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
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.
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
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
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
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'
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Antique Animal Jewelry
Victorian snake bracelet with a blue enameled snake biting a gold gauntlet, set with rose-cut diamonds
Antique Animal Jewelry
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
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
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
Late Victorian/Edwardian blue guilloche enamel Witches heart brooch/pendant with a floral border of rose-cut diamonds, and back inscription ‘1884 oc 1909’
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)
Georgian blue enamel navette ring with diamond and silver urn
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’
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
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 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
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
High carat snake with red guilloche enamel center and cushion cut diamond, with hair locket back
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
White enamel rococo memorial band, c.1762
Mourning stack of antique gold and black enamel mourning rings
Three more stacks of gold and black enamel mourning rings, inscribed with dates and names
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
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’
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’
Black enamel and high carat gold ouroboros, c.1830, with an old-cut diamond head and ruby eyes
Antique Animal Jewelry
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
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
A black and green enameled snake ring with a rose-cut diamond head
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
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
Antique Animal Jewelry
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
Austro Hungarian silver and white enamel lion head bracelet, the lions alternating with little amethysts
Georgian bow-topped locket in white enamel with a later diamond bale
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
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
Victorian Cloisonné Enameled Pocket Watch
Gold brooch made by Castellani (Rome), set with a gold plaque of cloisonné enamel with the monogram A and L in red, black, and white. The brooch is engraved 'from Alice and Louis, 24th May 1873', and has a compartment in the reverse containing a lock of hair. It was gifted to Queen Victoria on her birthday by her daughter Princess Alice and son-in-law Prince Louis of Hesse. After Victoria's death, it was given by her daughters to Mrs. Maude Lort Phillipps, maid-of-honor to the Queen, according to Victoria's wishes
Gold, enamel, and micromosaic brooch with a central circular mosaic depicting the Lamb of God on a green ground with a gold halo against a diapered background of red, blue, and grey. The dished border is ornamented in a type of cloisonné enamel with circles containing a lozenge with incurved sides which can also be read as a four-petal motif in green, on a pale blue ground, with small circles of red enamel in the center of each lozenge and white enamel circles in each 'spandrel'. The cells of the circles and lozenges are not filled up to the rim with enamel, forming a relief pattern. Made by Castellani, Rome, c.1860
Gold and enamel ring with a depiction of a dog, symbolizing fidelity, probably Swiss, c.1830
Alice and Louis Koch Collection via Georgian Jewelry by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings
The word Champlevé comes from the French for 'raised field'. This enameling technique involves carving, engraving, etching, stamping, striking, or casting the surface of a metal and then filling the depressions that have been made with enamel. The piece is then fired to fuse the enamel. In Champlevé, the bottoms of the recesses for the enamel are often rough, so mostly only opaque enamel colors were used. Again, the technique is ancient, with early Champlevé enamel jewelry and art dating back to the 3rd or 2nd century BC, particularly in Celtic Britain. It was also a technique used frequently in Romanesque art and jewelry in the late 11th century.
Enamelled gold ring set with a sardonyx cameo of Elizabeth I, decorated on the hoop and underside of the bezel with leaves in translucent green champlevé enamel and foliage and flowers in gold and painted pale blue, yellow, green, and black enamel on a white ground. The underside of the bezel shows a blue flower with six petals and a yellow center with black detailing showing North, East, South, and West, and a further four black and light green stylized leaves for NE, SE, SW, NW
A watch in an oval gold case. The hinged open-work cover is set with a large crystal and surrounded by eight smaller ones, all over ruby foil. Below the cover is a dial-plate engraved on a white ground with birds and scrolls filled with enamels. In the center is a landscape in colored enamels. The gold back-plate is engraved with formal flowers filled with enamels, pierced scroll cock, blued steel balance, gold barrel for mainspring engraved with flowers, and filled with enamels. The underside of the cover shows enameled birds on a white ground and insects on blue. The back of the case is emerald glass with a broad gold mount, France, c.1825-1875 - © The Trustees of the British Museum
Enameled gold pendant set with pearls, in the form of a quatrefoil with a central blue-stained chalcedony surrounded by four lobes of red enamel on a tooled-gold ground with a scalloped border. The reverse is decorated with red and blue champlevé enamel. Made by Luigi Marchi, Bologna, c.1898-1902
Basse-Taille was developed during the 13th and 14th centuries and is considered to be a development on the more ancient champlevé technique. Instead of engraving or carving channels or depressions of uniform depth into the piece, Basse-Taille relies on the creation of low-relief patterns via engraving or chasing that allow for more variation in depth. The enamel used in Basse-Taille is also almost always translucent or transparent to create a chiaroscuro effect, allowing light to reflect off of the relief and give the illusion of 3-dimensionality to the image. It was a technique used in the late Middle Ages but enjoyed a revival in the 17th century.
