Enamel, also known as porcelain enamel, is created when glass powder melts onto a metal or ceramic substrate, causing the two to fuse together. Though enamel is used in construction and industrial works, it’s most often utilized in artistic endeavors, particularly jewelry. When combined with precious metals, the results are ethereal.
Dating as far back as 1400 BCE, many societies created enamel art, including China, the Byzantine Empire and Rome. Millennia of practice and exposure to varied cultural aesthetics gave rise to a wealth of techniques. For example, guilloche is made when the underlying metal is etched on a lathe into complex patterns, covered in powder and heated, creating a layered image. In plique-a-jour, the backing is removed after firing, leaving a stained glass inspired masterpiece. Other forms of enamel jewelry are widely available, as both versatile every day pieces and museum quality wearable art.
One of the variations of decorative enameling is cloisonné. In this style, wires are fastened to the base metal, creating little pens. Glass powders of varying colors are placed inside these cells before firing. The final result often creates a picture, though stylized patterns are also popular.
The art form originated in the Near East, around the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The earliest forms of cloisonné were actually jewels inlaid in precious metal. The enamel variations weren’t developed until the 8th century in the Byzantine Empire. In the present day, jewelers play with the enamel’s texture, creating cloisonné with raised mounds of glass, enamel that lays flush against the wires’ surface, or leave concave splashes of color.
Cameos are a type of carving in which images are formed in relief. Earlier cameos favored depictions of dignitaries or elaborate scenes, though the trend eventually gravitated towards faces of women. Cameos have gone in and out of popularity over the millennia. Ancient Romans were fond of them, as were people of the early Renaissance, Georgian Neoclassical and Victorian eras. Cameos are often used as a decorative element in jewelry, mounted on earrings, rings and brooches.
Traditional cameos are carved from agate, onyx, or other stones with layers of color. Cowry and conch shells are also used, as is carefully etched glass. Most cameos are carved with the background and foregrounds as contrasting colors, controlled by the depth of cutting. After carving, jewelry cameos are often placed in bezel mountings, with or without decorative edges.
The opposite of cameos, intaglios are a type of gemstone carving in which designs are cut into the stone, making an image from empty spaces. One twelfth century book by Theophilius Presbyter titled “Schedula diversarum artium” details how engraved gemstones such as intaglios were made. According to Presbyter, a stone needed to be sawed into a desired shape and polished smooth before carving. The image was then ground into shape with the help of drills and abrasive powders.
Traditional materials for making intaglio include agate, amethyst, sardonyx and rock crystal. From the 19th century onwards, molded glass and etched glass grew increasingly common. Intaglios aren’t as popular as their cameo counterparts, and are most often seen as watch chain accessories or as seals on signet rings.
French for “raised field,” champlevé is a type of embellishment in which areas to be enameled are carved, stamped or otherwise hollowed, creating cells in the jewel’s surface. The basins are then filled with opaque glass powder and fired. When cooled, the jewel displays colorful glass surfaces lower than the surrounding background.
Champlevé dates as far back as the 3rd century BCE, when the Celts used it to adorn their jewelry. It was also used in early medieval Romanesque art, of which many examples remain today. Romanesque champlevé work produced in the Meuse River and Limoges regions are especially famous.
French for “shallow cut,” this type of enameling is a close cousin of champlevé. It’s made by engraving patterns on to the metal base, filling the hollows with translucent enamel, and firing. The colored glass highlights the beauty of the metallic design beneath, and the gold enhances the ethereal look of the enamel. Light reflects from both the glass and the metal. By layering the enamel, shading and depth is achieved.
Though there are Roman artifacts decorated with basse-taille, medieval European art adorned with this style is more plentiful. It often depicted people and religious imagery during the medieval period. The technique was mostly forgotten until a revival in the 17th century. During this time it was used to adorn snuffboxes, watch covers and faces. 1600s basse-taille tends to be more opaque and have less play of light and shadow than earlier creations. The otherworldly coloring reappeared during the Art Nouveau period, where the two aesthetics suited one another.
