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19th century chinese cloisonne lidded jar, decorated with humourous dragons, circa 1890. diameter 3.75 inches, 10 cms.
the earliest surviving cloisonn pieces are rings in graves from 12th century bc cyprus, using very thin wire. subsequently enamel was just one of the fillings used for the small thick-walled small cloisons of the late antique and migration period style described above. from about the 8th century, byzantine art began again to use much thinner wire more freely to allow much more complex designs to be used, with larger and less geometric compartments, which was only possible using enamel. these were still on relatively small objects, although numbers of plaques could be set into larger objects, such as the pala d'oro, the altarpiece in saint mark's cathedral, venice. some objects combined thick and thin cloisons for varied effect. the designs often contained a generous background of plain gold, as in contemporary byzantine mosaics. the area to be enamelled was stamped to create the main depression, pricked to help the enamel adhere, and the cloisons added.
from byzantium or the islamic world the technique reached china in the 13-14th centuries; the first written reference is in a book of 1388, where it is called "dashi ('muslim') ware". no chinese pieces clearly from the 14th century are known, the earliest datable pieces being from the reign of the xuande emperor (1425?35), which however show a full use of chinese styles suggesting considerable experience in the technique. it was initially regarded with suspicion by chinese connoisseurs, firstly as being foreign, and secondly as appealing to feminine taste. however by the beginning of the 18th century the kangxi emperor had a cloisonn workshop among the many imperial factories. the most elaborate and highly-valued chinese pieces are from the early ming dynasty, especially the reigns of the xuande emperor and jingtai emperor (1450?57), although 19th century or modern pieces are far more common. the chinese industry seems to have benefited from a number of skilled byzantine refugees fleeing the fall of constantinople in 1453. in chinese cloisonn blue is usually the predominant colour, and the chinese name for the technique, jingtailan ("jingtai blue ware"), refers to this, and the jingtai emperor. quality began to decline in the 19th century. initially heavy bronze or brass bodies were used, and the wires soldered, but later much lighter copper vessels were used, and the wire glued on before firing.
in byzantine pieces, and even more in chinese work, the wire by no means always encloses a separate color of enamel. sometime a wire is used just for decorative effect, stopping in the middle of a field of enamel, and sometimes the boundary between two enamel colors is not marked by a wire. chinese cloisonn is the best known enamel cloisonn, though the japanese produced large quantities from the mid-19th century, of very high technical quality. russian cloisonn from the tsarist era is also highly prized by collectors, especially from the house of faberg or khlebnikov, and the french and other nations have produced small quantities. chinese cloisonn is sometimes confused with canton enamel, a similar type of enamel work that is painted on freehand and does not utilize partitions to hold the colors separate. in medieval western europe cloisonn enamel technique was gradually overtaken by the rise of champlev enamel, where the spaces for the enamel to fill are created by making recesses (using various methods) into the base object, rather than building up compartments from it, as in cloisonn. later techniques were evolved that allowed the enamel to be painted onto a flat background without running. plique--jour is a related enameling technique which uses clear enamels and no metal backplate, producing an object that has the appearance of a miniature stained glass object - in effect cloisonn with no backing. other ways of using the technique have been developed, but are of minor importance. in 19th century japan it was used on pottery vessels with ceramic glazes, and it has been used with lacquer
and modern acrylic fillings for the cloisons.
modern cloisonn enamel process
first the object to be decorated is made or obtained; this will normally be made by different craftsmen. the metal usually used for making the body is copper, since it is cheap, light and easily hammered and stretched, but bronze, silver or other metals may be used. cloisonn wire is made from pure silver or gold and is usually about .010 x .040 inches in cross section it is bent into shapes that define the colored areas. the bends are all done at right angles, so that wire does not curve up. this is done with small pliers, tweezers, and custom-made jigs. the cloisonn wire pattern may consist of several intricately constructed wire patterns that fit together into a larger design. solder can be used to join the wires, but this causes the enamel to discolour and form bubbles later on. instead, the base metal is fired with a thin layer of clear enamel. the cloisonn wire is glued to the enamel surface with gum tragacanth. when the gum has dried, the piece is fired again to fuse the cloisonn wire to the clear enamel. the gum burns off, leaving no residue. vitreous enamels in the different colors are ground to fine powders in an agate mortar and pestle, then washed to remove the impurities that would discolor the fired enamel. each color of enamel is prepared this way before it is used and then mixed with a very dilute solution of gum tragacanth. using fine spatulas, brushes or droppers, the enameler places the fine colored powder into each
cloison. the piece is left to dry completely before firing, which is done by putting the article, with its enamel fillings, in a kiln. the enamel in the cloisons will sink down a lot after firing. this process is repeated until all cloisons are filled. three styles of cloisonn are most often seen: concave, convex, and flat. the finishing method determines this final appearance. with concave cloisonn the cloisons are not completely filled. capillary action causes the enamel surface to curve up against the cloisonn wire when the enamel is molten, producing a concave appearance. convex cloisson is produced by overfilling each cloison, at the last firing. this gives each color area the appearance of slightly rounded mounds. flat cloisonn is the most common. after all the cloisons are filled the enamel is ground down to a smooth surface with lapidary equipment, using the same techniques as are used for polishing cabochon stones. the top of the cloisonn wire is polished so it is flush with the enamel and has a bright lustre. some cloisonn enamel is electroplated with a thin film of gold, which will not tarnish as silver does. (wikepedia)
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