PUBLISHED: 15:33 25 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:26 20 February 2013



Christina Trevanion eyes up the enamelling technique that has stood the test of time

Miniature masterpieces

Christina Trevanion eyes up the enamelling technique that has stood the test of time

You wouldnt think that there would be much of a connection between Staffordshire in the eighth century and 19th century Tsarist Russia, but two recent events have brought to my attention the decorative technique called cloisonn.

Halls recently sold at auction two beautiful pieces of Russian cloisonn, a miniature goblet, pictured right, dated to the early 20th century and a parasol handle dated to 1896 which sold for 1,150.While I was cataloguing these two pieces I was reminded of some of the items that I saw while visiting the Staffordshire Hoard and was amazed that such similar techniques were still employed more than 1,000 years later and on such a broad international scale.

Cloisonn is an ancient technique for decorating metal work. In older periods, gemstones were used, as we have seen in items from the Staffordshire Hoard where garnets were cut to fit sword hilts, jewellery and helmets. More recently cloisonn has been made using enamels or glass, evident in the Russian pieces we sold.

The technique is achieved by gluing or soldering silver or gold wires in a pattern to create small compartments (cloisons in French) and then filling these with the enamel, glass or gemstone, to create a pattern. The object is fired at a low temperature to harden the enamel and the surface is then ground smooth and polished. In more modern times, the wires and base are electroplated with gold.

Cloisonn first developed in the Near East in very small pieces such as rings with thin wire forming the cloisons. The technique spread to the Byzantine Empire and from there along the Silk Road to China. Cloisonn jewellery is also seen in the adornments of the Pharaohs. The earliest surviving pieces are rings which were found in graves from the 12th century BC in Cyprus.

Chinese cloisonn is probably the most well-known and ubiquitous. Most of the cloisonn that we see at auction is from the Orient, the technique having first reached China in the 13th century where it is referred to in a reference book of 1388 as Dashi ware. Cloisonn was initially treated with great suspicion in China, firstly because it was foreign and secondly because it was believed to appeal too much to feminine tastes.

By the beginning of the 18th century the Chinese appear to have overcome their earlier hesitations and embraced the technique. The Kangxi Emperor had his own cloisonn workshop among his other imperial factories. The most highly valued pieces date to the early Ming Dynasty and rarely appear on the open market. At auction we tend to see 9th century or modern pieces from Japan, which fetch more modest prices, like the pair of yellow ground cloisonn vases, pictured bottom left, which date to the 1920s and sold in our auction last year for 400.
Japanese export of cloisonn increased massively after 1860 due to increasing demand from Europe and the West and it is these pieces which we see mostly at auction.

The great Carl Faberg popularised the cloisonn technique in Russia and these pieces command huge prices at auction. As with any great skill, Faberg had a number of imitators and these pieces also realise high prices. The miniature goblet sold at our auction last year for 800. Bearing in mind it was only 8cm high, thats 100 per centimetre.

So keep your eyes peeled for cloisonn. They really are miniature masterpieces. You see variations in the most surprising places. Next time you gaze at a stained glass window, or even a BMW car badge, (both examples of cloisonn which have been adapted to modern times), think of the millennia of craftsmen and women who developed this technique for our enjoyment today.

Christina Trevanion is Head the jewellery department at Halls Fine Art auctioneers, Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury, tel: 01743 284777.

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