French for “letting in the daylight,” plique-a-jour is a style of jewelry resembling stained glass. It is a type of enamel similar to cloisonné, made by placing enamel into cells of metal. Depending on the technique, the chambers have metal backing which is later removed, or use tiny cells instead of backing to keep the enamel from falling out before firing.
Plique-a-jour was favored during the Art Nouveau period. Mimicking nature was a major part of the aesthetic, and plique-a-jour echoed light filtering through leaves and flowers. This style of enamel has a high rate of failure, with only a few attempts out of many creating a beautiful result. For this reason, plique-a-jour is uncommon today, with only a few companies consistently creating it.
Horror Vacui vs. Openwork
Derived from the Latin phrase “fear of empty space,” horror vacui is a style of jewelry in which every available surface is decorated. Metals are engraved, granulated or simply covered with as many jewels as possible. The aesthetic appears in other forms of art, such as painting, illuminated manuscripts and textile design. Horror vacui waxes and wanes in popularity, appearing in ancient Greek art and the Book of Kells, and 1960s psychedelic works.
Openwork makes heavy use of negative space, or decorative gaps within the piece. The result may be lacy, resemble lattice work, or form an image. In jewelry design, openwork jewelry has been around since the Shang dynasty and Roman Empire. More recently, openwork enjoyed popularity during the Edwardian period, where intricate yet delicate diamond jewelry equaled style and taste.
Today, both horror vacui and openwork jewelry are widely available. The former makes itself known with invisible settings and pave encrusted pieces. Openwork shows itself in many forms, from a pendant outline of a heart to necklaces made of diamonds and links.
Inlaying is a form of adornment used in jewelry, sculpture, metalwork and other decorative arts. The process begins with a base with hollows shaped into its surface. Embellishments are placed in the gaps, creating a flat surface of contrasting images. The results may form a picture, be a geometric pattern, or a pretty but non-representational picture. In jewelry, inlays may be made of gemstones, enamel or precious metals.
Inlaid precious metals have been documented back to China circa 400 BCE. They have also been found on Tutankhamen’s burial mask, which features lapis lazuli placed within the bearded portion. Modern inlayed jewelry decorates necklaces, bracelets, earrings and other pieces.
French for “to tremble,” en tremblant is a type of setting which allows a piece of jewelry to sway and quiver with its wearer’s movements. En tremblant jewelry enjoyed a heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries. The jewelry could be mounted all in one piece, or separate portions could be set to quiver, creating a flurry of motion. If diamond jewelry was set en tremblant, it would catch the light, scattering it around its owner.
To make a piece of jewelry en tremblant, the setting must get an additional special mount, called a trembler. It could be a simple as a piece of wire, or a complex mechanism consisting of a spring attached to a socket, allowing for a wide range of movement. A chain may also connect the piece to the trembler to provide a source of additional weight, helping the piece sway and dance.
Lacquer is a substance used to add color and sheen to the surface of an object, such as wood or metal. The effect may be matte, extremely shiny, or anywhere in between. Lacquerware made its first appearance in China several millennia ago, and with sophisticated examples appearing around 1600-1000 B.C.E. depicting plants, people and stylized imagery. Advanced lacquer work eventually spread to other countries in the East Asia region.
During the Art Deco era, Asian styled jewelry was popular. Many pieces lacquered and highlighted with gold, diamonds and other precious materials. Lacquer painted motifs such as seal stamps and pagodas were especially sought out. Helping lacquer’s popularity was the belief that it was less time consuming to apply than enamel during this period.
Derived from a mixture of Latin, Old French and Middle English, “tassel” often refers to a collection of threads bound together at the top with a knot. They may be found hanging alone as a decorative element on clothing or upholstery, or strung together as a whimsical fringe. Tassels usually fall under the category of passementerie, or decorative cords, though some versions come under the classification of fine jewelry.
Jewelry tassels may be made of pearls, beads carved from gemstones, or even fine chains. Some versions may straddle both types, being made from textiles that contain thin strips of precious metals. These types of tassels hang from necklaces, pendants, bracelets or especially fine handbags, like those made of gold mesh.
