Cloisonné is an ancient method of decoration in metal work. The cut gemstones and glass of more ancient times have come to be replaced but vitreous enamel. The name is French and comes from the first stage of decoration which traditionally involves forming compartments (cloisons in French) to a metal object by soldering silver, gold or metal wires to the body. These compartments separate the different area of decoration into which the paste, typically made from enamel powder, can be applied, before being fired.
As with many artistic techniques, cloisonné was first used in religious icons and jewellery. Then it was favoured by the wealthy as a way to display their riches and good taste. Around the 14th century cloisonné was widely used in China and Japan, often for large pieces such as bowls, censers and vases. Interestingly the Chinese were initially wary of this new and 'foreign' technique, but come the 18th century the Kangxi Emperor insisted on cloisonné factories among his many imperial ceramics and other artworks factories. The 18th century is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese cloisonné production, which filtered through to Japan where, in the mid 18th century, pieces of the highest technical skill were being produced.
The method remains largely unchanged today. The object first has to be made in metal - typically copper is used as it is cheap and easily worked. Gold and silver too are used, silver more often than gold. The wires used in the cloisonné technique are normally fine silver or gold which is bent to shape with small pliers or tweezers, keeping it to right angles to avoid the wire curving up. Soldering the wires to the body of the piece was always done, but as this causes the soon to be applied enamel to bubble and discolour, the wires can be 'glued' on. This involves firing the base metal with a thin layer of clear enamel and gluing on the cloisonné wire with a gum called tragacanth. When this gum is dry, the piece is fire again to fuse the wire to the base metal, which also burns off the gum.
Vitreous enamels in the different colors are ground to fine powders in an agate or porcelain mortar and pestle, then washed to remove the impurities that would discolor the fired enamel. Each color of enamel is prepared this way before it is used and then mixed with a very dilute solution of gum tragacanth. The vitreous compound consists of silica nitre and lead oxide to which metallic oxide is added for coloring. Using fine spatulas, brushes or droppers, the enameler places the fine colored powder into each cloison. The piece is left to dry completely before firing, which is done by putting the article, with its enamel fillings, in a kiln. The enamel in the cloisons will sink down a lot after firing, due to melting and shrinkage of the granular nature of the glass powder, much as sugar melting in an oven. This process is repeated until all cloisons are filled to the top of the wire edges.
The Asian Works of Art Auction on Tuesday 17th November features a number of striking cloisonné examples. Lot 269 is a beautiful Japanese vase in red with subtle floral motifs. Lot 357 is a Chinese teapot with lovely lobed body and floral decoration. This ancient artistic technique continues to attract interest from bidders around the globe, for its beauty as well as the skill of those artists who employ the technique and add individual touches to create unique and stunning works of art.