the design.  The cells thus formed are filled with the wet enamel, dried and fired.  The cells may not fill completely, and the step is repeated.  The surface of the finished part is ground smooth to expose the embedded wire, and polished.  In the case of Russian filigree cloisonné, not all cells are filled leaving the reticulated ground exposed.  Here the outer edge of the wire must be kept free of enamel though out the many steps.

russian cloisonne spoon bowl

Champleve is often found on the backs of the bowls of finer Russian spoons.  It begins by engraving the pattern in deep, undercut groves.  The enamel is applied within the groves and fired.  When the pattern is completely filled, the surface is stoned and polished.  The Russians often engraved around each enamel  cell.  This step required extreme precision, for a mistake is permanent.

russian champleve spoon

Guilloche enamel often embellished Russian and Norwegian spoons.  Guilloche is formed by engraving or casting a pattern in the solid metal.  One or more uniform layers of translucent or iridescent enamel is fired so that the pattern is visible beneath the enamel.   Very fine patterns were made by engine turning.

guilloche silver spoon

Plique a jour enamel is distinguished by appearing as a stained glass window when held to the light.  It is formed much as cloisonné, but without the metal back.  The cells may be formed using twisted or flattened wire.  Each metal to metal contact must be hard soldered securely.  Alternatively, the cells may be formed by lost wax casting, or piercing out the design in solid metal.   All these are very time consuming steps with less than certain yield.  Enamelists consider plique a jour to be the most difficult of all the techniques.  Only a small percentage of available souvenir spoons were enameled in plique, and these were sold at the highest price points.  Being fragile, many have not survived.

plique spoon

Plique a jour enamel was embraced by the art nouveau movement, as it was well adapted to the smooth flowing lines of nature- inspired forms, e.g. flowers and leaves.  It appeared in souvenir spoons about 1890.  By 1910, Art Deco arrived, and soon after, World War One destroyed the tourist market for souvenirs.   Thus plique a jour spoons were only made for about 20 years, the two decades bounding 1900, fleeting relics of time and place. 

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