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The Art of Enamel in Antique Jewelry

From the ancient Persians who called the art of enameling 'meenakari' ('to place paradise onto an object') to ancient Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and China - the decorative technique of enameling has been a widespread practice for millennia. But what exactly is enamel?


18-carat gold and blue enamel snake ring, c.1830

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The Story of Enamel


Enamel is a kind of powder usually consisting of natural quartz sand and various metal oxides. This powder is made into a 'fondant' or paste and is applied to metals for decorative effect. This 'glass composite' is then fused to the object using very high temperatures (between 750 and 850 °C). The word 'enamel' comes from the Old High German word 'smelzan', meaning 'to smelt'. The temperature of the fusion process can determine the transparency of the enamel as well as the intensity of its color, and generally speaking, higher temperatures will create a more durable and transparent-looking enamel while a lower temperature will create a more opaque-looking enamel which is more susceptible to damage. Generally, the most reliable enamels use only natural materials like quartz sand and metal oxides, instead of artificial materials like fiberglass.


Enameling is an ancient technique, but it's one that is still popular today and has been across the millennia. The oldest known enameled jewelry is a series of six gold rings decorated with cloisonné enamel found in an ancient tomb in Cyprus, made around the 13th century BC, during the Mycenaean period. Enameled jewelry also flourished in the Eastern Roman Empire and Celtic areas of Gaul and Britain during the Byzantium era, and the Renaissance era and the neo-renaissance revival of the 19th century saw another peak in popularity for enamel jewelry.




Colors


Blue to Red


It is possible to create enamel in almost any color, but some are more difficult than others to make. The thing that determines the color of enamel is the type of metal oxide added to the enamel powder. For example, purple is made using iron oxides, while red is made by adding gold. The most popular colors used in antique enamel jewelry are blues, as these are the easiest and most reliable to create.


Gold posy ring, the exterior wreathed and enameled in turquoise-blue bands of enamel each relieved by a small circle reserved in the metal, alternating with the gold, made by GW, c.1660-1678

© The Trustees of the British Museum



A gold, heart-shaped, enameled locket decorated with a colorful flower bouquet on a light blue background; a different bouquet on each side of the locket; the side has green enameled leaves. The locket is marked with a ’tête de bébé’ for works in 19-carat gold from Paris after 1797 and with the makers’ mark of Gabriel-Raoul Morel (1764-1832). Via @inezstodel_jewelry on Instagram



High carat Victorian bracelet designed as a buckle and belt, the buckle set with cushion-cut diamonds, and the belt elaborately decorated with blue enamel and gold

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European enamel cross with rose-cut diamonds and Burma rubies, c.1670. The bottom holds a hinged faceted rock crystal heart with a rose-cut diamond border containing reliquaries

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Gold, enamel, and diamond ring, c.1790. The pale blue enamel is set with cushion-cut diamonds and the hair work is set with gold stars. With the inscription, ‘James Garder died 23 December 1790 aet 39 yrs'

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18th-century German ring with a pearl outer border and a gold, blue, and white enamel inner border, featuring a beautiful miniature scene on a blue ground

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Gold ring with a hinged oval bezel set with a pink sapphire in a border or rose-cut diamonds, below is a compass dial, with volutes and strapwork on the shoulders and pale blue enamel, Germany, c. 1850-1900

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Royal/midnight blue smooth, dark enamel became quite popular in London in 1775, thanks to expert enameller Jusen. It's believed that the explosion in the popularity of jewelry in this color was due to it being used in gifts given by royals to other royals. Royal/midnight blue enamel is often seen as the background of rings, brooches, watches, and bracelets displaying royal ciphers and crowns. This was a trend that caught on in France when Bagues au Firmament became fashionable.


