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Enamels: Love at First Sight
By Christine Cox

In my search for brilliant colors I had always avoided enameling, the art of fusing glass to metal. The techniques seemed intimidating in a scientific way; recipes, fire, detailed work, and really, who has room for all that new equipment? Visions of dollar signs danced in my head. Phrases like “coefficient of expansion” really put me off, and with all the French names, who knew the difference between champlevé and basse taille? My experience of working with glass was fusing so I assumed that all kiln work took hours upon hours of carefully monitored programs and experiments.

With these mental limitations I tentatively started researching and reading up on working with enamels. After a little experimenting I found that the hardest part of “entry-level” enameling is the metalsmithing. As for equipment, I bought a couple sifters (for applying the enamels), a firing fork (a long handled fork for putting the pieces in the kiln), a fiberglass brush (for cleaning between enamel coats) and a couple trivets (to hold the pieces during firing). Including the first 20 enamel colors I bought, I think my initial enameling order was less than $100. If you are already metalsmithing and own a kiln that will reach and maintain an even 1500 degrees or so, you are ready to enamel!

An enamelist (or enameler) enamels enamels with enamels. What? The word “enamel” can be a noun or a verb (you enamel with enamels) and the finished piece is also called an enamel. Enamels are silica, soda ash and potassium nitrate ground and mixed with oxides, minerals and pigments to affect the color and other properties of the finished product. Fortunately we don’t have to worry about all of that.

Most of the technical work of enameling can be taken care of by the vendor of the enamels. In fact, if you don’t want to pursue any more knowledge than this you can simply go to a store (or online vendor) that sells enamels and tell them what type of metal you are working with and whether you are using a kiln or a torch and they can pretty much set you up with what you need.

The oldest known enameled pieces are from 13th century Mycenae (Greece), but cloisonné was advanced to a high art form during the Byzantine Empire. Enameling hit its stride again in the late 15th century in the French town of Limoges and then again during the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century. Enamels have been used on everything from jewelry and religious items to contemporary fashion items and even on statues.

Now that you are intrigued, if you’re already a metalsmith and you own a kiln or torch I encourage you to take the small step to making your own enameled pieces. I’m incorporating enamels into my metalsmithing projects fairly seamlessly. I hope that you will investigate this beautifully rich and historic art form.

Transparent enamels
over pure silver leaf

Champlevé butterfly

Cloisonné Crown

Outlet cover by Jerra Banwarth


Champlevé leaf

Transparent enamel over PMC

Transparent and opaque enamel
over PMC leaves (made from
real leaves!)

Pure silver leaf over opaque

Here’s a quick primer of the more popular enameling techniques: 

Champlevé – (Fr. “raised field or plain”): Enamel (usually opaque) is inlaid into areas of metal that have been etched away. (pronounced “chomp la vay”)

Cloisonné – (Fr. “cell”): Wires are bent to form dams on the metal and then enamels are packed in between the wires. (pronounced “cloy son nay”)

Basse Taille – (Fr. “low cut”): Metal is engraved or etched and then transparent enamels are applied over the top. (pronounced “boss tie”)

Plique-a-jour – (Fr. “membrane through which passes the light of day”): Enamels are suspended in pierced out places in the metal and then fired. The effect is like miniature stained glass. (pronounced “pleek a zhooor”)

The best books on enameling (click on the title and you will be magically transported to the Amazon.com website where you can get more information about the books):

Christine Cox was a regular contributor to ARTitude Zine. This article originally appeared there and is reprinted here with permission. Unfortunately ARTitude is no longer published.