Enamelling has been used for many years to create detailed pieces of jewellery and art such as vases and bowls. It is still vastly popular in modern day due to its unique glazed finish. In this blog, with the help of ‘The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture’ by C.R Ashbee and Benvenuto Cellini, first published in Florence 1568, we have explored the method of hot enamelling (cold enamelling is when you allow the piece to dry once enamel applied as opposed to using heat), during this era and how its changed since then.
Preparing your gold or silver plate
First of all, you will need to make a plate of gold or silver in the size and shape you’d like and prepare a composition of pece grea (powdered resin), brick ground very fine and wax. Heat the plate of gold or silver and put this onto a board. Then draw an outline with a compass, in depth no less than knife-back, onto the board. Ground your plate within this outline and with the aid of a chisel to the depth to which the enamel is to be.
Next, you grave intaglio on your plate, whatever design it is that you desire, whether that be an animal or figure. A bas-relief has to then be made about the depth of two ordinary sheets of paper, this must be cut with finely-pointed steel tools so the outlines are sharply drawn and well-projecting. Use charcoal such as willow or walnut wood with saliva (lovely!) and water over the outline to make the intaglio stand out better. Lastly, boil it out in a concoction of ashes.
Preparing the Enamel
To prepare the enamels, put each colour in little round mortar of well-hardened steel about the size of your palm then pound it up with clean water and with a small steel pestle. Then, pour off the water and put the powder in a little glass and pour enough aqua Fortis to cover the surface. The aqua fortis cleans the enamel of any fatty impurities and water is used to clean of any earthy impurities. Let this stand for one-eighth of an hour.
Proceed by taking out the enamel and wash in glass bottle in very clear clean water until no residue of the impurity is left. Once well washed put it into little jar or glassware, making sure the water is well contained as you don’t want the enamel to dry up. Next chew up a nice clean piece of paper (Yes…you got it right! Chew!) and then wash out and squeeze until no water is left; this is used to apply the enamel.
It is recommended to first experiment with a plate of gold or silver, by creating little hollows with a graver for each coloured enamel. Then apply the different coloured enamels. This allows you to see which run easy and which run hard, helping you to understand what to apply first etc so the colours aren’t ruined.
Then for the real thing; lay the colours over the engraved bas-relief just as though you are painting. You can use a palette holder to separate the colours. Heat your furnace and place the gold work on an iron plate and hold by the mouth of the furnace. Warm the piece gradually and repeatedly draw in and out of the fire. Allow to cool and apply a second coat of enamel. Once applied second coat, then place back into furnace as before. After cooling for the second time, check for any necessary touch ups and put back into the furnace and then allow to cool again.
To finish the enamel piece, smooth over it using bits of stones or sand and polish, using Tripoli.
Modern Enamelling process
To simply put it, in modern times we polish the surface of the jewellery to ensure an even surface and any existing enamel is removed. We then clean the jewellery using an ultrasonic cleaner, the joys of modern machinery! Luckily, we no longer need to use spit and water! The enamel is then applied and cured.
Obviously, this is a very simple description of how we enamel nowadays, however, it is definitely a lot more straightforward than in previous times, highlighting why enamel antique jewellery pieces in particular are so special because a lot of blood sweat and tears, or spit I should say!, has gone into producing these immaculate pieces.