Enamelled gold commemorative ring, set with diamonds. The oval bezel with a rose-cut diamond cipher of King Louis Philippe of France (r. 1830-1848) below a crown over blue enamel. With an openwork brilliant-cut diamond border and French warranty mark from 1838

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Ring with an engraved gold and blue enamel serpent entwined around a band of ribbed brown hair. The serpent's head has an open mouth and small ruby eyes, London, c.1848

© The Trustees of the British Museum



Two blue enamel Snake rings. Left: rare mid-19th century Russian snake ring with french import marks. Right: rare articulated early Victorian blue enamel snake ring modeled in 18-carat gold with pearl detailing and ruby eyes, inscribed ‘Charlotte Maria Cameron on 11 August 1846 aet 17 yrs’. She was the eldest daughter of Col. Gordon Cameron who lost an arm in the battle of Waterloo. Her brother was the Page of Honour to the house of Queen Victoria

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Three blue enamel snake bracelets. Left: stunning double snake bracelet, the snakes holding a heart pendant in their mouths. This one was given as a wedding present to a famous countess and is very similar to one owned by Queen Victoria. Middle: Victorian high carat gold snake bangle, decorated with enamel, pearls, and rubies. Right: Antique gold and blue enamel snake bracelet set with pearls.

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Victorian snake bracelet with a blue enameled snake biting a gold gauntlet, set with rose-cut diamonds

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A selection of Bague au Firmament rings with diamond stars against a midnight blue enamel sky (1 | 2 | 3)

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European blue enamel 18-carat gold locket, c.1860, with a pearl border and a scene in gold and worn enamel of a cherub and clock. The reverse has a glass locket back

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Enamelled gold ring, the hoop decorated with a hunting scene (a hunter and hounds chasing a stag in a forest) in gold on a blue enamel ground, Germany, c. 1800-20

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



An early Victorian blue enamel and diamond ring, the diamonds set into a star shape with gold patterning on the shoulders of the ring - Antique Animal Jewelry



Georgian rose-cut diamond ring with an unusual moss-green enamel face, decorated with a bouquet of diamond flowers - Antique Animal Jewelry




Blue guilloché enamel pieces were particularly popular, especially during the Victorian era. These are pieces where the metal has first been given the guilloché treatment, using a special lathe or 'rose machine' to create a patterned surface, and then is covered with a translucent layer of enamel. Guilloché enamel was used most often as a background for a piece of jewelry, to coat a 3D figure, or in borders.


An 18-carat gold octagonal ring with guilloche behind blue enamel and transparent glass with an enameled cartouche decorated with gold ribbons with the text ‘Amitié’ (friendship), 18th century, France

Via Inez Stodel Antique Jewellery



Late Victorian/Edwardian blue guilloche enamel Witches heart brooch/pendant with a floral border of rose-cut diamonds, and back inscription ‘1884 oc 1909’

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A Tsarist-era brooch/pin made in Moscow, c.1908-1917, by the prominent jewelry firm of Feodor Lorie.

The brooch is handcrafted in 14K gold and silver. It features a finely modeled Art Nouveau diamond flower mounted on a royal blue guilloche enamel plaque framed by rose-cut diamonds. The flower is embellished with old pear-cut, marquise-cut, and rose-cut diamonds. Maker’s initials ‘ФЛ’ (Feodor Lorie)

Via 1stdibs



Georgian blue enamel navette ring with diamond and silver urn

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Rare and unusual Victorian ring with a pearl set star central motif, set into blue guilloche enamel, with sprung joints so it expands to fit. Inscribed, ‘Mary H St John died October 31 1851 aged 76 years’

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Rare rose-cut diamond snake brooch with blue guilloche enamel center and diamond set initials ‘MC’, with a tiny dangling key and heart. The key and heart motif translates as 'You have the key to my heart', and the snake symbolizes eternal love. The back is set with a glass hair locket

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Mourning locket with a gold case enclosing an ornamental motif in curled hair-work with seed-pearls and gold wire on a blue enameled guilloché ground with a pendant loop and a border with flowers and leaves in chased gold relief. The reverse has an engine-turned decoration with an oval panel and an inscription with a border of chased gold flowers and leaves, made by John Wilkinson, England, c.1826

© The Trustees of the British Museum




The most difficult colors to achieve in enamel are reds. This is because red colors use gold, and gold can behave very unpredictably when fired, making it hard to know what shade and exactly what color items will come out as.


Three enamel and diamond rings, c.1790

From Georgian Jewelry by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings



Heart-shaped propelling pencil in red and blue enamel, pierced by a silver arrow whose feather shaft twists to propel the lead - Antique Animal Jewelry



A Victorian mask brooch in guilloche red enamel with diamond eyes

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High carat snake with red guilloche enamel center and cushion cut diamond, with hair locket back

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White and Black


White and black enamel is used a lot in Georgian and Victorian jewelry, particularly with the popularity of mourning jewelry. Both white and black bands were often worn to commemorate the dead. While it is not universally the case, generally white was used to signify that the dead person was a baby or unmarried/a virgin, while black was generally used for all other mourning jewelry.


