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Many jewelers use precious and semi precious gemstones to provide vibrant pops of color to their pieces. Another method of adding color though, is with the use of enamel. In this article, you will learn all about various types of vintage enamel jewelry. 

What is Vintage Enamel Jewelry?

Enamel is a process in which jewelers can add color to various metals or pieces of jewelry. A glass powder mixture is heated to create a fondant like paste, with color added with the use of different metal oxides.

This mixture can then be applied to metal or within an encased pattern, and then dried, heated and cooled. This process might be repeated as the cooling can sometimes cause shrinking and gaps within the pattern.

You’ll find a few different types of enamel, and we will be discussing some of our favorites below!

What are the Types of Enamel?

The various types of enamel we are going to talk about in this article are:

  • Cloisonné
  • Champlevé
  • Plique à jour
  • Guilloché
  • Basse-Taille
  • Painted Enamel
  • Sgraffito

CLOISONNÉ

What is Cloisonné?

We’ve seen enamel in jewelry since the ancient times, as early as 11th century BC! Cloisonné enamel is one of the older types of enamel, which can be found in ancient Greek and Roman jewels. The name "cloisonne" comes from the French word for "partition."

Here you’ll see jewels covered in colorful and ornate patterns. These patterns are created by flat wires which form various compartments. Each of these spaces is then filled with their specific colors, on a metal backing.

Every color will need a different firing temperature, which makes this process a touch more complicated than some of the others. You can find large pottery comprised of cloisonné enamel, as well as smaller pendants and earrings.

Although cloisonné has been around for centuries, it wasn't until the mid 1800's that it became popular in the western world. 

Types of Cloisonné Enamel Jewelry

  • Beads
  • Pendants and pins
  • Bangle and cuff bracelets
  • Rings
  • Earrings
vintage enamel beads

Cloisonne enamel beads via Wiki Commons

BUYING CLOISONNE JEWELRY

When buying cloisonne jewelry, examine it closely before buying it and ask your seller lots of questions. Look for the following:

  • The piece should have a smooth surface. There shouldn't be any rough edges to the wires.
  • Each section should be filled with enamel.
  • You should not see sections that are lower or higher than others.
  • If it is crafted from precious metal, the jewelry should be marked with the metal content.
  • Check the back of the metal for green patches. Cloisonne jewelry is often made from copper which is prone to verdigris
  • Check over your item for any missing, cracked or damaged parts of enamel work.
  • Thick gloopy/creamy, swirly opalescent or pearl-like enamel work is modern and wasn’t used on jewelry before the 2000's.

CHAMPLEVÉ

What is Champlevé?

Champlevé is a technique that involves gouging the surface of a metal object, creating troughs and channels separated by thin ridges of metal, creating the outline of the design. These troughs are filled with powdered enamel and fused. The champlevé technique requires a thick metal base and therefore is used on copper and other base metals.

The name comes from the French for "raised field", "field" meaning background, although the technique actually lowers the area to be enamelled rather than raising the rest of the surface.

TYPES OF CHAMPLEVÉ ENAMEL JEWELRY

  • Buttons
  • Pins and Brooches
  • Earrings
  • Pendants
Champlevé enamel

An example of Champlevé Enamel via Wiki Commons

BUYING CHAMPLEVÉ JEWELRY

  • Check over your item for any missing, cracked or damaged parts of enamel work.
  • Each section should be filled with enamel.
  • If it is crafted from precious metal, the jewelry should be marked with the metal content.

PLIQUE À JOUR

What is Plique à Jour?

Similar to cloisonné, Plique à Jour enamel is created by compartments. The main difference is that pieces which include plique à jour are not backed by metal. This allows light to pass through the enamel, creating a beautiful stained glass like effectPlique-à-jour, is a French term that translates (as nearly as can be determined) to "letting in the daylight".

We most often see these pieces from the Art Nouveau era, with many by the artist René Lalique. You’ll find pins and brooches of animals, florals and female figures. These pieces are more pieces of art than just a piece of jewelry. The craftsmanship is quite astounding!

Types of PLIQUE À JOUR Jewelry

  • Pendants 
  • Earring 
  • Rings
  • Brooches
vintage enamel jewelry

Plique-à-jour enamel from Wiki Commons

vintage enamel jewelry

Plique-à-jour enamel piece courtesy Wiki Commons

Buying PLIQUE À JOUR JEWELRY

  • Pliqué à jour art nouveau jewelry is becoming harder to find and is becoming increasingly more expensive because it is highly collectible.
  • To determine if a piece is genuine art nouveau, look for signs of wear, note styles of stone faceting, check the workmanship of the metal, and determine if the overall aesthetics are appropriate to the period. 
  • French art nouveau was always 18k with an eagle’s head stamp.
  • An American piece may have 10k, 14k, or an 18k stamp.
  • Both the front and the back should show the same fine finish.
  • The metal should not be highly polished.

GUILLOCHÉ

What is Guilloché Enamel?

One of the last most popular types of enamel we see in jewelry is that of Guilloché enamel. This method produces a solid seeming, shiny piece. With the use of a mechanical engraver, the base metal is engraved with a repetitive and often intricate pattern. The glass powdered pasted is then applied and heated, similar to the other methods.

