Enamels: Love at First Sight
By Christine Cox
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
over pure silver leaf
Outlet cover by Jerra Banwarth
Transparent enamel over PMC
Transparent and opaque enamel
over PMC leaves (made from
Pure silver leaf over opaque
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”)