Gardinetto, also known as “giardinetto,” both derive from the Italian word for “little garden.” This floral motif is expressed as a series of flowers rising from a basket or vase. The flowers are often made of carved gemstones, such as rubies, sapphires, citrine and diamonds. Petals may also be wrought from gold or silver, with jeweled centers. The basket may be depicted by a carved jewel or wrought gold.
Gardinetto jewelry had their first heyday through most of the 18th century, and again during the 1920s. These little gardens are most often found on rings or brooches. Antique gardinetto pieces are accessible through secondhand retailers. Modern versions are available at ValentinMagro.com.
Also known as Florentine mosaics, commesso uses cut gemstones to create a colorful picture. Jewels such as lapis lazuli, chalcedony, jasper and agate are cut into thin slices and arranged on a background to create images such as birds, flowers, landscapes or notable people. The backing can be a wall panel, tabletop, or a piece of gold.
Commesso’s existence was first recorded in 14th century Florence. By 1588, the duke of Tuscany created a permanent workshop devoted to the art. The craft remained in demand in Europe for centuries, decorating homes and bodies, until the early 1900s. Not only was commesso used to decorate houses, they were worn as a luxurious type of cameo.
Italian for “hard stones,” pietra dura is a high end mosaic made of interlocking jewels. In English, the term specifically refers to a type of mosaic while in Italian it encompasses all types of gem and hard stone carving. Instead of using a series of small squares to put together a picture, the jewels are specifically carved to play a role, such as a leaf or a piece of shadow. The undersides of the stones are also carved to ensure that everything fits together in the back as well as the sides, making for a secure creation. In this way, pietra dura is closer to inlay than mosaics.
Pietra dura can be backed with marble or dark glass carefully carved to fit puzzle-like with the inlays. This method requires little cement to hold everything together. Other versions have no backing at all, depending on a perfect fit to keep all its pieces in place. The final product is often mounted onto movable objects, such as furniture, clocks, picture frames and medallions. In the form of medallions and cameos, pietra dura may be worn as a piece of jewelry.
In its simplest form, a mosaic is made of tiny colorful pieces arranged on a larger surface to create a design. The materials may be as humble as paper or as luxurious as gemstones. Jewelry quality mosaics can range from specially carved gems that fit one another like puzzle pieces, to types featuring tiny stones that resemble paint at a distance.
Micro mosaics are made of tiny square stones or pieces of colored glass as small as 0.1 millimeters. They are created by first taking a metal backing, and coating it with cement. A design is carved into the paste and allowed to dry. The colored bits are placed into the grooves and held in place with a layer of clear adhesive. The first known mosaic in this style is called “The Doves of Pliny,” created in 1770. Micro mosaics wove in and out of popularity through the 1800s, often incorporated into brooches or necklaces. Common motifs included landscapes, animals, flowers, and Greco-Roman imagery.
A garland is a rope of leaves or other floral used as a decorative element. Actual greenery may be used, though stylized representations made from materials such as cloth or silver are longer lasting. As a jewelry motif, garlands are sometimes referred to as “guirlande.”
Design trends may come and go, but artists frequently return to nature for inspiration. Garlands have appeared in Renaissance, Georgian and Edwardian era jewelry, among others. They may be made of plain but beautifully shaped metal, represented with jewels, colored with enamel, and placed upon necklaces, rings, tiaras and brooches. Those seeking a contemporary garland piece for themselves will have no trouble finding them.
Some jewelry features motifs of animals or humans known as figural images. Depending on the design, the figural piece may be flat or three dimensional miniature. They may also be stylized or representational, though for jewelry the size may make a detailed accurate image difficult.
Figural motifs commonly appear on bracelet charms, pendants and necklaces, though brooches, earrings and other types may also feature animals or humans. They are used for costume and fine jewelry, and may be made from inexpensive metals, paste jewels, gold, silver platinum and gemstones. More inventive figural jewelry may be made of carved gemstones, or wood decorated with gold and jewels.