Looking for vintage enamel pendants? Learn about different enameling techniques and the designers that used them.
For thousands of years, jewelry designers/artists have used enamel to add color without having to rely on gemstones and to add a painterly or illustrative quality to their work.
Enamel is the fusion of powdered glass to metal. A thin coat of finely ground glass is applied to metal then fused by heat onto the surface. Higher temperatures result in a more transparent and durable enamel, while lower temperatures give a more opaque and fragile surface. Various oxides and/or ceramic pigments are added to the glass to produce a wide variety of colors.
Brief History of Enameling
The first evidence of enameling was in Mycenaean Greece in 1400 BCE when gold rings were found with inlaid enamel. It was also used by the Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Celts, Georgians and Chinese to decorate pottery as well as jewelry.
In the 6th century BCE, Greek goldsmiths used the technique of cloisonne.
In the 3rd century CE, Celtic warriors adorned their swords and shields with enamel using the champleve and basse-taille techniques.
The Byzantine Empire (350-1450 CE), Istanbul today, popularized the cloisonne technique done in gold. A Byzantine princess who married a German king brought the technique and her master craftsmen with her, thus exerting a great influence on German enamels. Previously, the champleve technique was preferred in Germany and France. Ostrogoths carried cloisonne to Italy and the Visigoths carried it to Spain.
In the first half of the 12th century, artists in France were perfecting the champleve technique when the Penicaud family in Limoges, France, developed a new method of enameling: émail-peint or painted enamel. This was the first time that enamel colors were allowed to touch each other so that portraits and scenes could reproduced realistically. The technique is commonly referred to as Limoges.
The Renaissance was a period in European history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity and covering the 15th and 16th centuries. Renaissance goldsmiths created beautiful enameled pieces in basse taille and plique a jour in addition to the traditional champleve. However, the painted enamel technique (sometimes called “encrusted enamel”) became the most common style used by jewelers.
The Arts and Crafts movement in the 19th century made a large impact in enameling. Enameling had slipped into the category of “hobby” and was reinstated to an art by universities around the world that instilled a love of the medium.
Also in the 19th century, enamel jewelry was influenced by newly imported Japanese art objects. Jewelers used cloisonné to create the flat plains of color and elegant line work of Japanese woodblock prints. The Victorians used black enamel on both mourning jewelry and everyday pieces for a Gothic flair. When the Art Nouveau period emerged in the later part of the century, plique-a-jour enamel was used in the nature-inspired jewelry of the time.
Art Deco (1920-1935) jewelry was characterized by straight lines, geometric patterns and abstract designs. Jewelers of the time loved contrasting colors, and enamel was used for color on pieces that were impressively platinum and diamond.
Note: The most well-known organization of enamelists in the US is the Enamelist Society, which sponsors conferences every other year, publishes a magazine, and has members in countries around the world.
Shopping for vintage enamel pieces is more interesting when you can recognize the various enameling techniques. Here’s an Enamel Techniques 101 to get you started.
Cloisonné (“cloison” is French for compartment or cell) is among the oldest and most time-consuming techniques. Thin wires, usually of silver or gold, are used to outline a design, which is then filled with enamel. The pieces are subsequently placed into a kiln where the enamel is melted. Different colors require different temperatures, and the ones needing the highest temperatures are fired first to avoid the diffusion of colors from one compartment to the other. Cloisonné is easy to recognize because the individual wires remain visible and are part of the motif.
Cloisonne Pendant from the 1980s
The orange flower with a pink center is accented with leaves of turquoise and green. 1 inch by 1 1/8 inches.
Champleve (“level field”) is the opposite of cloisonné. The cloisonne compartments are above the surface and the champleve are below the surface. The champlevé technique is one of the most ancient and was initially applied to bronze. The Celts, in particular, were highly skilled in champlevé enamel on bronze. The artist etches cells or lines into the metal and packs wet powdered enamel into the recesses. The piece is then fired and polished.
Champleve Victorian Locket
Floral design with silver photo locket created in 1870s – 1880s in Continental Europe. 1 1/8 inches by 7/8 inch.
Basse-taille is an extension of champlevé. In basse-taille (“low cut”), the artist makes cuts of varying depths into metal. The layered cuts or “bas relief” is filled with transparent or translucent enamels applied in phases to accentuate the shading and enhance the luminosity. Green and blue are favorite colors to use, since they provide a copious palette of rich shades.
Victorian Sterling Silver Basse-Taille Enamel Pendant
From c. 1870, this pendant has a bell flower hand painted using the rare enamel technique basse-taille. The pendant is finished with a gilded silver cross on the back. .8 inch by .65 inch.
