The artifacts known as Chinese cloisonné enamel are typical of Beijing. The technique originated in the Middle East. However, upon its arrival in China in the 13-14th centuries, it found significant potential for expansion among the Beijing elite including scholars and artisans. During the Ming Dynasty years (1368-1644) cloisonné enamel reached a high level of complexity and sophistication.
During the Ming years, the manufacturing and beautification techniques of artifacts made of copper and bronze were largely enhanced. The objects were delicately decorated with thin metal wires, often copper, but sometimes silver or gold, and covered with enamel to create beautiful jewelry, pots and vases, jars and bowls, folding screens, incense burners and even furniture.
At the time of Emperor Jingtai’s ruling (1449-1457), cloisonné techniques significantly improved and reached its artistic pinnacle with the manufacture of refined pieces for the imperial court at the same time they extended to household items used by ordinary people. During this time, the primary colors were turquoise blue, which contributed to the designation of the art as "Jingtai Blue".
The term "cloisonné
" refers to the technique as well as to the finished product. It comes from the French word "cloison"
which means “partition”. The utensils are usually made of copper or bronze over which thin copper wire (0.3-0.5 cm. filigree) is glued or welded to draw decorative motifs that may be birds, dragons or floral designs. The metal filigree creates small compartments that are filled with enamel paste made of glass powder colored with metallic oxide ingredients. The piece is then placed in a kiln at a temperature of about 800 °C. Often enamel shrinks after firing; thus the process is repeated several times as needed to gradually fill in the designs. Finally, the piece is polished until the bright metal filigree becomes clearly visible. The combined brightness of the metal and the colours of the enamel result in a finish with great harmony. The entire process of a finished piece involves an average of 37 steps.
Fine cloisonné pieces belonging to the period of the Ming Dynasty are found in Asian Art collections
of the world’s best museums
. Chinese cloisonné enamel antiques are highly valued
for their intricate designs and exquisite detail complemented by rich and harmonious colors
. Beijing cloisonné enamel is considered among the eight categories of high quality traditional Chinese handicrafts
along with jade cutting and carving, sculpture, embroidery, engraving, ceramics, painting and goldsmithing.
The photographs illustrating this article describe the process of making cloisonné pieces observed at a workshop in Beijing.