Cloisonne (pronounced cloy-zon-ay, French for ”partition”) is an ancient metalwork technique that makes use of small, precious metal filaments and colorful glass enamels to create brilliant artwork. The metal wires are bent into shapes to create small cells, (partitions) of designs. Coats of finely ground glass enamel are fired into them until one unique piece of art is rendered. Although it is most commonly used in cloisonne jewelry making, illustrations of the craft can be found in many facets of the art world. As a result of many applications throughout history, you can find hand-made dishes, vases, and abstract pottery.
Cloisonne Enamel Origins
Though the art form’s origins are most likely Middle Eastern, Chinese cloisonne is the most renowned and permeated throughout the world. It became quite popular throughout Asia and Europe. Examples of the art can be seen in Byzantine mosaics, inside Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and in prized Russian Czarist jewelry. You can find out more about techniques history on wikipedia.
Early age cloisonne piece: Sutton Hoo purse-lid
One of the most famous early Anglo-Saxon cloisonne pieces is the Sutton Hoo purse-lid. Wealth and its public display were probably used to establish status in early Anglo-Saxon society much as it is today.
This purse lid is the richest of its kind yet found. The lid was made to cover a leather pouch containing gold coins. It hung by three hinged straps from the waist belt and was fastened by a gold buckle. The lid had totally decayed but was probably made of whale-bone ivory – a precious material in early Anglo-Saxon England. Seven gold, garnet cloisonne, and millefiori glass plaques were set into it. These are made with a combination of very large garnets and small ones, deliberately used to pick out details of the imagery. This combination could link the purse-lid and the shoulder-clasps to the workshop of a single master craftsman, who may well have made the entire suite of gold and garnet fittings as a single commission.
The plaques include twinned images of a man standing heroically between two wolves and an eagle swooping on its prey. These images must have had deep significance, but it is impossible for us to interpret them. The wolves could be a reference to the dynastic name of the family buried at Sutton Hoo – the Wuffingas (Wolf’s People). Like the eagle, they are perhaps a powerful evocation of strength and courage, qualities that a successful leader of men must possess. Strikingly similar images of a man between beasts are known from Scandinavia.
R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship burial-2, vol. 2: arms, armour and regalia (London, The British Museum Press, 1978)
A.C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, revised edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
Cloisonne technique in action
The most notable quality in Cloisonne is the art master’s exceptional attention to detail. A skill needed for creating unique designs from the tiny filaments of wire. Every design is handcrafted, which guarantees a matchless piece of art each time.
Designs of Cloisonné jewelry are often painted on paper with watercolors prior to beginning the process. This step is needed for estimating the appearance of the final product.
After the original artwork is decided upon, the metal ribbon-like strands of 24 karat gold wire are individually bent, twisted and oftentimes soldered together. As a result, a blueprint for where the colored enamels will later be painted is produced.
View the cloisonne process in action.