Victorian Basse-Taille Enamel Locket
Via Lang Antiques
Ronde-Bosse was invented during the early Renaissance in the late-14th / 15th century, though there is some evidence to suggest the technique may have been used many centuries before in ancient Greece. Ronde-Bosse is a technique specifically used for 3D shapes and miniature figures, where the enamel is usually applied to roughened gold or silver or is secured to the metal by first applying a kind of gum, which acts as a glue but disappears after heating the enamel. This technique enjoyed a revival in popularity around the mid-19th century (c.1840) in neo-renaissance jewelry.
Gold pendant jewel with an enameled green parrot (probably in the Ronde-Bosse technique given its 3-dimensionality), set with clusters of rubies, upper plate engraved and enameled with shields and flowers; rounded sides pierced with strapwork scrolls, enameled, with a hanging pearl. The pendant is suspended from three chains joined by a three-sided enameled cartouche with a hanging pearl. Parrot possibly made separately in Spain c.1500-1600 while the mounts and alterations are likely French, c.1850-1898
Also known as 'Peinture sur émail', painted enamel is the use of enamel to creature miniature portraits and paintings, and required a huge amount of skill with a paintbrush. Developed at the end of the 15th century in Limoges, France, the technique involves the use of a fired base of enamel for a background with layers of enamel carefully painted on to create the desired image, each of which has to be applied according to the order in which the different enamel colors need to be fired. Between every step, the piece would need to be fired at the appropriate heat to fix the colors, and sometimes up to 20 rounds of heating were needed for one piece.
In Geneva, Switzerland, painted enamel was also popular from the 15th century but didn't really take off until the mid-17th century. Genevan painted enamelists specialized in portraits and scenery images which became fashionable across Europe and beyond. Famous Genevan names of the days were Jean Petitot, Jean Etienne Liotard, and various members of the Huaud family. Their products remained fashionable well into the 19th century until the application of photography, which they could not rival.
A gold scarf pin set with an enamel portrait of Queen Victoria by William Essex after Winterhalter's painting of 1843 in the Royal Collections. Due to his incredible skill with miniature painting in enamel, Essex was mistakenly thought to be the originator of Essex Crystal jewelry, giving it its name - but he actually specialized in other forms of miniature painting like this piece. England, c.1850
Stunning enamel portrait of a lady in a Vandyke costume, c.1720. Attributed to Roquet
A Victorian tribute to the romance of Georgian masquerade in an enamel on gold demi-parure
Georgian watch pendant designed as a lute and enameled with pastoral and musical scenes
Antique French enameled gold hexagonal charm with a four-leaf clover and hinged front that opens to reveal the words ‘Porte Bonheur’ (lucky charm) engraved to the reverse ‘I Martie 1898’
A gold ring enameled with roses and daisies. The little hinged panels set around the hoop open to reveal the French inscriptions: 'I love you a little, a lot, passionately, and not at all', based on a game played by plucking the petals from a daisy, France, c.1830-60
'Émail en résille sur verre', or 'enamel in a network on glass', is a rare and difficult enameling technique first practiced in seventeenth-century France. The technique involves etching a design into a piece of glass which is then lined with gold foil and filled with powdered enamel. It's difficult to get right because of the extremely careful regulation of temperature required to fuse the enamel without damaging the glass.
Enamelled gold locket email en résille on blue glass and hung with a baroque pearl, c.1850–1900
Plique-à-jour is French for 'letting in daylight'. An invention of the Renaissance, it is possibly one of the hardest enameling techniques. It involves using a framework of silver or gold wires on a very thin metal backing and filling the design with translucent or transparent enamel and firing it. The backing is then removed, letting the light shine through the enamel to create a stained-glass window effect.
This might not sound like such a tricky technique, but it relies on predicting the thickness of the layer of the enamel after firing. If the enamelist gets it wrong, the frame will break when the backing is removed. This technique became very popular around the turn of the 20th century, during the Art Nouveau movement.
Gold pendant in the form of a male peacock displaying, decorated with plique-à-jour enamel and set with rose- and brilliant-cut diamonds, opals, and emeralds, with an opal drop. It was made and signed by Lucien Gautrait in France, c.1900
Art Nouveau dragonfly brooch with green and blue plique-à-jour enamel wings and rose-cut diamond borders set en tremblant to the diamond body and green enamel eyes, c.1890, by Boucheron
To wrap up here are some more of AAJ's enamel jewelry: