Cloisonné is thought to have been used as far back as Byzantine times for jewelry and religious items. However, the items we are apt to find today when shopping estate sales and flea markets will most likely be Chinese or Japanese pieces produced somewhere between 1900 – 1950’s. These mass produced, un-marked items were manufactured typically for export. However, some pieces were artist created and these will have more value. The trick is to know the difference . . . and this will require some in-depth study of cloisonné.
How Cloisonné is Made
Cloisonné as we think of it today is an item that has a metal base. This base can be copper, gold, silver, brass and sometimes even steel. Copper and brass are the two metals you are most likely to see as they were relatively inexpensive to use and easy to work with.
Once the base and final form have been created, the design is either transferred or drawn onto the form. Next, wire or thin metal strips are attached to the piece with a special glue to match the design. If the piece is large, for example a charger, parts of the design may be fitted together first before being attached to the piece.
These compartments (or cloisons in French) are filled with colored enamels to match the coloring of the original design. Once filled the piece is fired in a kiln and cooled. Firing causes the enamel to sink making it necessary to repeat this step as many times as needed until the enamel is above the wire separating the compartments.
After the final firing, the piece will have an uneven surface. To make the enamel level with the wires, a grinding process is used. Once this has been done the piece is polished. And finally, the exposed wires are covered by either dipping the piece into a liquid of gold or silver or either electroplating giving it a finished look.
Note: Some pieces have an enameled bottom, while others will have metal.
Plique-á-jour (French) can loosely be translated to ‘light of day’ and is a related technique of enameling. One you’re likely to see in jewelry. In this process the wires or thin metal strips used to produce the design have no metal backing. This give the piece a stain-glass look. This look is enhanced by the use of clear enamels that allow the light to come through.
Pieces of Plique-á-jour are created by using a thin copper or mica base for the design. This base is then either etched away with acid or peeled off – respectively.
Jewelry items using this method are very desirable and can be quite expensive.
If you are in the market for cloisonné or plique-á-jour, educate yourself. It may save you hundreds of dollars since most people – including many dealrs – are not knowledgeable on the topic. For more in depth information about cloisonné, consider the reference guides available on Amazon.