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Updated: February 20, 2013 22:35 IST

Enamels: adding extra brilliance to art

B. KOTAIAH
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A huge Cloisonne Japanese enameled vase of 19th century in Salar Jung Museum. Photo: By Arrangement
The Hindu A huge Cloisonne Japanese enameled vase of 19th century in Salar Jung Museum. Photo: By Arrangement

Enamels are types of coloured glass, clear and opaque, used for decorating metals like gold, silver, copper and bronze

Enamelling is an ancient art. About its origins, Sir George Birdwood writes: “It is probably Turanian art introduced into China by Venechi and was carried early, if not earlier, into India. From Assyria it probably passed into Egypt and through the Phoenicians to Europe”. Persia, India, China and Japan developed enamelling to great perfection, both artistically and technically.

Enamels are types of coloured glass, clear and opaque, used for decorating metals like gold, silver, copper and bronze. Enamels are also employed for painting on porcelain. The components of enamels are: silica, minium (red lead) and potash. A compound of these elements is coloured by the addition of metals while in a stage of fusion. The brilliancy of enamel substance depends upon the perfect combination and proportion of its component parts.

Although as many as seven types of enamel decoration are known, only two of them are outstanding. They are: (1) Champleve enamelling and (2) Cloisonne enamelling.

Oldest process

Champleve enamelling is the oldest process. This technique consists of cutting small spaces or cells in the plate, leaving out narrow walls raised between them, thus separating each cell. In these cells the powdered enamels are placed and then fused. Afterwards, the enamel is filed and smoothed

In Cloisonne enamelling the body of the article is covered in a series of cells (or cloisons) by means of wire soldered on to the surface. The cells are then filled with powdered enamel. Under careful firing, administered next, the enamel paste melts without, however, disturbing the soldering. Afterwards the enamel is levelled and polished. Lastly, the gilding of the metal work takes place.

In India, Champleve enamel has been in use since the advent of the Mughals. It is said that emperor Akbar had a special department in his court for enamelling. It is generally believed that it was Mansingh who had introduced enamel decoration into Jaipur from Lahore. In Jaipur especially under Maharaja Jaisingh, the art of enamelling attained great perfection and beauty. Other centre where Meenakari work (enamelling) is done are Alwar, Banaras, Delhi, Lucknow and Kashmir.

Cloisonné enamelling was practiced with best results by the Chinese and Japanese. The enamels done in China during the Ming period (13th to 17th centuries) are bold in design with fine depth and purity of colour. Skilled workers as they are, the Japanese craftsmen created many fine pieces of cloisonné workmanship.

A sizeable collection of Indian Champleve enamel and Chinese and Japanese Cloisonne can be studied in Salar Jung Museum. Gleaming Jaipur enamels include horses, peacocks and ornaments. Praiseworthy are Persian daggers, their cases bearing excellent enamel work. Japanese enamels are vases and kettles richly decorated with flowers and birds. Chinese cloisonné ware of Ming and Ching periods is distinguished by purity of colour and depth of design.

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