History of Cliosonné, Champlevé, Basse Taille & Pâte-de-verre

Deriving from the word ‘smelzen’ in Old German, and ‘esmail’ in Old French, the term enamel was changed at a later point of time to its contemporary name of ‘smalto’ in Italian, ‘email’ in French and German and ‘enamel’ in English.

Enamel is a coating with the appearance of glass, applied to a metal base, encompassing, in their historic sequence gold, silver, copper, bronze iron and steel. A second usage of the term ‘enameling’ concerns the application of decorative glass, applied to glass objects.

The first specimens of enameled objects were recorded in the 13th BC, consisting of 6 rings crafted in gold and found by an unknown craftsman in a Mycenaean tomb at Kouklia. Those early specimens rendered in textured gold, depicting twisted wires, and meticulously cut inlaid glass and a gold scepter enameled in white, pink and green, which are today proudly housed in the National Museum of Cyprus.

The rings are chased gold, with an ornamentation of twisted square wires and it is almost certain that the glass was very carefully cut and laid into each cell. Together with the gold scepter and orb decorated with white pink and green, these are the earliest known pieces of enamel and can be found in the Nicosia museum in Nicosia, Cyprus.

The foregoing specimens display the earliest objects enameled in the cloisonné technique, whereby strips of gold, silver, copper or brass are laid on a metal base forming an assemblage of cloisons (cells) to which an enamel paste is applied.

The ancient Egyptians used the early cloisonné technique for the setting of semi precious stones into jewelry by cold cementing, a well-known example of which is the gold mask of Tutankhamen, which gives the impression of being enamelwork, although it is in fact cold cementing by the use of cloisonné technique.

The Celts were amongst the earlier craftsmen in the art of champlevé enameling and quintessentially Celtic motif, specimens of which are displayed in British Museum and as well as other museums throughout the British Isles.

The art of enameling was revived anew in the Middle East during the 9th century AD and in Russia during the 10th century. The Middle East Byzantine style, specimens of which are found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, remained in vogue until the 12th Century. In the 13th Century Limoges craftsmen excelled in the art of enameling and paved their way towards universal fame.

Italy joined Limoges in the late 13th century, developing their own technique of ‘Basse Taille’ enameling. An early specimen of this transparent enamel work dating back to 1290 is a gold chalice made for the Convent of St Francis of Assisi.

In the 15th century, along with the development of more complex enameling techniques in Europe, the already skilled Limoges craftsmen adapted the method developed by the Venetian glass makers which did not require the complex phases of the conventional techniques. The newly adapted process was gradually modified to become a common practice for enamellers to the present date.

Since its inception, until the eighteenth century, enameling was confined to religious artifacts, and the earliest specimens which have survived the passage of time or restored throughout the centuries, are considered rarities and found only in museums.


Cloisonné is amongst the oldest techniques applied in the art of enameling, based on an assemblage of cloisons (cells) which create a specific pattern. The latter is soldered onto a metal base, which is often gold. Colored enamels in powder form are laid between the cloisons and exposed to fire, thus forming a smooth level after colling and polishing. While the earlier cloisonné technique made use of cut gemstones, glass and other materials, the technique developed in recent century’s uses enamel powder converted into a paste.

The cloisonné technique was the most common method of enameling in ancient times and was often used to decorate items of jewelry or weapons. The Celts applied the method for ornamental pieces on swords, mostly of geometric or schematic theme. Under the Byzantine Empire, enamellers used thinner wires to produce more pictorial images for religious objects, images and jewelry, which have always displayed enamel accentuation.


The champlevé technique differs from the earlier cloisonné process in the preparation phase of the base metal, namely gouging the surface thereof, thus creating troughs and channels, intersected by delicate ridges. The powered colored enamels are placed into the troughs, exposed to fire and cooled. This technique requires thick sheets of metal, making copper an optimal choice.

Champlevé technique enjoyed unprecedented popularity throughout Europe in the 1940’s Retro era, widely used for producing polychromatic buckles, necklaces and bracelets decorated with scrolls and floral motifs. In the same period, the guilloche or engine-turned backgrounds depicting spirals were highly in vogue, with cobalt blue remaining the favorite color par excellence.


A Sophisticated Version of Champlevé

Originating from Italy, this technique was developed as a more sophisticated version of champlevé enameling. It was adopted by Italian enamellers in the eleventh century and involved the use of transparent enamels, rendering the base metal visible through the enamel, followed by carving and engraving the former with selected patterns in order to achieve variations in the depth of color As well as to increase the effect of light reflection through the enamel. The basse taille technique enabled Italian enamellers to simulate a three-dimensional effect in their creation of figural scenes.


This technique, utilizing glass as the base material, was first adopted by ancient Mesopotamians, flourishing between 1300 and 1000 BC, the dates supported by fascinating mosaic style vessel forms, dating as far back as 1500 BC, explored by archeologists and safeguarded in national museums.

Mesopotamians reigned over vast territories corresponding to modern-day Iraq, parts of northeastern Syria, Turkey and Iran, the totality of which has been referred to as the ‘cradle of civilizations’, particularly the Bronze Age Mesopotamia with incredible artistic talents in handcrafting ornamental objects, amongst which Pâte de verre glasswork featured frequently. There was a decline of this art until its revival by Egyptian and Assyrian glass artists in the 9th century BC.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Persians applied their version of Pâte de verre to produce magnificent vessels and decorative objects, and the same century witnessed the production of exquisite pieces by modest independent artists throughout the Middle East.