This technique was very popular during the Victorian era. You’ll find many pendants and watch covers with this glossy designed look. Faberge has also popularized this type of enamel, as seen on their many eggs!

Types of GUILLOCHÉ ENAMEL Jewelry

  • Watch covers
  • Pendants
  • Brooches

An 18K gold case with translucent enamel over guilloché surface (revealing engraved patterns). A finely engraved gold ground covered with brown translucent enamel and set with a half-pearl. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons

Buying GUILLOCHÉ ENAMEL Jewelry

  • If it is crafted from precious metal, the jewelry should be marked with the metal content.
  • Check over your item for any missing, cracked or damaged parts of enamel work.

BASSE-TAILLE

What is Basse-taille Enamel?

From the French term for “low-cut". A metal surface is decorated with a low-relief design that can be seen through translucent and transparent enamels. Basse-Taille is similar to the champlevé method in that the surface is cut away and filled with enamel, however, it is a much more sophisticated technique.

The design or figural composition is chiseled or engraved in low relief, making the enamel lie in varying thicknesses over the modeled surface. Because the enamels used in this technique are translucent, the composition of the low relief shows through, and since the metals used are normally gold or silver, the light is reflected back through the translucent enameling, creating a stunning tonal quality.   

Basse-Taille became most popular in the middle of the 20th century when Scandinavian silversmiths used the technique in many of their designs. One noted designer of this period, David Andersen produced leaf and butterfly basse-taille jewelry that is very collectible in modern times. 

Types of BASSE-TAILLE Jewelry

  • Charms
  • Pendants
  • Brooches
Basse-Taille enamel

"Basse-taille" and champlevé enamel Via Wiki Commons

Buying BASSE-TAILLE ENAMEL

  • If it is crafted from precious metal, the jewelry should be marked with the metal content.
  • Check over your item for any missing, cracked or damaged parts of enamel work.

PAINTED ENAMEL (PEINTURE SUR ÉMAIL)

What is Painted enamel?

Peinture sur email (painted enamel) was developed at the end of the 15th century in Limoges, France. The technique involves covering a slightly convex metal plate with a fondant of uniform color that is then fired to make a vitreous base for drawing. Over this base, the artist starts applying color after color in thin layers with a brush. 

One technique, known as grisaille, utilizes pulverized white vitreous enamel made into a paste by mixing it with water, turpentine, and oil. This mixture is then applied to a dark enamel ground. Lighter areas of the design are thickly painted, while grey areas are created by painting thinner coats. This technique creates a dramatic effect of light and shade. Grisaille enamels were developed in the 16th century in France by the Limoges school of enamelers.

Types of PAINTED ENAMEL Jewelry

  • Brooches
  • Pendants
  • Earrings
  • Bracelets

Buying Painted Enamel Jewelry

  • Fired and heated enamel will last longer than enamel that was worked cold.
  • Look for makers marks and metal purity marks.
  • Make sure there are no cracks or chips in the enamel. 

SGRAFITTO

What is Sgrafitto Enamel?

Sgraffito is a technique that uses an unfired layer of enamel applied over previously fired layer in contrasting color. This is then is partially removed with tool to create design.

Types of SGRAFITTO ENAMEL Jewelry

  • Earrings
  • Pins
  • Pendants

Buying Sgraffito Enamel Jewelry

  • If it is crafted from precious metal, the jewelry should be marked with the metal content.
  • Check over your item for any missing, cracked or damaged parts of enamel work.

TAILLE D'EPARGNE

What is TAILLE D'EPARGNE?

Shallow grooves are hollowed out of the metal and filled often with black enamel. Frequently used in the Victorian era particularly in America, it is similar to champlevé enamel but shallower and often smaller cavities. 

Types of TAILLE D'EPARGNE Jewelry

  • Rings
  • Bracelets
  • Watch Cases
  • Mourning Jewelry

Buying TAILLE D'EPARGNE JEWELRY

  • Look for metal purity marks.
  • Make sure there are no missing spots of enamel.

Where to Purchase Enamel Vintage Jewelry

Enamel jewelry can be fragile, especially older vintage items. You’ll want to be sure that any item you purchase has all of the enamel still present. It is challenging to re-enamel these pieces, as matching the color can be difficult. For this reason, you’ll want to take extra care with your enamel jewels. Wrap them in soft fabric and store each piece separately as you don’t want these enamel pieces to be knocked around.

As with other vintage jewelry, you can purchase these enamel pieces from antique shops and sales or online.

The Etsy shop Boylerpf has a beautiful selection of vintage enamel jewelry. Or click the button below to see our other favorite Etsy shops. 

Conclusion

Enamel is a great way to provide beautiful detailing and coloring to jewelry. From the Ancient times through Victorian and Art Nouveau, craftsman have utilized this technique in order to delightfully embellish jewelry!  

Remember to share this article with your vintage-loving friends! And leave any questions you may have in the comments below!

Happy Shopping!
Andrea

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Andrea

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