Plique-à-jour (“letting daylight in”) is a very difficult technique with uneven results. It was designed to imitate the visual effect of stained glass through the use of translucent enamels. The enamel powder is added to a cell that is backed by a sheet of copper foil or mica. The enamel is fired and the sheet removed. The enamel is particularly beautiful with light shining through the translucent enamels.
Vintage Plique-A-Jour Glass Enamel Cross
Backless enamel and gold tone pendant. 2 inches by 2 ¾ inches
Ronde-bosse (“round work”) is the technique in which enamel is applied to three-dimensional forms. It is a complex process originally used for small items. Opaque enamel (usually white) is applied thickly on a raised or modeled metal surface to form a relief decoration or applied over metal figures in the round. Several layers of enamel are applied, the various colors kept from overlapping. After each layer or color is applied, the piece is fired, sometimes up to 10 firings.
This button depicts the pre-Christian era legend of St. George and The Dragon—probably of Russian origin.
Guilloche is a technique in which a precise, intricate and repetitive pattern is mechanically engraved into metal in a process known as engine turning. The powdered enamel is then layered over the metal, and after firing, the transparent enamel lets the design peek through. Guilloche is commonly associated with Faberge and Lalique, both masters of the technique.
Vintage Guilloche Enamel Square Floral Pendant
The enamel is the paint; the metal is the canvas. The metal is coated on both sides with white or pastel-colored enamel and fired. An image is then painted on the front of the sheet using colored enamels and a paintbrush. Additional layers of colored enamel are added, each fired separately. Lastly, a number of highlights made of finely ground color pigments that can be changed into glass are applied by brush. Synonymous with “Limoges” items.
Georgian Limoges Enamel Fairy Diamond Pendant
A flying spring fairy holding blossoming flowers in her hands. The enamel center is around 1.10 inch by .91 inch and the size of the whole oval is 1.42 inches by 1.30 inches. It is a significant Georgian piece and one of the rare Limoges enamel diamond pendants.
Grisaille is similar to Painted Enamel. The difference lies in the background that is painted black or dark blue, which is then overlaid with a series of white/light enamels that are increasingly translucent, resulting in a chiaroscuro effect, creating areas of shadow and light. The finished image has a real sense of depth, similar to a bas-relief. Also associated with Limoges.
Georgian Grisaille Enamel Necklace
A pendant created in Europe, probably France, around the 1820s. Created with Neo-classic patterns and painted with delicate Grisaille applications of enamels, a young lady holds a mirror and a pearl necklace. 1.14 inches by 2.36 inches.
Tips for Buying Vintage Enamel Pendants
- A quality piece of enamel jewelry is unreactive, hard, easy to clean, resistant to burning and scratching, and does not lose its color over time.
- When looking for enamel jewelry, check whether the piece is enamel that’s been heated, or simply an enamel finish that’s been added on (painted, brushed, attached) to the piece.
- Enamel jewelry that’s been heated has the best quality enamel with excellent color and luster.
- Choose a reputable seller with a proven track record. Check customer reviews and the after-sales policies.
- Low-quality (low-priced) enamel may not last long, and the colors may fade or change.
- Prices that are “too good to be true” and/or a seller who avoids answering your questions is a red flag waving you away.
- Determine (or ask) if the piece is the work of a designer or a mass production company. Naturally, the design pieces are more valuable.
- If you are a “newbie” at collecting enamel jewelry, avoid the more expensive items until you have developed your “eye.” And you will!
- Some promising outlets for buying enamel jewelry are specialist jewelry fairs, retro fashion markets, and charity shops
- Be sure to visit the enamel pages on Etsy and eBay. They both have, literally, hundreds of enamel pendants and thousands of other enamel items.
How to Care for Vintage Enamel Pendants
- Keep your enamel jewelry away from lotions, shampoos, perfumes, soap and cleansers.
- Do not clean in ultrasonic jewelry cleaners or with ammonia based cleaners.
- Clean enamel with water and dish soap, rubbing lightly with your fingers. Clean the metal on the piece with a polishing cloth or liquid cleaner. Do not let the cloth or cleaner come in contact with the enamel.
- Avoid swimming in salt and chlorinated water; the enamel will wear away or become frosted or cloudy. Fresh water will not have the same effect, but it’s best to remove enamel jewelry.
- Enamel is glass on metal. Be careful not to drop your enamel pieces. The enamel can chip or crack.
- Put on enamel jewelry while you are on a soft surface, such as a carpet or while sitting on a bed, in case you drop it.
- Wrap your enamel jewelry in tissue paper and place in a separate storage box. You do not want any scratches or chips from bumping up against other items.
I hope you have enjoyed this guide to vintage enamel pendants and it has left you knowing more about enamel than you did before. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them!