Vitreous Enamel

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Vitreous enamel or porcelain enamel in USA English is the name given to glass bonding to a metal surface by fusion. A wide range of colors are produced by incorporating certain elements to the glass, mostly transition metals.

There is no evidence on how or where vitreous enamel making started, the earliest known articles are six enameled gold rings dating from the 13th century BC discovered in a Mycenaean tomb at Kouklia, Cyprus.

The Greeks were enameling as early as the 5th century BC. Julius Caesar found the Celtic inhabitants of Britain enameling in the 1st century BC.

During the Byzantine era (4th through 12th centuries) many enamel religious works were made. In Limoges, France the use of enamel painting technique was perfected in the 15th Century.

China's earliest enamel works date from the 14th century, enameling was introduced in the area by the Muslims. Japan began enameling in the mid 1800's with high quality results.

In the second half of the 19th century Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé captivated Europe with his fantastic enameled eggs.

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Vitreous Enamel Different Techniques
The glass used to enamel is crushed to a powder finer than granulated sugar and coarser than flour. Different elements especially metals are added to the glass to color it. This colored glass powder is then bonded to a metal surface, usually copper, silver or gold by fusion. The enameled metal piece is fired between 1000° to 1600° F in a kiln.

enamel kiln

After 1 to 10 minutes, the piece is removed and cooled down to room temperature. Subsequent coats, or the adding of different colors, are applied. 10 to 20 firings are required to get the desired results. When ready the piece is polished.

The process mentioned above is the same for every enameling technique, what varies is the way the metal surface is prepared to receive the enamel or how the enamel is applied to it.

The following are the most used techniques nowadays:

  • Champlevé
  • French for raised field is one of the oldest enameling techniques in which troughs or cells are carved or cast into the surface of a metal object, and filled with vitreous enamel.

    Miguel Pineda Champlevé tiger

    Aztec Tiger, champlevé enamel by Miguel Pineda

  • Cloisonné
  • French word for cell, thin wires are applied to form raised barriers, which contain different areas of (subsequently applied) enamel. This technique is widely practiced in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.


    Adding powder glass with dropper to cloissons in metal plaque.

  • Painted enamel
  • A design or drawing is painted onto a smooth metal surface with enamel. Grisaille and Limoges are types of painted enamel.

    Painted enamel

    Limoges painted medallion

  • Plique-à-jour
  • French for letting in daylight. In this technique enamel is applied in cells, similar to cloisonné, but with no backing, so light can shine through the transparent or translucent enamel. It has a stained-glass like appearance.

    Plique Butterfly

    Plique-à-jour enamel butterfly

  • Sgrafitto
  • An unfired layer of enamel is applied over a previously fired layer of enamel of a contrasting color and then partly removed with a tool to create the design.

    Sgrafitto enamel

    Sgrafitto enamel plaque.

  • Counter enameling
  • Not strictly a technique, but a necessary step in many techniques, is to apply enamel to the back of a piece as well - sandwiching the metal - to create less tension on the glass so it does not crack.

A quality vitreous enamel piece should have a sense of design, a feeling for proportion and appropriate color and texture. Transparent enamels should be jewel-like. Firing must be sufficient to insure a permanent bond of the glass to the metal. The work must show that the artist has full control of the technique and materials.

Vitreous Enamel in Mexico
Enamel was first used in Mexico in the 1950's by jeweler designer Margot van Voorhies Carr, professionally known as Margot de Taxco, a major contributor to the success of Taxco silver. She used enamel in her jewelry pieces.

Margot de Taxco

Enameled peasant by Margot de Taxco.

Later, American born artist Maggie Howe, introduced enameling techniques to several artists in Mexico City, among her disciples was Miguel Pineda which is today a world known enamellist, appreciated not only for his fine technical domain but for his artistic talent.

Maggie Howe Owls

Owls, enameled plaque by Maggie Howe.

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