In spite of its very old origins, the extremely labor-intensive Pâte de verre technique was put into practice by French artists in the 19th century, hence its French name. The traditional Pâte de verre consisted of applying a paste of crushed glass to the surface of a mold and exposing it to fire, the greatest advantage being the precise placement of glass colors.

The paste according to the traditional French method, consisted of crushed glass and enamel (or paint) and often required several phases of firing. The newer technique, although using the same principles, uses powdered glass and enamel to prepare the paste, resulting in more translucent quality of glass.

Enamel Miniature-Painting

This technique of enameling evolved exclusively in France in the second quarter of the 17th century and had great resemblances to the Renaissance technique of painted enamels. The base metal used in this technique was smooth polished gold, covered by a white or pastel-colored enamel, onto which the craftsman would apply colored enamels using a process similar to the art of ‘stipple painting’ used by the contemporary miniaturists and today referred to as Swiss enamel.


Also referred to as ‘email en bosse’ and translated as ‘encrusted enameling’, this extremely complex technique was developed in France in early 15th Century and was widely used throughout the Renaissance era, exclusively for small, round-shaped objects or sculptural figures. It consisted of applying opaque or translucent enamels to irregular, relief surfaces which were mostly in gold and exposing the object to fire.

The latter constituted the most difficult and delicate phase of this technique, as only the parts to which enamel colors had been applied were to be heated, while finding ways of protecting the objects in their entirety during the firing phase.

French craftsmen enveloped their objects in ‘plaster of Paris’ prior to firing. This material is a variety of gypsum plaster in use throughout the world since ancient times and the name given
by French enamellers derives from the fact that in the 1700’s, the walls of wooden houses in Paris were covered with plaster as protection against fire. The King of France had enforced this measure after the famous London fire in 1666.

The email en ronde bosse technique was brought to Germany by Dinglinger & Koehler, the famous Court jewelers based Dresden and Augsburg, whose craftsmen mastered the technique, applied it to the production of unique Gothic and Renaissance themed jewelry, and passed it on to Fabergé enamellers in St. Petersburg. Centuries later, René Lalique revived the 15th century French-pioneered enameling technique to create his unmatched Art Nouveau pieces.

Plique-à-jour Technique of Enameling

Its name, meaning ‘open to light’ is indicative of the delicacy and transparency which is the end result of this sophisticated enameling technique. Used in all decorative arts, the Plique-à-jour technique creates translucent enamels within an open framework. It is distinct from other techniques of enameling by virtue of individual and delicate metal strips soldered to each other rather than to a supporting base metal. The unsoldered supporting base, usually a sheet of metal or mica, is easily removable after the annealing and cooling phases of enameling.

Evolved in Europe in the 15th century, the Plique-à-jour technique was highly praised and widely applied by craftsmen of Russia during the 19th century Victorian era. Russia produced outstanding enamel pieces emanating from Carl Fabergé studios which extended to early 20th century.

René Lalique:

The Plique-à-jour Star of Europe

In the vast and rich volumes of literature written on the history of Art Nouveau, Paris has often been described as ‘the nucleus of the Art Nouveau movement’. By the same token, the Art Nouveau style is said to be at its purest when interpreted by French artists and craftsmen.

The popularity of French Art Nouveau artists and their designs is greatly attributable to their technical perfection achieved through rigorous training. Throughout the 19th century, the French excelled in the artistic chasing and texturing of gold, reviving the most complex enameling techniques ever used throughout the world, enabling them to richly adorn the Neo-Renaissance jewels of the 1870?s with artistic enamelwork, particularly by using the open-backed Plique-à-jour technique.

René Lalique spent many years studying and working on traditional 19th century French jewelry. Amongst others, he worked with Cartier, Boucheron, and his own master and mentor Aucoc while his own works were made public in 1895 when he exhibited at the Salon du Champs de Mars. Lalique expressed a new, realistic view of nature through his jewels.

He had an artist’s eye for color and composition and was known as a ‘master of surprise’, for example combining thick geometric lines with the palest swirling enamels, or a dreamy nymph’s face with the flaccid web of a bat?s wings, or interpreting a classical cameo scene in deep colors of Pâte de verre!

Lalique designed magnificent pieces incorporating both floral and naturalistic themes: flowers, insects, roosters, birds were all given new life by his art of enameling; petals splayed outwards in luscious fullness, carvings from opaque glass; deep blue swallows dipped through the air.

Lalique was master of enameling and of the plique-à-jour process par excellence. He used this to create the mesmerizing translucency of nature’s shifting colors; to echo the changing tints of the opal, his favorite stone. He used mat and opaque enamels for intensity of color and incorporated opaque, carved glass and Pâte de verre into his jewels.

Lalique was commissioned by the wealthy (Iranian) industrialist Gulbenkian to produce a series of spectacular jewels, meant for Lisbon. Upon completing that task, he was disillusioned by the amount of poor reproductions inspired by his work and devoted more of his time to glasswork. His later jewels consist of simple brooches and pendants hung on silk, all constructed in carved glass, still in his distinctive Art Nouveau style.

Enameling in America

The art of enameling in the United States coincided with the Art Nouveau movement in the late 19th century. The early enameled objects were produced by Tiffany and a revival of the art in mid 20th century motivated by artists such as Kenneth Bates, Jean and Arthur Ames and Jackson Woodley has widened public interest in enamel.

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