This gold mourning ring is enameled in white, commemorating the death of a baby. The ring is set with rose-cut diamonds and is inscribed 'Matthew Arnold died 10 May 1742 aged 8 months'. England, c.1742

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



White enamel rococo memorial band, c.1762

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Mourning stack of antique gold and black enamel mourning rings

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Three more stacks of gold and black enamel mourning rings, inscribed with dates and names

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Black and white enamel were also often used to create patterning on the shoulders of rings, and to pick out detail in impressive gold or silver pieces, or to coat 3-dimensional figures and shapes.


Victorian 18 carat gold cuff with envelope front panel and diamond and enamel buckle opening that reveals a glass locket compartment for a photo, or two

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Pristine, high carat Georgian mourning ring, with attractive crosshatched enamel detailing and shoulders, with gold foliate panels around the hair panel and enamel shoulders. The inside with inscription ‘ John Edwards ob 16 March 1819 aet 73’

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Georgian ouroboros crosshatched enamel snake brooch/pendant with an enamel detailed central panel with an urn design in gold and cream surrounded by a border of pearls. The back has a Hair panel locket and the inscription ‘Eliz Challen died 21 May 1835 aet 25’

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Black enamel and high carat gold ouroboros, c.1830, with an old-cut diamond head and ruby eyes

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Black enamel snake bracelets. Left: gold and black enamel snake bracelet with empty sockets for gemstones. Middle & Right: Victorian 18 carat bangle snake set with pearls and red garnet eyes

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Victorian black enamel and diamond snakes, with large rose-cut drop centers in pinched collet settings. The snakes have piercing ruby red eyes and high carat gold snake ear wires

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Rare late 18th-century French rose-cut diamond and black enamel ring, extremely long with sweeping foliate shoulders, the diamonds set in silver, the back and shank gold

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A black and green enameled snake ring with a rose-cut diamond head

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Masquerade ring with forget-me-nots in gold and enamel and set with diamonds, Western Europe, c.1760

From The Power of Love: Jewels, Romance and Eternity by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson



Georgian ring with hair at the center, the gold diamond-set border is decorated with black enamel detailing between the gems, and the shoulders are decorated with white enamel detailing

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Left: high carat mourning ring with gold monogram under glass and black and ivory enamel work with gold swag/garland detail on the shoulders. Right: Georgian ring made from a high carat gold with black, gold, and cream enamel and a central plaque made from dark navy Bristol glass, set with a table-cut diamond in silver at the center. Inscribed 'George Peacock 15 March 1796 aet 75

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18-carat gold snake ring, c.1830. Two intertwined snakes curl around a natural pearl, with shoulders decorated in white enamel - Antique Animal Jewelry



19th Century tiny 18-carat gold and white enamel snake coiled around a stick of onyx

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Austro Hungarian silver and white enamel lion head bracelet, the lions alternating with little amethysts

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Georgian bow-topped locket in white enamel with a later diamond bale

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Techniques


cloisonné


Cloisonné is an ancient enameling technique. The word cloisonné comes from the French 'cloison', meaning 'cell' or 'partition'. It is also known as the 'cell technique'. In simple terms, the technique involves soldering flattened metal wires, usually gold, to the surface of the piece to create a series of compartments or cells. These are then filled with enamel 'fondants' of various colors and then fired - different fondants and colors require different temperatures though, so the enamel would be applied starting with the ones that require the highest temperatures first. Around the turn of the 19th century, the Japonaiserie (Japonism) movement made cloisonné enamel very popular.


Locket decorated with gold and cloisonné enamel by Alexis Falize and Antoine Tard, Paris, c.1867-70

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



A locket case decorated with gold and cloisonné enamels in a Japanese style. The front bears the likeness of a cock while the reverse has an enameled compartment with a hinged glass lid covering a depiction of a vase of flowers. Made by Antoine Tard, Paris, c.1869

© The Trustees of the British Museum