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History of Enamel and Sterling Silver

Enamel is a glassy substance, usually opaque in nature, which is fused over metal to provide a smooth and sometimes decorative coating. It has had varied popularity over time, offering a medium that retains its colour whilst also covering an item with a glazed surface, which makes it very versatile and useful. Furthermore, it is easy to clean and pleasant to the touch. For these reasons, enamel has often been used for decoration on small items such as scent bottles and snuff boxes.

The components of enamel are a tough type of glass and a copper base. The two are then fused together with intense heat. When it comes to the decoration, transfer painting was the easiest method. The items would later be retouched with a paintbrush. After this, the piece would be mounted in gilded alloy or brass.

The earliest examples of enamel work can be found on embellished gold artifacts from 15th Century BC, which gives us an idea of how long humans have been adding decoration to everyday items, as well as how long enamel has been a popular choice for embellishment.

During the 6th century AD, cloisonné work began to be developed in Constantinople (now Istanbul). To create this effect, gold ‘cells’ were filled with powdered enamels, which when heated, formed small areas of sectioned glaze. By the 12th century, champlevé enamels were being produced in Limoges. These recessed designs were created in gold or silver plaques, which were then filled with two or more layers of enamel, providing a smooth, coloured coating.

One of the finest examples of enamel work currently available to see is the Royal Gold Cup of the Kings of France and England, made in Paris circa 1385. It is currently held in the British Museum.

enamel and silver
silver and enamel spoons
silver and enamel box

Enamel Through the Centuries

In the 15th century, painting techniques combined with goldsmiths’ use of coloured glass on their designs resulted in more complex enamelwork.

From the mid-17th century, Geneva became the centre for enamel production in Europe, with artists and craftsmen travelling to major towns and cities to promote and sell their work which included decorative plates and boxes.

The 19th century saw the greatest diversity in enamel painting, with recognised specialist workshops in France, Austria and England.

Two of the main centres for enamelwork in Europe were Geneva and Vienna. These two centres offered subtly different designs. For scenic pictures, the Viennese painters and enamellers introduced the use of a tinted background of light pink or very pale yellow. This contrasted the stark white background preferred by the Genevans. These techniques reflected the style of Rococo artists such as Francois Boucher. The chosen colours would complement the pastoral designs depicted in the enamelwork.

Enamel crafted within the UK was often referred to as ‘Battersea enamel’ after the London factory in which items were made. Upon further research however, this name proves misleading; enamel was also made in many other places including Birmingham and Liverpool. Within the UK, popular enamel motifs included flowers, pastoral scenes and mottoes. In addition, famous European art works were frequently copied in enamel form. This was a possibility as copyright laws were not yet rigidly established.

By the late 1800s guilloche enamel had become fashionable, one of the most renowned exponents being Carl Fabergé, the Russian jeweller and master goldsmith of French origin. Guilloché originally referred to engine turned geometric engraved designs displaying intricate, repetitive patterns. This combined with enamel overlay is termed ‘guilloche enamel’ and is demonstrated on many silver and enamel pieces such as cigarette cases and vanity sets.

Enamel has been a part of silverware for an incredibly long time, and though its status as en vogue may come and go, it seems as though enamel is here to stay.

Andrew Campbell started trading in antiques during the 1970s. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.
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